Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
A new civilization begins now.
Wind back to 1982 — inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — Ridley Scott emerges with Blade Runner and it tanks. A so-called ‘Director’s Cut’ was released some ten years later (in 1992), this re-cut without the tick of approval of filmmaker Scott. Needless to say, this re-release went on to cement the movie’s reputation as a sci-fi classic worthy of re-evaluation. It wasn’t until the ‘Final Cut’ came out in 2007 that Scott’s intentions were fully realized in a version completely altered to his exacting wishes, and all speculation about ‘what could’ve been’ was (finally) laid to rest.
Across the three versions the narrative gets off to a cracker start with a classic noir setup in a futuristic setting, until proceedings fizzle around the halfway mark, just as the story seems to be gaining traction. It’s a frustrating mess of unfocused point-of-view, revelation and thematic enquiry — there’s clearly enough material there, just enough for it be interpreted (and if you look for analysis online, you’ll find plenty), but I feel that the film, as a whole, is actually quite hollow.
It was with great anticipation, then, I looked towards one of modern cinema’s rising directors in Denis Villeneuve, Arrival (2016), pairing up with Scott as producer, to hopefully realize the better aspects of the Blade Runner world with a far more engaging storyline. There were many challenges in following such a respected piece some 30 years on, but I’m happy to report that most of these have been met with the attention and care such a project deserves.
The sequel is set in Los Angeles, 2049, a world of flying cars, cramped housing, holographic girlfriends and, of course, bio-engineered androids known as ‘replicants,’ manufactured people designed to work obediently for their fully human superiors. One such replicant is Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a ‘blade runner’ who hunts down and ‘retires’ (aka kills) rogue replicants for Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright).
During one of these missions, K encounters a shocking discovery, one that could threaten the stability of the current world order. Catching whiff of this revelation is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), loyal servant to the blind designer of the next generation of replicants, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a dark yet zen character with a heavy God complex, obsessed with overturning the natural order and controlling life itself.
Meanwhile, encouraged by his virtual girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), our hero finds the investigation gearing towards the personal as K remembers an implanted memory — or could it be real? With the pressure mounting, K scrutinizes the puzzle, a mystery that soon connects him to an old blade runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has been in hiding for 30 years — a man who may potentially have all the answers.
The first thing you ought to know going into Blade Runner 2049 is that this film is long, on the border of 3 hours to be exact. With a contemplative pace, often happy to linger on a face, editor Joe Walker, Sicario (2015), clearly wants audiences to consider our characters’ inner thoughts and motivations; but how successful this is will rely heavily on how interested one is in asking these questions to begin with. The other thing that I feel stumps the experience is, more often than not, it’s easy for one to get ahead of the story, and when that happens, it’s common to become impatient as the narrative slips behind the audiences’ awareness. If you think to any lackluster mystery you may’ve seen, it’s that moment you find yourself borderline yelling at the screen ‘It’s the butler that did it, you idiot!’ while the protagonist is still deducing. I think this is the biggest driving factor behind the sluggish pacing — it tends to reveal its cards far too early on to be as mysterious as it wants to be.
The casting has been well considered, with the likes of Ryan Gosling, La La Land (2016), essentially reprising his stoic presence from the unexpected neo-noir hit Drive (2011), and the irresistibly stunning Cuban actress Ana de Armas, War Dogs (2016), playing the idealized virtual sweetheart. Harrison Ford, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), takes a while to wake up from his slumber, doing best in the quieter moments, but soon reminds us why he was such a consistent icon — the 75-year-old Hollywood superstar destined to revive his famous filmography from his prime days (I feel an older Jack Ryan film has to be on the cards). I wanted more time with Robin Wright, Wonder Woman (2017), because if you look at her performance here and in the popular Netflix show House of Cards (2013), it’s clear that she deserves meaty, high-powered roles, the veteran actress owning every moment she’s on screen with grace and presence. Jared Leto, Suicide Squad (2016), has been relishing his hammier side since returning to acting, but at least he’s engaging, if a little self-important.
The direction that Villeneuve, writer Michael Green, Logan (2017), and returning Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher have taken here makes a lot of sense. It extends the original premise with its key questions while successfully preserving the mysteries. Is Deckard a replicant? You won’t find a solid answer in 2049, the very notion kinda unimportant in this context, but certainly, you’ll be able to argue and debate once more either way. There’s also enough setup for another chapter, but it remains to be seen if it’ll get green-lit, and I doubt Villeneuve would return to direct, having been tapped for another science-fiction cult story re-imagining, Dune.
On a technical level, this is simply perfection. The visuals were designed from the ground up with Villeneuve, famed English cinematographer Roger Deakins, Skyfall (2012), and production designer Dennis Gassner, Spectre (2015), workshopping all together, and it certainly shows. A prime example of this strong collaboration is the Wallace Corporation building — like a constantly dawning sun, the warm glowing lights move with the characters — it’s not just pretty for the sake of being pretty, it hints thematically at the seeming divinity of Wallace, just before revealing him to viewers for the very first time.
The technical pleasures don’t just stop there. On the auditory front, the music by the ever-experimental maestro Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk (2015), and composer on the rise Benjamin Wallfisch, It (2017), combined with masterful sound design by Theo Green, The Gambler (2014), creates an arresting experience designed to take audiences on one helluva ride. It’s eerily quiet at times, such as the opening confrontation between K and his bulky target Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), in which a bubbling soup only increases the tension. The climax is an assault on the senses, with everything from the score to the atmospherics firing on all cylinders, yet never feeling unjustified or plain noisy.
The cherry on top is a tasteful 3D conversion, overseen by Deakins himself, and while he was reluctant to do it (his style is generally quite classical by nature), his perfectionism to even the often-maligned format has elevated what was a great experience to the next level. Just look at the already amazing effect of Joi projected onto sex worker replicant Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) — the stereo conversion makes it even more stunning as you can actually see the separation between the transparent Joi and the flesh-and-blood body of Mariette. I wonder if anyone has stopped to consider how much of a nightmare such a moment would’ve been to create and then convert to 3D — it’s a shame to think few will get to see the movie this way. While it won’t win over new fans, many fatigued by humdrum offerings, it represents a solid 3D entry. Make no mistake, with an expanded aspect ratio and ridiculously powerful sound system, this is an absolute IMAX must and ideally, in 3D, if you want to totally sink into the picture.
It’s not for everyone, but for those willing to engage with a slow-paced narrative, and the kind of thoughts that hard sci-fi can conjure, there is much to enjoy in Blade Runner 2049. Yes, perhaps it could’ve been a bit shorter and sharper, but as an overall experience to be taken in, and only in the finest of cinemas, it’s a unique and arresting film — one that can’t be easily dismissed.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie