When Warner Bros. asked film critics and journalists to sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding them from discussing the actual plot of Blade Runner: 2049 in their reviews it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Guarding against spoilers is a prudent course of action, of course, but WB’s approach was more stringent than usual, mandating not just signing an NDA but also falling in line with the demands of the film’s director Denis Villeneuve over what they could and could not say. As Alyssa Rosenberg detailed in her Washington Post op-ed, Villeneuve ordered, for example, a total blackout of discussion of the film’s establishing scene, and “requested that if queried about a specific actor or character, we say, ‘We meet many striking characters over the course of the film, and she is one of them … I wouldn’t want to single anyone out; you’ll have to see the film for yourself to truly appreciate where everybody fits in.’”
Seeing as how critics are feeling especially under fire as of late due to being scapegoated along with RottenTomatoes for this summer’s near-historic downturn in movie attendance, this bit of dictation from WB felt like the latest in an increasingly long line of examples of Hollywood questioning the actual necessity of critics in the first place. In this particular case, the attempt to prevent spoilers went too far in preventing any kind of substantive discussion of the film whatsoever.
The reason I bring this up in what is ostensibly supposed to be my spoiler-free Blade Runner: 2049 review and NOT some discussion about the state of film journalism and criticism is that I happen to completely agree with Villeneuve. I saw his movie last night. It’s amazing. And I don’t want to tell you anything about it other than that it’s amazing and you should go see it.
That might seem overly precious or simplistic. After all, most movies are best enjoyed with minimal to no advanced knowledge about what to expect or what’s going to happen in the story. But that is especially true of Blade Runner: 2049, a sequel 35 years removed from the 1982 classic that shaped futuristic sci-fi for years to come and gave us terms like “replicant” and Rutger Hauer’s magnificent “tears in the rain” speech. The legacy of Ridley Scott’s original has only grown with time, especially since it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he finally settled on a final cut of the movie. However, for all of its merits and bonafides as an outright classic Blade Runner is not without its flaws, particularly in terms of plot. As Harrison Ford himself once put it in mocking reference to his replicant-hunting character Rick Deckard, “I was a detective who did not have any detecting to do.”
2049 is thus tasked with walking a fine line between honoring the look and feel of its predecessor while also advancing the story and improving on the original’s flaws. It manages to do so about as successfully as I’ve ever seen from any sequel. The story is better, deeper and less reliant on things simply falling into the protagonist’s lap. The visuals are spellbindingly familiar, yet also new. You instantly feel at home and back inside of the Blade Runner world. Gloomy, rain-soaked L.A.? Check. Giant, interactive billboards? Check. Cool flying cars? Check. A futuristic cityscape that looks kind of like modern day Tokyo? Check. Vangelis-aping musical score? Check. Even the costuming is mostly the same.
However, as the film progresses you begin to notice that Ridley Scott’s overt neo-film noir style from ‘82, characterized by an overwhelming supply of curtain-filtered shadows, has been replaced with something less reliant on old detective movies and more inspired by Villeneuve’s likely love for gritty, futuristic sci-fi. He even weaves in some of the lighting designs from the interior of his Arrival ships into the depressingly bleak offices and apartments of 2049, and creates with his supremely talented production team a world you’d never want to actually visit but can’t quite look away from. They reportedly spent somewhere between $150m and $200m to make this movie, and the money’s clearly all up there on the screen.
Moreover, if you are someone who’s not all that familiar with the first Blade Runner all of these visual touchstones in 2049 manage to hold up on their own as universe-establishing flourishes not at all dragged down by similarities to any of the various Blade Runner imitators of the past couple of decades. At most, it might make you vaguely think, “Oh, so this is like a better version of what that Ghost in the Shell movie was going for.”
The story is strong and visuals often breathtaking. The themes are also suitably complex, picking up the torch from the original’s discussion of the nature of humanity and mortality and delving even deeper. And the performances are almost entirely across-the-board spectacular, with special praise for the various women – Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis – who surprisingly steal the movie from Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. There’s a reason, then, that critics have been hailing 2049 as a new sci-fi masterpiece for weeks now.
If there are flaws, they are forgivable. At two hours and forty-three minutes long, you occasionally feel the film’s bloat. Returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher and new co-writer Michael Green’s (Logan, American Gods) script makes the mistake of having certain characters repeatedly spell out the themes for us. Villeneuve proves surprisingly poor at handling certain conventional action scenes (though predictably amazing at nailing tense moments and moments of extreme violence). Jared Leto’s performance is already and will continue to be divisive. And the third act is not 100% worthy of the build-up.
But in the age of perpetual franchise reboot/relaunch/requel/sequel/whatever Blade Runner: 2049 is about as good as it gets, honoring the original by equaling and in some ways bettering its genius. We’ve had a mixed track record of supporting sci-fi this year, mostly flocking to the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Logan while rejecting Ghost in the Shell, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Transformers: The Last Knight. There’s a reason for that – those movies weren’t very good. Blade Runner: 2049 is different. This is amazing sci-fi filmmaking. Please see it, and then come back to discuss it because I will have a spoiler discussion of the movie up before the end of the weekend.