This post contains light spoilers for Blade Runner 2049. Reader discretion is advised.
Blade Runner 2049 is a slow film — at times agonizingly so. With a runtime of two hours and 44 minutes, watching it is an ordeal. Those who make it through, however, are rewarded with an ’80s-inspired meditative journey of a type seldom seen amid contemporary Hollywood’s obsession with big-budget franchise fare.
2049, a sequel to the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, manages to thread the needle between honoring its illustrious predecessor and escaping the original’s enormous shadow. Not only does the film’s story expand the confines of the Blade Runner universe, but its particular filmmaking style, which pays homage to the prototypical noir aesthetic, evolves into something much more surreal.
In 2049, Los Angeles is still a bleak landscape, but no longer is the franchise shackled to a pervading sense of literal darkness. The original film took place in a singular environment: nighttime in a cave of steel. Its successor branches out, producing scenes of breathtaking beauty. Among these, we see a snow-covered city, an orange-tinged nuclear wasteland and a corporate headquarters lit by water-refracted beams of low-level light. The finale takes place on the oceanside dock of an unseen spaceport as waves relentlessly pummel hero and foe, alike.
In each setting, the action moves slowly. The audience has ample time to breathe and, more importantly, contemplate unfolding events. In this way, 2049 not only echoes Blade Runner, but also mirrors the methodical pacing of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, released in 1972. As with Solaris, this new film spares the dialogue whenever its presence would seem unnecessary, rationing the spoken word like a nervous in-law.
More notable, however, is in how 2049 rations its characters’ emotions, as well. Our protagonist, a robotic creation known as a “replicant,” is dead-pan until truly provoked. His human companions are, at times, even more restrained: the forensic analyst speaks softly, a quixotic memory-maker demurs and Niander Wallace, the chief villain, is prone to dry, philosophic monologging. All this makes for a film that neither shows nor tells, but merely alludes. The audience’s intelligence is respected above all; when overt messaging is absent, we fashion a deeper understanding.
More than ever, Hollywood needs true artistry. 2049 represents a pleasant shock to the system, but its effects may be as temporary as the lifespan of a Nexus-6. If the film industry doesn’t evolve along these lines, it risks falling into a malaise of regurgitated plot lines and stale character tropes — if it hasn’t already. ■