Denis Villeneuve takes us back to the neon-soaked dystopian world of Blade Runner in a film that builds on the themes and atmosphere of the original while asking plenty questions of its own. It looks bloody beautiful in the process too…
Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir is the mould to which pretty much every dystopian science fiction film has modelled itself on since. The landscape he designed was one of broken buildings and broken bodies, pulsing neon signs and foggy intrigue. A culture clash of East and West populated a city in which human mercy was the most alien aspect around. It was as beautiful as it was dirty, and unlike anything seen before on the big screen. It goes without saying then that an attempt to revisit a world this beloved is a risky move. Having said that, I can’t think of a director working today more worthy of the challenge than Denis Villeneuve.
For me, Blade Runner 2049 is everything an expansion to the original should be, and more. From the outset you can tell that everyone involved with this film has a real love and respect for the original. As the opening shot slowly burned onto the screen, I got the sense that some mystical Blade Runner essence, bottled for 35 years had been released, ready to intoxicate again.
The film centres around Ryan Gosling’s ‘K’, a Blade Runner tasked with hunting down older replicant (cyborg) models living rogue lives with no expiry date. One of his contracts involves tracking down a protein farmer named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). It’s on this outing he uncovers what seems to be a long-buried secret, the discovery of which triggers a profound change in him.
To say any more on the plot would be to spoil the experience. Much like the original film, 2049 hides many secrets. Some of these you’ll find answers to and others you’ll be left pondering over. For a modern sci-fi film, it goes completely against the grain of the others in the genre. It’s pace is considered and deliberate. It never rushes to a conclusion as we follow K on what is essentially a procedural investigation. This might be jarring to a lot of cinema-goers expecting constant bombastic action and quick edits. But it’s what makes 2049 feel so fresh, and yet so familiar to the original. It does have its action sequences, and they’re suitably gritty, but they’re scattered around this thought-provoking landscape as opposed to making up its majority.
Lets talk about the aesthetic of the film. As a designer by trade, visuals in movies are often a focal point for me, and Blade Runner is a complete feast for the senses. The design of this film (and the original) should not be overlooked as merely surface-level polish though. The environments, architecture, signage and even clothing are as much a character as the main cast. There is a very tangible physicality to everything, and that helps deliver that signature Blade Runner atmosphere. Villeneuve has teamed up with long-time collaborator and master cinematographer Roger Deakins, a tag-team that has once again delivered one of the most visually impressive cinema experiences of recent times. Long takes and slowly-panning cameras give the audience plenty opportunity to pore over the gorgeous scenery. The cities are bathed in glorious neon, with giant projections of beautiful woman painting the sky like seductive Bat Signals. They’re juxtaposed with eerily barren landscapes, scorched, dusty and home to giant broken statues. The very essence of Blade Runner is one of contradiction and segregation, it’s a theme that is mirrored beautifully in the visuals, and in fact the audio.
My god the sound design. I fell in love with it. Hints of the original 80s Vangelis score are ever-present, with smooth synth moments echoing through the silence. These sections of calm are often punctured by harsh industrial bursts of noise and grinding of machinery. The result is sometimes overwhelming and several times I noticed my hair standing on end as I gazed transfixed at the screen.
The cast do their best to maintain the Blade Runner ‘brand’ too, with the performances leaning more towards the subtle than the animated. Ryan Gosling channels his ‘Drive’ persona to offer an agent that is initially vacant and cold, showing very little expression. His character does expand though as emotions begin to bubble up from the surface during his journey of discovery. Watching him actually reminded me a lot of Harrison Ford’s Deckard, a character I could never quite get a read on (with good reason). Speaking of Deckard, it was good to see Ford revisiting a character he’s always held a passion for, and his performance is fitting for a man that’s been AWOL for the best part of 30 years.
The film has a good variety of other characters, with the actors all turning in fine performances. Robin Wright succeeds as K’s ruthless and stern manager, while Ana de Armas is sweet and naive as his virtual love interest Joi. Jared Leto probably offers the most drama as Niander Wallace, the mad-scientist of the film and controller of all former Tyrell property. Sylvia Hoeks does well as his right-hand woman, the sinister Luv. If I have one complaint with the film however, it’s that none of these characters seem to match the memorable heights of Rutger Hauer’s Roy in the original film, but that’s a lofty bar to set anyway.
On the whole, I came out of Blade Runner 2049 very impressed. My eyes and ears had been dazzled and my brain had been given a bit of a jolt. As I mentioned in the intro, it’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen, but its beauty isn’t just skin deep. There’s some heart there, and it revels in exploring the themes of artificial intelligence, life, equality and love. It continues asking the questions of the original film, yet does it in its own way. The initial pace might not be for everyone, but if you give it the patience and time it deserves, you’ll be rewarded. In a time of shoddy reboots, my main feeling is one of relief as the legacy of a cult property like Blade Runner has now been expanded instead of stained.
Watch it if you liked:
Blade Runner (obviously), Looper, A.I.