Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade-Runner-2049
This vision of the future remains as bleakly beautiful as ever

So much has already been said about Blade Runner 2049 – director Denis Villeneuve’s follow up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult sci-fi classic – that it’s hard to know where to begin.

The film – which, like its predecessor, draws upon Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep – has received near universal acclaim from critics, which is nothing short of remarkable for a sequel weighed down by 35 years worth of expectations!

But amid reports of underwhelming box office returns, casual moviegoers might be left wondering if Blade Runner 2049 lives up the massive amount of hype cinema buffs have built up around it.

The honest answer is no, probably not. However if Villeneuve’s film isn’t quite the masterpiece it’s being hailed as, it’s always good and often brilliant, and most importantly, serves as a worthy continuation of the Blade Runner story.

A STORY 35 YEARS IN THE MAKING

Taking place (as the title would suggest) 30 years after the original film, Blade Runner 2049 introduces us to K (Ryan Gosling), an enhanced artificial human, or “replicant”. K works as a “blade runner” – a police detective charged with “retiring” (or as most people would call it, killing) unsanctioned, older model replicants.

During a seemingly routine investigation, K unearths a mysterious crate, the contents of which threaten to tip the perilously balanced human/replicant society over the edge into full-blown revolution.

This brings him to the attention of the Wallace Corporation, and its sinister founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) – creator of the current generation of replicants – who will do anything to get his hands on the knowledge that the blade runner has uncovered.

Meanwhile, K – accompanied by his girlfriend, holographic AI program Joi (Ana de Armas) – sets out to learn the truth about what he has found, which leads him to legendary blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), in hiding since the events of the first Blade Runner

A FRESH TAKE ON A CLASSIC VISION OF THE FUTURE

Broadly speaking, the script for Blade Runner 2049 by original co-writer Hampton Fancher and franchise newcomer Michael Green works – indeed, it works well. Impressively, it manages to walk the fine line between being accessible to newbies whilst still appealing to longtime fans.

Better still, the screenplay – unlike those of many other, long-delayed sequels – is admirably restrained where references to the first Blade Runner are concerned. Those that do appear feel organic and serve to drive the plot forward, rather than solely trading off of fan service and nostalgia.

In short, this isn’t a “greatest hits” outing, recycling the best bits of its predecessor, but rather represents an attempt to tell a new story set in a familiar world – and on scale far greater than previously seen.

And although this more ambitious narrative is undeniably compelling, what Blade Runner 2049 gains in scope, it loses in lyricism. As with the original film, the script – especially the dialogue – is still peppered with religious and philosophical considerations, yet these are less deftly handled. If you come in expecting poetic sensibilities on par with Roy Batty’s dying, “tears in the rain” soliloquy, you’re going to leave disappointed.

The film also suffers from a thinly drawn villain in Wallace, who wanders in and out of the narrative without ever properly clarifying his vaguely defined goals – he wants to expand his reach throughout the universe…or something? – and whilst Villeneuve and the writers deserve credit for emulating Blade Runner’s ponderous pacing, the sequel does verge on meandering at times.

But these (and a handful of non-critical plot holes that crop up) are largely minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, that Blade Runner 2049 can invite such an extreme degree of scrutiny is a testament both to how highly regarded the original film is, and the filmmakers’ efforts to follow in its artistic, “thinking man’s blockbuster” footsteps.

LESS QUESTIONS, MORE ANSWERS
Blade-Runner-2049-Joi
New characters like Joi help shift the series’ focus in a subtle new direction

As part of their attempt to evolve the Blade Runner narrative, Villeneuve and co have shifted the thematic focus from a meditation on what it means to be human, to probing the reality of what humans – artificial or otherwise – feel.

Arguably, this isn’t so much a new theme as a variation on an existing one, yet it still represents a seismic change in direction. It’s as though Villeneuve is taking the debate at the heart of the first film – “What makes us human?” – and treating it as a moot point, instead asking “Do the emotions and connections that define our humanity really exist?”

Throughout Blade Runner 2049, we’re confronted with numerous instances where the authenticity of characters’ relationships, memories, and even their very sense of identity are thrown into doubt.

Take K and Joi: on the surface they’re very much in love, and yet she’s ultimately little more than a highly developed app, designed to become the ultimate companion. Can their romance truly count as genuine under these circumstances, no matter how earnest both parties appear to be?

Then there’s Deckard, who asserts “I know what’s real” when the love between himself and long-dead replicant partner Rachael is suggested to be a manufactured fakery. In both of these circumstances, neither K nor Deckard can ever fully be sure of the veracity of what they feel – as in real life, they (like us) can only go with what their heart tells them.

Blade-Runner-2049-Deckard
Villeneuve wisely avoids outright answering the biggest question in the Blade Runner mythos

Yet even with all these “big issue” quandaries floating around, Blade Runner 2049 – unlike the original film – comes across as being less about questions and more about answers.

By the end of the movie, we’re not left with much to reflect on, although mercifully, Villeneuve at least stops short of outright confirming whether Deckard himself is a replicant or not (perhaps understanding – unlike even Ridley Scott himself – that the question is more important than the answer).

NOTHING ARTIFICIAL ABOUT THESE PERFORMANCES
Blade-Runner-2049-Wallace
Not even an actor of Jared Leto’s calibre can do much with an underwritten role like Wallace

In order to help him realise his new take on the Blade Runner world, Villeneuve has recruited a strong cast of award-winning veterans and rising stars. As our two leads, Gosling is a good fit for brooding detective K, while de Armas turns in a heartfelt, soulful performance as Joi.

In terms of the supporting players, Mackenzie Davis – who garnered well-deserved acclaim for her work in the most recent season of Black Mirror – is again outstanding here, imbuing her character Dr. Ana Stelline with intelligence and warmth.

Then there’s Ford, who slips back into the Deckard role with deceptive ease, flexing his acting muscles for the first time in recent memory in a brief part – it almost qualifies as a cameo – that is nonetheless pivotal to proceedings.

Faring less well by comparison are Leto as Wallace and the usually excellent Robin Wright as K’s boss Lt. Joshi, in large part due to their more loosely sketched roles, although their efforts here are still more than serviceable.

Rounding out the ensemble is Sylvia Hoeks, who is effective as Wallace’s right hand replicant Luv, even if her character straddles the line between intriguing cipher and underdeveloped henchwoman.

BLEAK IS BEAUTIFUL
Blade-Runner-2049-Las-Vegas
Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakens and the Blade Runner aesthetic prove to be a match made in neo noir heaven

If there’s one area in which Blade Runner 2049 is an unqualified success, however, it’s in the visuals department, and it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll lay eyes on a more gorgeous-looking film all year.

As you’d expect, the marriage of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ talents and the Blade Runner “neo noir” aesthetic established by Syd Mead yields stunning results.

Deakins – along with production designer Dennis Gassner – has pushed this bleakly beautiful look even further, and the introduction of stark, vivid desert landscapes in particular is sure to have made both Mead and Sir Ridley proud.

Likewise, the practical and visual effects work is all top notch and virtually seamless, with the CGI used to digitally de-age one cast member arguably the finest (and most convincing) use of the technique ever seen.

Last but not least, Blade Runner 2049’s soundscape deserves a shout out, as well. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch have crafted a score that samples the original 1982 soundtrack by Vangelis where appropriate, but also serves up new motifs that fit neatly with the existing music.

The sound design is equally exceptional, especially when witnessed in a theatre with a decent surround sound set-up, bringing to life a textured aural environment of pattering rain drops, thundering firearms and everything in-between.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In many ways, Blade Runner 2049 is everything modern cinema needs: it’s ambitious, intelligent, and – despite being based on an existing property – largely avoids trading on audience nostalgia.

That said, whilst director Denis Villeneuve and his cast and crew get more right than they get wrong – managing to deliver a generally enthralling sequel to the original Blade Runner – critical response to the film labelling it a masterpiece seems a little unfounded.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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Review: Blade Runner 2049

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