Confession time: while I am a fan of Ridley Scott’s 1982 landmark ‘Blade Runner’ (and even the first 20 minutes of its shithouse spinoff, ‘Soldier’), I’m lukewarm on the films of director Denis Villeneuve (‘Sicario’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘Arrival’). I’m not a big fan of Ryan Gosling, either. Don’t even get me started on Jared Leto. I wasn't too eager to skip dinner in order to spend two hours and 45 minutes with any of these people in a cinema.
So, imagine my surprise when I actually found myself enjoying ‘Blade Runner 2049’ quite a lot.
Denis Villeneuve’s film (produced by Ridley Scott) is set 35 years after the influential original. We are introduced to a new "blade runner", Officer K (Ryan Gosling, ‘Drive’, ‘The Nice Guys’), an advanced Replicant whose job is to hunt down the older Tyrell Corporation “skinjobs”. In the process of “retiring” a protein farmer, Sapper (Dave Bautista, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), K discovers a box buried beneath a dead tree that could change the course of humanity. The discovery leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’), a former blade runner who disappeared 35 years ago.
The action is set in a sci-fi dystopia. Instead of focusing on the technology that led to that mess – a backstory seeps in, involving famine and a catastrophic data-destroying blackout – the film takes an issue planted in the original movie and makes it the central, resonant mystery of the sequel. What makes us human? Our memories? Our ability to feel and create new life?
K wants to discover if his own memories are implanted or real. His holographic A.I. girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas, ‘Knock, Knock’, ‘Hands of Stone’), longs for more freedom, even superimposing her image over a prostitute, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), in order to touch her lover. Deckard is trapped (and later tortured) by the past. The Replicants want to be regarded as equal to humans, and not merely a slave workforce.
Villeneuve juggles these themes and big dollops of action with precision, all the while gracefully dropping in information from the screenplay. It’s worth noting that neo-noir detective films are a big touchstone for writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, with K’s sleuth taking regular beatings in true gumshoe fashion and nods are given to Robert Towne’s ‘Chinatown’ and ‘The Two Jakes’.
The sequel can’t escape the fact that the strength and lasting influence of Ridley Scott’s original film was its look: the midnight-blue light that played like a scrim over a rainy, neon-bright Los Angeles resembling Tokyo; the golden-yellow interiors that created a haunting aura for a jaundiced world. ‘Strange Days’, ‘Gattaca’, ‘Dark City’, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’, the recent ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and a lot of Japanese cyberpunk anime released in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s owe ‘Blade Runner’ a massive debt.
The sequel borrows the golden-yellow palette for some scenes. Giant cityscapes hum, throb and teem with the outlandish: streets blitzed by neon, strafed by drizzle, monstered by those holographic geishas and ballerinas. It is beautiful stuff. But, surprisingly, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner also create a grim, ashy-grey world. Villeneuve shot a great deal on sets and locations in Hungary. The film may not be heavy with computer-generated imagery, but it looks as though it is. That’s not a bad way to depict a future blighted by poverty, hunger and power shortages, although the design is never as engaging as the gloriously rich original.
Giant cityscapes hum, throb and teem with the outlandish: streets blitzed by neon, strafed by drizzle, monstered by those holographic geishas and ballerinas. It is beautiful stuff.
While the men of this movie - Ryan Gosling's K (serviceable), Dave Bautista’s Sapper (impressive), and a returning Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard (great) – are the central focus, the film’s women are sensational. Robin Wright as the police chief is glassy and brittle but with a core of steel. Primary baddie Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a female android, weeps without emotion as she cracks skulls and slashes bodies. Ana de Armas is beautiful and vulnerable in the complex, interesting role of Joi.
’Blade Runner 2049’ makes very few actual missteps... but they do exist.
Jared Leto, wearing milky contacts as blind genius and corporate tycoon Niander Wallace, fails to elevate his villain to anything higher than “cartoonish supervillain” level. Maybe his public profile is too big or his bag of acting tricks too small, but Leto can’t seem to disappear into roles anymore - the stench of ham is overpowering whenever he is onscreen. To add insult to injury, the role was earmarked by Villeneuve for the late David Bowie, a way more talented ham than Leto will ever be.
Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s music is occasionally a little obtrusive. They aren’t Vangelis, or even frequent Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson (who had worked on ‘Prisoners’, ‘Sicario’ and ‘Arrival’), but their score is generally rock-solid.
Yes, the film is arse-numbingly long. But I barely noticed because the film spends so much time building an absorbing, complex and well-realised futuristic world. Also, I had a comfortable seat and a few beers.
The legacy of ‘Blade Runner’ is long, and getting longer - ’Blade Runner 2049’ isn’t a film I thought needed to exist, but it does now and I’m very glad for it.