Blade Runner 2049: Denis Villeneuve’s spellbinding sequel more than a match for Ridley Scott’s original.
US, 2017/ 163 mins/ Cert. 15
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Dave Bautista, Carla Juri, Sean Young.
With the original Blade Runner (1982) now acknowledged as a groundbreaking masterpiece that created an aesthetic touchstone for a certain trope of dystopian sci-fi, it is easy to forget that it received mixed reviews on its release and flopped at the US box office. Hampered by a crass voiceover (deliberately performed by Harrison Ford in such a poor manner in the hope it would be rejected by the producers) and an incongruous happy ending, added after Ridley Scott lost the final editing rights, Blade Runner’s entry into the pantheon was only assured after the release of two different cuts of the film. With both The Director’s Cut (1992) and Final Cut (2007), Scott maintained Blade Runner’s central ambiguity, ensuring countless narrative interpretations from enthusiasts to flourish most of which focused on the central question whether Ford’s bounty hunter Deckard is a replicant? (Spoiler alert: He is… Probably). Denis Villeneuve’s sequel retains the enigmatic qualities of the original, remaining loyal to both Scott’s vision and Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? upon which the first film was based. As Villeneuve has asserted that he would not be responsible for any alternative versions of the film once it was released, it is equally gratifying to know that Blade Runner 2049 is the finished article. Fans of Scott’s Blade Runner can breathe a sigh of relief as Villeneuve’s update is as near-perfect an example of the genre as anyone could have hoped to expect. It is a spellbinding work of visual poetry and is more than an equal to the original.
In 2049, a climate ravaged world is redeveloping replicants to ensure humanities survival. K (Ryan Gosling) is a new model replicant made by the Wallace Corporation which, unlike those earlier models made for the now defunct Tyrell Corporation, are programmed for total subservience to their human masters. Like Deckard in the original, K works for the LAPD as a blade runner, whose job it is to hunt down and execute older model replicants. After “retiring” a farmer, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K finds a box buried beneath a tree on the farm. The box contains human remains and forensic tests expose a miraculous revelation that if disclosed could threaten the existence of society. He is ordered by his boss, the uncompromising Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), to destroy all evidence pertaining to the discovery. In his investigation, K begins to question his own origins with the film, like its predecessor, interrogating the role of memory in constructing identity. K is pursued by the Wallace corporation whose owner- Jared Leto’s blind and ruthless Niander Wallace, a combination of Nietzschean Ubermensch and Mephistophelean malevolence- orders his replicant assistant, the equally formidable Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track down the bounty hunter. When the Hunter becomes hunted, K’s search for the truth leads him to the ruins of Las Vegas and to Deckard.
Although Ford’s Deckard does not appear until the final act, his brooding presence looms almost Kurtz-like over the entire film, forging a persuasive narrative link between Scott’s and Villeneuve’s separate takes on Dick’s novel. Despite Villeneuve’s adoption of the directorial role, Blade Runner 2049’s smooth transition from the original to the sequel is aided by Scott’s involvement in the project as producer and the fact that the story was written by Hampton Fancher who wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner. Here Fancher is joined by Michael Green on the script. What makes Blade Runner 2049 such a success is that, despite its unquestionable fidelity to the original, it is brave enough to expand upon the themes of Scott’s classic. This is no mere replicant but a thinking, feeling, living entity of its own. There are several remarkable echoes to sequences in Blade Runner, including a poignant and beautifully conveyed ‘tears in rain’ sequence when K’s virtual girlfriend, the hologram Joi (Ana de Armas), feels rain upon her skin for the first time. The deeply philosophical questions of what is it to be human? What role does memory play in an individual’s consciousness? And what does it mean to possess free will? are reprised in Blade Runner 2049. As in the first film, the existential theory of the state of the human condition which Martin Heidegger termed “thrownness” comes to mind, as the replicants are literally thrown into existence; their memories are predetermined and their function shaped by external forces. In addition to the questions of individual consciousness, social issues of environmental and nuclear catastrophe, the reactionary powers of unfettered corporations and the increasingly topical debate of increased automation are all are raised by the film.
What is so admirable about Blade Runner 2049 is that it is confident enough to trust the audience’s capacity to sit in a theatre for almost three hours and maintain their interest. The film is perfectly paced, asking you to completely immerse yourself in the experience to allow its narrative and themes room to breathe. When the action scenes arrive, they have the effect of jolting you from your reverie and subsequently their impact are much more powerful. This is an intelligent, artistic and hypnotic blockbuster; a spectacle that holds the attention through its quite breath-taking visuals. With stunning cinematography from Roger Deakin and equally impressive Production Design by Dennis Gassner, the film will need to be revisited for its hallucinatory imagery alone. The look of the film is complemented by a soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch- a synthesised discordant industrial cacophony which suddenly soars orchestrally to riff electronically against Vangelis’ original score.
Blade Runner 2049 maintains the hard-boiled, Chandleresque noir of the novel like a futuristic dystopian Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) with flying cars and added ontological complexities. Although the Los Angeles cityscape borrows from the original- it’s still heaving with rain and those impressive giant billboards are still advertising Atari, Pan Am and Coke- Blade Runner 2049 expands the world of the original, moving away from the city to include astonishing imagery of devastated industrial wastelands, one of several scenes which recall Andrei Tarkovsy’s existentialist sci fi Stalker (1979) Emotionally, the film also parallels Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). Equally, the ravaged Vegas is wonderfully captured, its poisoned skyline glowing vivid orange with radiation. The film’s palette is jaw droppingly brilliant throughout and the desolate casino which K traces Deckard to, featuring a buffering hologram of Elvis performing ‘Suspicious Minds’, is an imaginative update of the derelict Bradbury Building, J.F Sebastian (William Sanderson) residence and the scene of the final confrontation between Deckard and Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in the first film.
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 will come to be regarded as a canonical sci-fi film, watched repeatedly for its spellbinding beauty, rich philosophical textuality and narrative ambiguity. Having followed up last year’s terrific Arrival with a Blade Runner sequel that exceeds all expectations, Villeneuve is proving himself to be a master of the genre, perhaps the greatest sci-fi director currently working in Hollywood. Don’t miss the opportunity of seeing it on the big screen- where it truly belongs. An awe inspiring cinematic triumph.