Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
Runtime: 163 Minutes
Of all the treasured classics of Gen X fandom and cultural resonance, Blade Runner was one of the least requiring of a sequel. A science fiction noir celebrated mainly in its later life thanks to its rediscovery by audiences via the subsequent reissues and alternate versions since its release, the power rested in its visual prowess and authorial design, influencing a generation of filmmakers and informing the vision of a retrofitted future that has clung onto the genre ever since.
It’s a simple enough detective story that’s elevated by the concepts that it brings to the table regarding artificial intelligence, the nature of memory, the sensation of humanity and the authoritarian powers which govern and control the lives of its subservient workforce – as well as being a revolutionary piece of technical filmmaking.
The tremendous sigh of relief that can be felt when watching Blade Runner 2049 is that everything that worked with the original concerning its themes and visuals doesn’t just remain intact, but is doubled down upon in every way thanks to a far expanded scope, a larger budget and the ingenuity of the writers and director involved in the production. The respect on show here is lavish and adoring, but never slavish or unquestioning of its predecessor.
On a design and technical front, this is every bit the visual masterpiece of contemporary Hollywood cinema that the original was upon its 1982 release. Not merely borrowing from its cues and motifs, but growing the state of play into a towering feat of optical spectacle. Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent sense of composition, pacing, and staging is as brilliant as it’s always been, but this might be his greatest achievement to date. His work with cinematographer Roger Deakins delivers one of the best-looking blockbusters of the decade, with lighting techniques, practical effects work and set designs that fixate and stimulate the imaginations of the audience at all times – as does the aural backdrop of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s Vangelis inspired soundscape of throbbing currents, pulses and roaring engines.
Much like the original, 2049 follows an intimate personal story against the backdrop of a much larger and more intricate universe, of which this only feels like relatively small part besides the world-shaking ramifications of its plot. Continuing in the same world, but using it as a platform to tell the story of K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner who on a routine assignment unearths a secret that sends him on a personal journey of discovery, and eventually to former protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been in hiding since the events of the original film.
It’s a difficult film to discuss given the near complete lack of information regarding the central conflict that the marketing material has divulged, but what it does offer is that rare element of surprise that feels so lacking in the modern blockbuster climate. Suffice it to say that the story it hands to us feels homegrown, and allows an organic extrapolation of the themes at work back in 1982. While Replicants have been a part of this society for quite some time, the hostility and prejudice remains and marks itself in cutting new ways that feel all too contemporary. Memory, identity and the eternal quandary of what it means to be human are explored with restraint, honesty and bitter cruelty at times as the lines between the real and the artificial are blurred in ways only alluded to in the original film.
K is an astonishing creation; we see and experience a world we thought we knew through his eyes, with his quest to find purpose in a collapsing and darkening world that is only just getting by being the backbone of the narrative. He feels like an immediately believable and tormented character, and Gosling sells every moment of stoic anguish and barely withheld rage.
K's relationship with his own personal A.I. in Joi (Ana de Armas) brings a dimension to its intimacy, with sensations of love falling to the simulacra of her being and coding. Is she really one in a million, or just one of millions like her? It’s the sentiments born between them, and one of the most beautifully tragic “love making” scenes in recent memory which bare these emotions.
Surrounding them is a supporting cast including Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis and a star-making turn from Carla Juri. Robin Wright makes more of her exposition spouting Lt. Joshi than she’s probably worth (if there is a weakness it’s in the early stages of weighty expositional dumps), as does Jared Leto as the sinister Niander Wallace; a megalomaniac successor to Eldon Tyrell, who might act as the primary antagonist but whose presence is mainly to a minimum to extenuate his position as the faceless, dead-eyed figure of corporate greed that has thrived in this desolate landscape.
The scene-stealer might be Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks as Luv; a Replicant servant to Wallace who is offered little in the way of back-story, but her physical and emotional work as an unassumingly deranged and legitimately dangerous assassin leaves more of an impression than any amount of dialogue could offer.
The long wait for the return of Rick Deckard really has been worth it. Unlike Ford’s swift recapturing of the Han Solo persona as if preserved in frozen carbonite, Deckard is a profoundly different figure to the one many will remember. Worn down and beaten by years on the run, this is one of the most tender and understated performances of Ford’s blockbuster career. He informs the character with a depth and emotion previously unseen, with his return used to just the right extent in a way that informs the rugged and thought-provoking mood of the rest of the film.
Blade Runner 2049 looks and sounds like the classic it follows, but unlike so many nostalgic retreads it seeks to do more; to search deeper, to wander longer, to look further into its world and challenge its standing while turning over the established order of its universe in a new and thrilling manner. The story is personal, profound and tragic, taking its time with a languor and confidence to run as long as it does and allow the audience to feel like a part of the journey, filling every corner of its scenery with uninhabited grace. It’s a slow, beautiful, meditative work of large-scale cinematic brilliance that both equals and betters the original in more ways than it needed too.