"I can't help thinking it's a lot like making a sequel to Casablanca," tweeted author William Gibson while on his way to see Blade Runner 2049. Gibson has the distinction of being one of the first in a long line of creators influenced by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. He was about a third of the way through his first draft of Neuromancer, the novel that invented cyberpunk and indelibly shaped our conception of the internet age, when he saw the film. Neuromancer and its sequels are set in a decaying urban world that looks a lot like the hellscape Scott created for Blade Runner.
Casablanca has been described as having a screenplay made entirely of cliches — but the reason they're cliches is because subsequent screenwriters stole them from Casablanca. Something like that happened with Blade Runner visually. "It affected the way people dressed," Gibson said in a recent Paris Review interview. "It affected the way people decorated nightclubs. Architects started building office buildings you could tell they had seen in Blade Runner. It had an astonishingly broad aesthetic impact on the world."
Blade Runner was released in the summer of 1982, sci-fi's cinema's miracle year, in the company of classics like Poltergeist, The Thing, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, and The Dark Crystal. But Scott's groundbreaking visual masterpiece had the misfortune to be released two weeks after Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Two years earlier, Ronald Reagan had declared Morning in America, and audiences wanted a feel-good story about a brave, healing alien more than a glimpse into the dystopian future. Even having Harrison Ford as the lead couldn't put asses in seats, and Blade Runner flopped hard, almost destroying Scott's career.
But the legend grew over the decades, and so Scott, acting as executive producer, tapped Arrival director Denis Villeneuve to helm the long-awaited (or perhaps long-dreaded) sequel, with screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who had adapted Philip K. Dick for the original film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who worked with Villeneuve on Sicario, was chosen to follow up one of the most visually influential films in history.
Blade Runner's opening shot identifies the setting as "Los Angles, 2019." Blade Runner 2049 begins with an echo of those images: An eye, in extreme close up, and a flying car gliding over the ruins of California. In the ensuing three decades, the ecological crisis has only deepened. The only way to grow food is in vast, climate-controlled greenhouses. When the car lands in one lonely agricultural outpost, K (Ryan Gosling) emerges. Like Rick Deckard, he works for the LAPD hunting down artificial humans or replicants, who have gone rogue. Unlike Deckard, he is unambiguously a replicant himself. At the farm, he finds Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), an android on the run who berates him for killing "his own kind." He wouldn't do that, Sapper says, if he had "seen the miracle." K kills him anyway, but the words ring in his ears. What miracle?
Those fearing a cookie cutter remake of the original will be pleased to discover that this is not the case. Blade Runner 2049's story builds logically on the original — a seemingly impossible task pulled off gracefully by Fancher and co-writer Michael Green. Resonances come not out of slavish fan service, but because both films are essentially noir detective stories. Some elements feel more like a sequel to Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than Scott's film, such as K's relationship with his holographic A.I. Joi (Ana de Armas)—two simulated beings experiencing possibly real emotions. Gosling gives by far the best performance of his career. When his investigation leads him to an aged Deckard living in the irradiated remains of Las Vegas, he goes toe to toe with Ford and a malfunctioning Elvis hologram in a bravado sequence that alone is worth the price of admission.
The only element of 2049 significantly inferior to the original film is the music. Vangelis' improvisational synth score is as big a part of the Blade Runner mystique as John Williams' soundtrack is for Star Wars. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch created a conventional, pounding, atonal soundscape that feels much less subtle.
The film's running time is hefty, but its pleasures are deep and satisfying. Villeneuve's direction is brilliant, and if Deakins doesn't win an Oscar for this cinematography, the award has no meaning. See it on the largest screen you can find.
Blade Runner 2049