It doesn't need to be said that Hollywood is frequently dipping its toes back into the 90s or the 80s. Sometimes it's to better give vision to what technology or budget wasn't able to do in the past -- such as the new It versus the television series It! with Tim Curry. Sometimes it's a misguided attempt to follow up on the storylines of the characters we never really wanted to know about (T2 Trainspotting, anyone?). But almost always, it is a cash grab. No one will ever convince me that there was any sensical reason to make a live action Beauty and the Beast that was basically a copy of the animation while being inferior in every way. Listen, Gus Van Sant, redoing Psycho in color, with the shot by shot replication may have been an interesting concept, but it was a complete and utter waste.
So is there ever a point where a remake or a sequel 30 years down the line is justified? There are very very few films that make the cut. In order to do so, the film has to be able to stand on its own, with its visual vocabulary, story, and themes as well as characters. It should neither depend fully on the chemistry of what came before it, nor become some sort of narrative hash of its predecessors (The Force Awakens).
Blade Runner 2049 is that worthy sequel.
I always withhold spoilers, but apparently with this movie there were restrictions put forth by the studio to critics so that audiences would be able to enter the movie blind. Denis Villeneuve has hit home run after home run the last few years -- Arrival, Sicario in just the past two, and he's known to pen opaque movies that yield different answers every time you watch them. Given its begged for mysterious nature, Blade Runner 2049 doesn't necessarily offer up the same delicious murkiness that rewards each rewatch. When you watch and rewatch the original Blade Runner, you are left with more answers and more questions. Unfortunately, a film that depends on its reveal, at least in the studio's mind, is hollow. Whether you think that applies here is up to you.
But this is a small complaint in the epic sprawl of dystopian Dickensian proportions that Villeneuve has created here. Ryan Gosling plays "K" (short for his agent serial number, but also an alienated Kafka-esque handle) who is a Blade Runner uncovering a decades old mystery. His journey takes him through the seedy underbelly of 2049 Los Angeles to dust-ridden collapsed epochs and beyond.
And that's it. I could tell you more about what "Blade Runner" means or why it's an "agent serial number", but like all truly good sci-fi works, Villeneuve drops you into the story and peels back very little, allowing us to experience the world.
The story has Kafka, Nabokov, Dickens, and Pinocchio elements. There are layers, deceptions misunderstood by those who cast them, and glimmers of light that are created for a blind man's cave. Villeneuve weaves philosophical elements in, asking the age old question of what it means to be a human (and does it matter?). There's a theme of subjugation (can servility be enforced?) and slavery -- a scene with children scrabbling in a workhouse, a woman that is trapped in body but not mind (but is she truly free?), and a woman that is trapped in mind but not body.
Just as striking as Villeneuve's poetic handling is of course, Deakins' work. As you'd expect from a cinematographer nominated thirteen times for an Oscar, the visual artwork is really what makes Blade Runner 2049 the individual, striking capsule film it is. The light and palettes that Deakins evokes make this film, whether it's the ash-choked cities or the gold-washed interior of the Tyrell building. That perfectly shadowed opener is as stunning as the visually assaulting showcase in the third act with a gyrating Elvis. There is no end to the beautiful scenes. And we can't forget the rain, either. Although K is only allotted a two-second blast of 99% purified water for a shower, we see water constantly elsewhere. We see it when Joi (Ana de Armas), the adaptive holograph, "feels" tangibly for the first time, on the surface of the window whenever Joshi looks out (Robin Wright) -- how fitting that we can only see her through that screen! -- it's there when K is flying out of the city on his personal and ordered search, and in deluges in a climactic battle.
Villeneuve has always been drawn to direct films and stories with strong female characters, and that lean is apparent here. Even while Gosling is the protagonist here, the emotional and philosophical core is held taut by Armas. Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is easier to follow than an overdone Jared Leto, who always seems to be straining a little too pretentiously hard. Gosling however, plays a good Villeneuve leading man, giving us a hardened face while the emotion pools at his eyes.
2049 is not the same movie helmed by Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford in 1982. It is a wholly new film with its own story, questions, and visual beauty. It's a work that pays homage to the original while being something completely daring, exceptional, and extraordinary.