How Blade Runner 2049 Avoided Becoming Just Another Sci-Fi Film

The future looks bleak, folks, so why not reflect on "Blade Runner," a haunting cyberpunk vision in which the police cyclically execute living beings on behalf of a mega corporation who denies the souls it manufactures the right to their own autonomy? 

Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece, adapted from Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," remains a captivating neo-noir that is as visually striking as it is harrowing to behold. It single-handedly changed how we saw science fiction depicted on the screen, resulting in films like "Ghost in the Shell" and "The Matrix."

Even with the baggage of five different cuts and a lackluster box office, it's pretty astonishing how "Blade Runner" has managed to secure such a treasured legacy. For a good stretch of time, the appeal eluded me, beyond Scott's groundbreaking visual stature. It wasn't until my fourth viewing where the significance of the film's methodical pacing and detached characters just kind of clicked into place. Any intrigue I had in a sequel piqued when Denis Villeneuve ("Dune") came onboard to helm the long-awaited sequel. The fact that "Blade Runner 2049" exists at all is a miracle unto itself.

"Blade Runner 2049" is the rare case of a legacy sequel that surpasses its influential predecessor. Villeneuve had the immeasurable task of not only living up to Scott's influential vision, but adding to it. What would Los Angeles look like after 30 years? When speaking to Wired, production designer Dennis Gassner had an answer that set the tone for what Villeneuve's bleak vision of "Blade Runner" would ultimately be:

"It's a harsher world than in the first film, both environmentally and stylistically."

A world reborn

The opening text to "Blade Runner 2049" informs us that despite the death of one corporation producing slave labor, another takes its place to continue the cycle. Sci-fi properties like "Star Wars" had presented the promise that its big, beautiful new worlds among the stars could be saved from tyrannical rule, for it is prophesied that there is a chosen hero to protect them. With that, Scott ("The Last Duel") provides a man who is neither a hero nor a villain, but a destructive agent of the decaying world around him.

Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard performs his duties in an environment with blinding advertisements and monumental structures towering over the people below. Upon following 2049's K (Ryan Gosling) into the city, these things still remain, albeit altered by the ecological disaster decades earlier. The sins of environmental negligence litters the sky with a fog so dense it's hard to see what's in front of you, emulating our own inevitable trajectory.

It couldn't have been easy to harness the overwhelming nature of "Blade Runner," but then again, not everyone has legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins ("No Country For Old Men") by their side. While working on the film, Deakins told Wired how he truly wanted "Blade Runner 2049" to transcend what sci-fi could look like:

"So many science fiction films all look the same, because the effects are done by rote...We were desperate to create our own world."

Deakins is such a master of his craft. He finds a way to pay tribute to the foundation of Jordan Cronenweth's aesthetic, while contriving his own conception of Los Angeles that simultaneously feels familiar and alien. A tangibility permeates every rainy street and every cluttered apartment building, spilling over with people who have nowhere else to go. There's even a sense of loss in the glitching Vegas nightclub that plays a holographic Elvis to a room of no one. Gassner, meanwhile, works hard on updating the transportation that defines this dire place. "We wanted the vehicles to have a more chiseled, angular, graphic strength," Gassner tells Wired.

A new era of desolation

At the heart of "Blade Runner" is that of loneliness, whether it be in the hands of K's seemingly empty life or Decker's self-exile, and "2049" perfectly captures that through its aesthetic. Human connection is the single most valuable substance element of this world. K's relationship with Ana de Armas's Joi, an artificial intelligence designed to make its buyers feel good, mirrors that of Deckard and Rachael (Sean Young). In many ways, they are both intrigued by something that is out of their grasp. The difference is that K is truly alone, forcing him to confront the ways in which his life has meaning. I can't think of an environment that best suits the desolation of "Blade Runner 2049" than the orange-hued remnants of Las Vegas.

The once bustling city has now been reduced to a ghost of its former self. Vegas is built upon the foundation of noise and people, and "Blade Runner 2049" allows us to experience it in a really unique way. When K takes his first steps inside the city, the electric score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch slowly dissipates. What makes this really exceptional is that the slow walk towards reuniting with Decker isn't hyped up as a nostalgic grab, but a solemn reunion with a man who doesn't want to be found. The only way to find salvation is for a conflicted man to be alone with the environment at large in order to lead himself to another lonely individual. In many ways, "Blade Runner 2049" goes beyond the visual expectations of its storied predecessor, and becomes something much different.