Blade Runner 2049 Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Three decades after the events of Blade Runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling) unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years. (From WB’s official synopsis)
Belated sequels are in vogue during this nostalgia-fetishizing era that we call the 2010s. But for every Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Creed (both released in 2015), there is a Tron: Legacy (2010) or The Thing (2011). Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) and Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s (The Thing) don’t necessarily represent the worst of these resurgences have to offer (...neither is particular good…), but they do demonstrate oddly specific qualities that connect them to the similar box office failure of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 earlier this year. All three films were belated sequels to very expensive and technically innovative sci-fi movies that flopped in the summer of 1982 – Steven Lisberger’s Tron, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. All three of these movies slowly accumulated loyal fanbases and eventually became big money-makers for their respective studios, thanks to home video and product tie-ins. Over time, those same studios would try to reboot all three films, beginning with Kosinki’s film in 2010, followed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s in 2011, and Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 in 2017. All three reboots then proceeded to lose money, proving without a shadow of a doubt that mainstream audiences are not as attached to cult franchises as their very vocal fans or enduring resale value would have us believe.
However, unlike Tron: Legacy and The Thing ‘11, Blade Runner 2049 actually represents the best that belated sequels have to offer. Along with George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), it may mark a new standard for similar films in the years to come. Blade Runner promised to be the most difficult of the three franchises to redevelop for the new millennia, due to the sheer singularity of Scott’s original – a film that by and large transcends conventional measures of critical quality. Its spectacular ideas and complex emotional concepts succeed, despite its disinterest in the complexities of linear storytelling, and all of its narrative substance is secondary to its visuals, which were so groundbreaking that they literally changed the language of cinema. To try and recreate these unique qualities is more akin to duplicating a physical sensation than a filmmaking language, and, yet, there is also plenty of room to improve upon the groundwork Scott had laid.
Rest assured that when I say that Blade Runner 2049 is just about the best Blade Runner sequel fathomable, I make the statement as a fan of the franchise who was not sold on the idea of a sequel being made or even Villeneuve’s status as a great filmmaker. Much of Blade Runner’s narrative appeal is found in its ambiguity – a quality that Scott stoked with his multiple director’s cuts, by removing exposition, and introducing vague notions that the main character may himself be an android. Original screenwriter Hampton Fancher returned to help tell this second chapter with help from Michael Green (who also shared screenwriting credits on Scott’s Alien: Covenant). Together with Villeneuve, they pay homage to Scott’s patented ambiguity in an emotional and moral sense, leave room for further tales, and deftly avoid confirmation of the original film’s most hotly debated open-ended question (is Deckard a Replicant?). Beyond all of its grand ideas, richly-layered literary references, and subversive, genre-defying revelations, Blade Runner 2049 is just a great science fiction story that expands upon Blade Runner’s quintessential themes without repeating too many ideas or stepping on the toes of Scott’s similarly A.I.-centric Alien prequels.
I’m especially partial to them centering the story around a Replicant who knows and accepts that he’s a Replicant, not a human. K’s ‘humanity’ allows the filmmakers to explore the broader concept that, in a dystopia, machines may be able to experience stronger and purer emotions than ‘real’ people, and gives them a chance to subvert the possibilities of humans discovering that they’re actually robots. Beneath that are typical, but cogent talking points concerning social injustice (note that the runaway synths in K’s database are minorities), the dangers of corporate culture (especially the concept of corporations as people), and the very nature of humanity, which is expanded to include holographic computer programs, as well as androids and naturally-born people. Blade Runner 2049’s story is full of definitive and satisfying answers to the many questions it poses. In this sense, the sequel is the superior movie, or at least the superior merging of film noir and science fiction standards and, in turn, the superior adaptation of the series’ original literary architect, Philip K. Dick’s, writing style (despite not being specifically converted from any of the author’s established work). In the original film, the audience is told both Deckard and the Replicants’ sides of the story, rendering the detective part of story mostly moot (not to mention that the actual “detecting” that Deckard does, i.e. the photographic zooming, has never made much logical sense anyway). This time, the film sticks rather closely to K’s point-of-view, giving him and the audience a concrete mystery to solve, supported by clues, red herrings, and twists on our expectations.
Blade Runner 2049 was shot using Arri Alexa digital cameras. It was presented in 2.39:1 for standard screens and 1.90:1 for IMAX screens. The footage was post-converted into 3D, but 2D was reportedly the filmmakers’ preferred format. This 1080p, 2D Blu-ray is framed at 2.39:1. Cinematography demigod Roger Deakins worked closely with Villeneuve to create a strikingly modern and clean photography style that jibes with the first film, while also building on Scott’s work. The transfer is crisp and tight with complex textures and hard edges, none of which interfere with the smooth gradations that Deakins so expertly squeezes from the digital format. The palette is “themed” from location to location – the rain-stripped city tends to be cold and grey-blue, the toxic outskirts are orange, and the interiors of Wallace’s corporate headquarters are a sickly and jaundiced yellow – but they are rarely entirely limited. There are green highlights among the mustardy scenes and brilliant pink/purple neons flecked throughout the cityscapes. I noticed zero issues with colours running when they were not meant to, nor blocking throughout the warmer hues. Black levels are consistent and deep, which is particularly important for the scenes that boast film-noir-friendly long shadows and silhouettes. The closest I can get to criticizing this particular transfer is to mention the minor banding effects that appear during the foggiest shots.
Blade Runner 2049 is presented in Dolby Atmos (with a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 core) and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, which seems to be WB’s new approach for triple-A releases. The sound design is stark and dynamic, placing priority on tone and atmosphere over your typical sci-fi action mix. While there are plenty of LFE-rumbling, directionally-enhanced futuristic moments, there is a big emphasis on the power of silence (understandably to the chagrin of some viewers). Subtlety is paramount for the majority of the film and the clarity of the sound ensures the cleanliness of whispered dialogue and quiet sound effects. Hans Zimmer, who has been rightfully accused of coasting on his enormous talent for many years now, and collaborator Benjamin Wallfisch, who worked on five film compositions in 2017, replaced Villeneuve’s usual composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (who still scored a prime gig on Darren Aronofsky’s mother!). Together, they developed a soundtrack that pays homage to original Blade Runner composer Vangelis’ (aka: Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou) groundbreakingly moody synth themes, while not being completely beholden to them. The two scores share similar pacing and ambience, but Zimmer/Wallfisch’s work is more intense and frightening. This throbbing and floaty quality sets the music foremost throughout the track, often above sound effects and sometimes even above dialogue.
Designing The World of Blade Runner 2049 (21:55, HD) – The filmmakers discuss the film’s aesthetic, photography, production design, special effects, set/prop construction, and how everything relates to/expands upon Ridley Scott’s film. It includes behind-the-scenes footage and production illustrations.
To Be Human: Casting Blade Runner 2049 (17:15, HD) – A general casting featurette.
Prologues – These promotional shorts (which are available on YouTube) cover major plot points in the years between the original film and the sequel:
2022: Black Out (15:45) – The most ambitious of the three prologues is an animated short directed by Shinichirô Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo fame. It covers the ‘blackout’ event that destroyed all magnetic/digital records and helped Replicants to escape into obscurity.
2036: Nexus Dawn (6:31) – Directed by Luke Scott, son of Ridley, the second prologue sees Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) demonstrating the safety of his new Nexus line Replicants.
2048: Nowhere to Run (5:49) – Also directed by Scott, the final short depicts a particularly traumatic day in the life of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), the Replicant who K confronts at the beginning of Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 101 – A series of promotional clips that cover the basics of the story and universe:
Blade Runners (1:33, HD)
The Replicant Evolution (2:07, HD)
The Rise of Wallace Corp (1:50, HD)
Welcome To 2049 (2:04, HD)
Jois (2:21, HD)
Within the Skies: Spinners, Pilotfish and Barracudas (1:23, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.