With ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ the actor turns what could have been just a paycheck into something surprisingly tender, complex and humane.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.]
Though he has a vast filmography, Harrison Ford is largely defined by three characters he portrayed in the early 1980s: Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Rick Deckard. This trio of heroic figures share some DNA aside from the man who plays them, but what those roles have in common now is that Ford is has been revisiting them. In 2008, after a nearly two-decade hiatus, the actor donned the fedora and held the whip again in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Two years ago, he stepped back into the Millennium Falcon for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And this week, he’s back in the future as Deckard in the highly anticipated sequel Blade Runner 2049. Though Jones and Solo may be more widely known, Deckard offers Ford the most emotionally resonant character to date.
The ads for the deliberately mysterious Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve (the first film’s helmer, Ridley Scott, served as an executive producer), don’t shy away from revealing that Ford returns to square off against Ryan Gosling. However, why Deckard shows up remains something of a mystery as Gosling’s lead character K, a new blade runner, tries to figure out the whereabouts of a possible child born of a human and a replicant before it “breaks the world” (as Robin Wright’s LAPD lieutenant says). Eventually, K figures out that Deckard serves as the true key to this enigma, and Deckard is forced to reckon with his choice to abandon the remains of his previous life nearly 30 years ago.
Blade Runner was always a much darker film than any of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones adventures. All three have obvious genre elements; Scott’s 1982 sci-fi pic was heavily, deliberately indebted to film noir, leaning into that genre’s grim, adult aspects. 2049 is more reliant on science fiction than noir, yet it’s often as bleak as its predecessor. In the final hour, that darkness allows for unexpected and welcome bursts of emotion courtesy of Ford. His return to the Star Wars universe in 2015 was sadly brief, as Han Solo sacrifices himself at the hands of his conflicted, evil progeny. In a warped way, considering Ford’s prior distaste for the Star Wars fan base, it wouldn’t be hard to wonder if he only agreed to return as the beloved character to permanently end speculation about whether Solo could be a hero again; once you’re dead, you’re dead.
So it’s pleasantly surprising that Ford appears even more invested in his return to the Blade Runner world, considering the original film’s behind-the-scenes upheaval, as well as his well-documented frustration with Scott as director. Deckard is onscreen in 2049 for probably as much as Solo was in The Force Awakens, but the emotion inherent in his return is impossible to ignore. Deckard is both guilty and defensive when physically confronted by K with his decision to hide for 30 years in the ruins of a Las Vegas casino. Once Deckard is brought back into the fold, and captured by a replicant working for the new corporation in charge of building the humanoid robots, he’s confronted with something much more shocking: a new version of his replicant lover Rachael (Sean Young in the original). This scene, as is the case with every scene in Villeneuve’s film, plays out gradually, allowing Ford’s character to display a series of emotions, from wonder to heartbreak. He flips back to snappish and gruff at the end, angrily noting to the mogul who created the new Rachael that “her eyes were green.” (A lie — her eyes were brown as in the film.)
In part because of the projects he’s chosen over the last decade or so, Ford’s work in Blade Runner 2049 might be a necessary reminder of how incredible an actor he can be with the right material. While Deckard isn’t in too much of 2049, his scenes count because of how invested Ford is. It’s even more surprising, then, that Deckard (whether he’s human or replicant, which still isn’t fully resolved by the end) makes it out alive. The final moment of the film belongs to him, as he looks at his grown child for the first time and reaches out, holding back tears.
As Ford ages, he has chosen fewer and fewer starring roles; lately, he’s leaning on the familiar and beloved. Before Blade Runner 2049, his last film was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and for the moment, his only upcoming project is the fifth Indiana Jones movie. Despite his character’s life being cut short in The Force Awakens, it was gratifying to see Ford back as Han Solo. And it will no doubt be gratifying to see him as Indiana Jones again, if only to correct the frustrations of Crystal Skull. But it’s his work as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049 that is surprisingly tender and complex, as humane as anything he’s done in years. What could easily have been a quick paycheck turned into something deeper and more profound.