By Marty Mulrooney
Blade Runner 2049 is a neo-noir science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival). The sequel to the classic film Blade Runner (with director Ridley Scott serving as Executive Producer here), this new story – set 30 years after the 1982 original – stars Ryan Gosling (Drive, La La Land) as Officer K, a Blade Runner hunting down replicants – artificial humans – for the LAPD in the year 2049.
Creating a big budget sequel to a film that ‘flopped’ at the box office 35 years ago – a film that has seen no less than seven versions released, the last being the Final Cut in 2007 – is not only financially risky; it’s artistically dangerous. Despite its initial poor box office performance, the original Blade Runner has become a cult classic. It has inspired endless discussion and influenced a wealth of films since. Yet, despite its imperfections, nothing has ever come close.
Blade Runner has never been strictly mainstream then, but it has certainly become beloved over the years. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that one of modern cinema’s most visionary and promising directors, Denis Villeneuve, initially turned down the opportunity to direct Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to a film he obviously cares a great deal about. The pressure and the responsibility put on everyone involved from the moment the project was greenlit must have been immense.
Following a fan-pleasing opening text crawl that fills in some essential background details, the first scene quickly alleviates any concerns that Blade Runner 2049 will fail to capture the look and feel of the original. English cinematographer Roger Deakins is evidently having the time of his life working on such a dream project, vividly realising Villeneuve’s wholly unique vision of the future from the moment Officer K’s Peugeot police spinner touches down in the dirt. Every shot is perfectly framed, every prop is expertly placed and the lighting is exceptional.
The year is 2049 and bioengineered humans called replicants, older models with natural lifespans, are desperately trying to pass for human. Walking through a dust cloud kicked up by his sudden arrival in California, Officer K enters a remote farmhouse and sits to wait for its owner to arrive. Soup simmers aggressively on the stove. As soon as the towering Sapper Morton enters the frame (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista), there’s only one way this encounter can end. He claims to have witnessed a miracle, but K doesn’t yet have the capacity to understand; he only has the capacity to kill.
This fateful meeting will lead to the discovery of a hidden box buried beneath a dead tree, in turn igniting a mystery that will make Officer K question his own humanity and purpose. His superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) may cruelly comment that he has no soul, but Ryan Gosling gives a career-best performance in Blade Runner 2049 that is chock-full of the stuff. It’s incredible how much emotion he can convey with his eyes alone. His character becomes less stiff and robotic as the film progresses (much like Rachael, Sean Young’s character in the original) and this is ultimately K’s story. Thankfully, it’s a compelling one that justifies continuing a narrative that was never really left open for a sequel in the first place.
Original Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher is joined by Michael Green in writing Blade Runner 2049’s script and they’ve done an incredible job, riffing off the themes and story beats of the original – to devastating effect – while updating them to address modern worries and concerns. Whereas Blade Runner was often cramped and closed in, Blade Runner 2049 likes to revel in open space. The dark rainy nights return, but they’re joined by brand new audio-visual experiences – the baked orange haze of an irradiated and ruined Las Vegas, for example – that somehow manage to feel completely at home within the pre-established universe. There’s slightly less art deco and a lot more daylight, but it works.
At 163 minutes long, Blade Runner 2049’s runtime is somewhat intimidating. However, this reviewer saw the film twice (once in IMAX 3D, the other time in standard 2D) and both times the end credits rolled and it seemed too soon. Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard about two-thirds of the way through for reasons that won’t be spoiled here. Surprisingly, the film works very well without him but it gets even better once he becomes involved.
His fresh take on the character rings true for a man who has been in hiding for nearly 30 years and Ford gives one of the strongest performances of his career. He doesn’t say much, but every line he does speak – and every punch he throws – hits home, hard. Deckard was the heart and soul of the original film – whether you think he’s a replicant or not – and his return is an emotionally charged triumph. What’s more, this sequel takes the question at the heart of the original Blade Runner and leaves it hanging in mid-air, which is exactly where it should be left.
Blade Runner 2049 is a tough film to review without revealing spoilers, which would be inexcusable. The story is complicated and leaves a lot open to interpretation, but it also has the confidence to trust the intelligence of its audience. Just like the original before it, it’s a film that will no doubt reward repeat viewings, offering new interpretations with each watch. It’s particularly current and thought-provoking how the film explores different levels of artificial intelligence and asks whether we can love something – or someone – that is man-made.
Cuban actress Ana de Armas is sensational as Joi, Officer K’s holographic girlfriend, stealing every scene she’s in. But does she really care about K, or is she just following her programming? Her character is the looking-glass through which the whole meaning of the film comes sharply into focus. She drives home the idea that being real isn’t necessarily a by-product of being born. With humans, it’s often said that actions speak louder than words; it’s what we do, especially for others, that defines us. Can the same be said for holograms and replicants?
Jared Leto as Niander Wallace – the founder of Wallace Corporation – is used sparingly and is just as memorable, admittedly for far more sinister reasons, as Joe Turkel was as Dr. Eldon Tyrell in 1982. The replicants may have been ‘improved’, but the delusional egomaniac creating them still embodies the same old god complex. The closest the film comes to a genuine antagonist is Wallace’s replicant enforcer Luv, played with formidable intensity by Sylvia Hoeks. You definitely don’t want to be around her when you’re holding a glass in your hand.
One of Blade Runner 2049’s most memorable action sequences involves a decadent stage with a malfunctioning projection of Elvis Presley. Later, a futuristic jukebox projects a miniature Frank Sinatra as he croons about making it one for his baby, and one more for the road. These classic performers aside, Blade Runner 2049’s soundtrack is in some ways reminiscent of the original Vangelis soundscape – a replicant, if you will – and in other ways totally different.
After Villeneuve’s regular musical collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson left the project only three months before release, new composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch stepped in. The result is a soundtrack that’s at it’s best when it hints at Vangelis. It doesn’t quite work as a standalone listening experience, having clearly been composed to match the breathtaking images being shown onscreen. Having said that, it’s a real grower – the track titled Mesa is particularly sublime – and it doesn’t use the iconic original soundtrack as a crutch, instead creating a unique blend that often blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound.
The miniatures and matte paintings of the original Blade Runner are tough to beat and still hold up astonishingly well today. Blade Runner 2049 was shot on as many real locations as possible and the special effects are seamless. Even the futuristic city isn’t completely computer generated; miniatures have been incorporated into the visual effects shots just like they were in the original. When CGI is used, it isn’t distracting; it’s done tastefully and is consistently stunning. Coupled with impressive set designs, costume designs, props and cinematography, Blade Runner 2049 is the most visually distinctive and evocative film of the year.
Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that can absolutely be mentioned in the same breath as the original, which is something of a miracle and an incredible achievement. It isn’t necessarily better than Blade Runner – whether you’re a fan of the warts-and-all theatrical cut, or the definitive Final Cut without the voiceover and continuity mistakes – but it’s easily its equal. Ryan Gosling has never been better and the supporting cast and crew all give exceptional performances that breathe life into this scary alternative vision of the future. In the end, Blade Runner 2049 succeeds because it pretends to be a predictable sequel for much of its runtime, before defying expectations to become so much more. You’ll exit the cinema with memories that will last a lifetime. A complicated and highly accomplished piece of filmmaking that will no doubt encourage discussion and debate for many years to come, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece.
10 OUT OF 10
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