Blade Runner 2049 is a work of staggering grandeur and intimate reflection
We’ve seen many films from the 80s and 90s resurrected as big screen sequels recently. Attempts have been made to breathe new life into Jurassic Park, Independence Day and Alien at the box office, all to lesser or greater success. Now Blade Runner joins the fray, with Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049.
Anxiety was always going to run high over a sequel to Blade Runner. The film is part of a cult canon and held up as a classic. Thankfully, any pre-release jitteriness on the part of its many, many fans was unfounded: Villeneuve, fresh from the critical and commercial success of Arrival, has offered up a sci-fi film of staggering grandeur and beauty, which pays homage to the original yet is never beholden to Ridley Scott’s 1982 bar-setting work.
We return to the noir-ish Los Angeles, but things have changed. Now it has sprawled into a vast megalopolis, ringed off by a colossal wall separating it from the surrounding wastelands. The city’s inhabitants are reeling from a terrorist attack that took place 27 years earlier which plunged the world into digital darkness, destroying vast swathes of electronic archives.
Amongst the neon lights of the megalopolis, citizens are crammed into brutalist apartment blocks, towered over by monolithic, lurid holograms advertising everything from prostitutes to Coca-Cola (and noodle stalls still exist on every street corner). In the bowels of the city, humans, and replicants – manufactured bioengineered android slaves – walk uneasily side by side. Meanwhile, blade runners – cops whose job is to hunt rogue ‘skinjobs’ – still tread the beat, ‘retiring’ replicants who break their programming.
We are now 30 years on from when Deckard (Harrison Ford) stood in the rain as Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) told him of the things he had seen off the shoulder of Orion. Since then, Deckard has vanished and replicants have evolved thanks to Neander Wallace (Jared Leto), a tech CEO with a god complex. He has solved the flaws of the original Nexus 6 model replicants, making them more subservient. But Neander has an even more ambitious dream for the replicants, and a case of a missing girl might hold the answer.
Just as in Scott’s original, Villeneuve has pursued a philosophical tone for the movie. He, along with the film’s screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who penned the original, loosely adapting Philip K. Dick’s original text) and Michael Green, muse on existential themes, asking whether man-made machines might have ghosts knocking around in their shells.
At the centre of the story is ‘K’ played by Ryan Gosling. The brooding masculinity of his performance is a long way from his once-boyish appearance and devoid of the sulkiness that plagued Only God Forgives. K is a new model replicant working as a blade runner, ruled over by Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) who makes sure that he stays in line.
He isn’t much liked by his human co-workers, but from the first scene we witness his skill at taking out his own kind, retiring a replicant called Sapper (Dave Bautista), who has been living in hiding as a protein farmer. However, this act triggers K’s existential crisis. Sapper alludes to the idea that a person acquires their soul at the moment of birth, leading K to pursue a case about the disappearance of a girl – the same girl that tech magnate Neander is also searching for.
Becoming uneasy with his work, K finds solace in his holographic girlfriend, the appropriately named Joi (Ana de Armas) – an A.I. sold by the Wallace Corp who is projected as the ghostly body of a homely 50s housewife. It’s these quiet moments shared between K and Joi that are the emotional and intellectual core of the movie. In one scene there’s a tender-hearted melding of Joi’s A.I. with a female replicant which allows the couple to physically explore their love. Villeneuve renders the encounter with gorgeous visuals, expanding on the idea of digital intimacy first explored in Spike Jonze’s Her.
Moments such as these elevate Villeneuve’s film, grounding the elusive existential questions in the pragmatic issues that life throws at the characters. It all goes towards making the non-humans all the more human – or as the old Tyrell Corporation slogan goes “more human than human.”
The film is peppered with these skilfully written moments, such a when K examines strands of DNA, hoping that it will help him solve his case. As he zooms in closer on the strands of A, C, G and T coding he wonders whether those biological components are so different to the 1s and 0s that compose both his and Joi’s minds. These moments are often at a distance from the heady visuals, offering a greater sense of intimacy tinged with melancholy. K is not only asking what it all means, but whether it means anything at all.
Blade Runner 2049 shifts between such quiet moments before throwing you back into the giddying vistas of LA. As much as the film is about existential themes, it’s also one that is designed to inspire awe. Seen on the big screen, the blazing oranges and rich blues that make up the palette of the film will sear themselves on your eyes. Roger Deakin’s cinematography glides over barren landscapes littered with the debris of fallen satellites and skeletal buildings, only to crane up at the neon glow of its dystopian citadel, where corporate pyramids loom over the detritus of the streets below. It is a startling reminder that even in today’s cinema, where CGI spectacles are commonplace, big budget films can produce remarkable works of art.
Finally, there is Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s domineering, synth-heavy score that pays homage to the work of Vangelis, who was behind the original’s iconic soundtrack. At times, with Zimmer’s trademark drone sound turned up to eleven, your head will be left spinning. Yet, when accompanying the dizzying visuals, the effect is nothing less than a symphonic masterstroke (especially when delivered in Dolby Atmos).
Yes, some details about plot remain unanswered, lingering alongside the more more lofty, philosophical questions that the film raises. But as the credits roll the overwhelming emotion you’ll feel is one of wonderment at those incredible visuals which knock the breath from your lungs.