The headlines surrounding the Blade Runner sequel right now are about how it bombed at the box office. Blade Runner 2049 made about $9 million less than it was expected to, which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that a $31 million opening doesn’t bode well for its chances to recoup its $150 million budget. I don’t think anyone outside of the studio that released it was surprised. It baffled me that they were treating a sequel to an uber-genre box office bomb from 1982 as if it were going to be a blockbuster. Sure, the original Blade Runner became a cult hit after a long history of LaserDisc success, director’s cuts, and retrospective critical acclaim. But they’re called cult hits for a reason, and it’s not because everyone wants to be in the cult.
Though Blade Runner 2049 may be mimicking its predecessor in box office non-success, its critical success upon release is far outpacing the original’s. When the original came out, critics hated the voiceover that the studio forced director Ridley Scott to add after they decided audiences needed to identify more with Harrison Ford’s Deckard. In contrast, 2049 has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 81. Critics have especially high praise for Roger Deakins’s cinematography and the way director Denis Villenueve expands on the original’s themes of identity and reality.
Make no mistake, Blade Runner 2049 is often breathtaking to look at, and its themes are thoughtfully presented in the screenplay and the movie’s visuals. The original focused on Ford’s detective and his hunt for escaped replicants (what this world calls its androids), while leaving it up in the air through the end of the movie whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant. 2049, on the other hand, erases any ambiguity from the beginning by establishing in the first scene that Ryan Gosling’s detective, K, is a replicant. The audience knowing K’s status allows Villenueve to expand on the original’s themes rather than simply replicate them.
If you don’t like science fiction or if you don’t like slow movies, Blade Runner 2049 probably isn’t going to do it for you. It’s beautifully shot, and there are some compelling moments of action, but this is an art movie disguised by blockbuster marketing. I love genre movies and films that take their time, so it would seem that Blade Runner 2049 was tailor-made for me. And I liked it. But as much as the first movie is sewn into the seams of 2049, the new ultimately suffers from comparison to the old.
The original movie, by keeping Deckard’s identity a mystery, mirrored real-life questions about human origin. Rutger Hauer’s replicant villain, Roy Batty, provides the movie’s climax with his death and his breathless description of the miraculous sights he had seen in space. This is one of the great scenes in all of cinematic science fiction, Batty clearly articulating why being designed doesn’t mean he deserves to live any less than a human, all while Scott lights Hauer almost as if he were an angel. And this, after he saves Deckard’s life, knowing he will die regardless. But the movie continues after that and ends without Deckard discovering what he is, a human or an android. He runs off anyway with the replicant he loves (Sean Young). There are no easy answers regarding our existence, but that’s no reason to forego living life.
2049, by making his identity clear from the beginning, there is ultimately no mystery about K’s origins. His purpose is up in the air for much of the movie, but 2049 does not leave this ambiguous the way the original did with Deckard. The ending is purposely similar to the 1982 ending, but the wonder is gone. Instead, everything is cold, pragmatic, full of purpose rather than spirit.
That’s not to say the movie is heartless; I was quite moved. But where Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner raised its eyes to the heavens in the end, Denis Villenueve’s remains grounded. I like Villenueve’s; but I’d honestly rather look up.