Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult classic Blade Runner may be set some three decades after the original but is packed with dystopian pertinence so in line with the issues of the present day that the gap feels more intensely condensed than its predecessor ever could. Every bit on the forefront of visual technology itself, the triumph of Blade Runner 2049 is how well it emulates and advances the essence of the original, whilst offering one of the most cinematographically perfect experiences ever brought to the big screen.
Blade Runner’s ascension to critical respectability, through a succession of trans-millennial re-edits, is a well documented one. It is, however, an experience unlikely to be replicated by Blade Runner 2049; a sequel that instantly hits its breathtaking stride, demanding unanimous praise now for the impeachable beauty of each and every scene of its nearly three hour runtime. Retaining first-film screenwriter Hampton Fancher, joined here by Logan’s Michael Green, this is a blockbuster that overflows with philosophical debate and arch nuance. One viewing will simply never be enough to take it all in.
Much has happened in the grungy parallel Earth of Blade Runner since the original’s setting of 2019. For one, the Tyrell Corporation, creators of the original ‘replicants’, has been dismantled, due to the increasingly rebellious activities of their Nexus models. The planet’s eco-system has collapsed too, with those not rich enough to flee to off-world colonies having been saved by the rise of etherial entrepreneur Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his genetically-modified food supplies. With his gained status, Wallace has bought up the remnants of Tyrell’s legacy and introduced the world to a new generation of replicants – one supposedly entirely subservient to their human masters. Ryan Gosling plays an LAPD Blade Runner, tasked with tracking down the last of Tyrell’s rogue creations for termination, still known as ‘retirement’.
To give away much more would be to do the film, its producers and potential audience a great disservice, for Blade Runner 2049 is an extravaganza best experienced as blind as is inhumanly possible. Know only that the noir atmosphere is retained, whilst a loosely paralleled plot matches the original’s dystopian detective stylisation, unveiled at a deliciously glacial, but never dull, pace.
A largely electronic score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch captures well the self-reflexivity of the film, echoing (if not matching) that of the mighty Vangelis. Fairing better in comparison would be the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Thirteen times bridesmaid of the Oscars, Deakins takes up the mantle of Jordan Cronenweth as though born to it. As an exercise in world building, Blade Runner 2049 is exceptional, brought to visually stunning life by Deakins, who ungulates between gorgeous hues, elevating scenes to breathtaking artist magnificence. From the arresting opening depiction of a lifelessly manufactured California to barren orange wastes of Vegas, not a shot passes that does not deserve framing. Surely this is his time to clinch victory from the Academy.
When it comes to the cast, this is Gosling’s film through and through. Delivering the power of his performance in Drive, alongside a subtle helping of the La La Land charm, Gosling is a marvel. Equally notable are star roles from Ana de Armas – as a fascinating extension to the concept of artificial intelligence, more than a little reminiscent of Scarlet Johansson in Spike Jonze’s Her – and, indeed, a returning Harrison Ford, who is stronger than he has been in years. If Ford’s role in The Force Awakens was to offer gleeful, and welcome, Star Wars fan-serving, here he is given real meat to work with and does so wonderfully.
There are, alas, issues. Whilst perfectly balancing due reverence to Blade Runner with ground enough to stand as a great film in its own right, a nagging sense pervades, at times, that not everything here adds up. The film’s weak gender politics too are unfortunately prevalent, with most leading female roles characterised by their sexuality and satellite supporting turns largely left to pose nude and alluring in, otherwise brilliantly realised, holograms. Of the nods to the first film, there is a cameo in the film which is deeply misjudged, especially in comparison to other reappearances, becoming more so the more it is dwelled upon.
Too endemic to be deemed minor quibbles, these do nonetheless feel harsh to raise against so intensely thoughtful a tale. Carrying forward the debate of what it means to be human (‘Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do’), from the first film and Philip K. Dicks’ original book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ alike, added here are a metaphysical questioning of the soul and more grounded dilemmas of surety. ‘We’re all just looking out for something real’ as the film puts it, entertaining Pinocchio dialogical exchanges. There’s crossover, likewise, with Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 Planet of the Apes and Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E – the latter rightfully regarded here as among the greats of sci-fi and completely worth exploring.
A director at the very top of his game, Villeneuve has achieved the impossible in creating a sequel worthy of Blade Runner. Here is a film in discourse with the bigger picture but absolutely devoted to the more personal and intimate. You may watch 2049 today but it is only tomorrow that you will truly appreciate it.