Director: Denis Villeneuve Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas Running Time: 163 minutes
The advanced screening of Blade Runner 2049 and presumably, all advanced screenings of the film, began with a letter from the director, imploring those in attendance to keep tight lipped about the film’s various twists and turns, to “not spoil the magic”. And though there are plenty of spoilers that will, for the purposes of playing ball, be avoided in this review, Blade Runner and its sequel are not films about the plot details, not really. Despite the many story-changing cuts and decades of speculation and misleading trailers and advance screening advanced warnings, these are films whose true value lays not in the story beats but in the ideas and the images and everything else that a rogue tweet or a too-curious eye over a Wikipedia page cannot take away from you. From the outside, Blade Runner 2049 may look like yet another nostalgia cash-in, and an odd choice for one at that, but it’s no mere replicant of the original, providing a beautiful backdrop against which the series’ themes about identity, memory and autonomy are given further thought.
And what a backdrop it is. Blade Runner 2049 reaches out beyond the rainy cyberpunk neo-noir of future-ruined Los Angeles to provide cinematographer Roger Deakins with a rich variety of colours and textures to play with. Outside of the city, there are trash piles so massive that they have their own societies living in them, grey synthetic farms that are so grim and secluded they simply have to be hosting deeply buried secrets and completely irradiated cities, covered in sand, a chance for the camera to turn the oranges all the way up to eleven and contrast with all the film’s neon blues. With giant, fallen statues and an abandoned hotel hidden in the sand, the environment looks like a lost city, something that’s been untouched for hundreds of years. It’s been thirty. Inside the city, the dingy police station of the original, informed by classic noir, has been replaced by a fascist one, Apple taken to a pessimistic conclusion, stark black uniforms against stark white walls that recall the likes of THX 1138 and shows that you don’t only have to be influenced by the sci-fi movie you’re making a sequel to. Then there’s the company that now manufactures replicants. The robotic slave labour who look just like humans and who once decided they wanted to live like them too in the brief time that they had, are now more perfect and easier to control thanks to design tweaks by their new maker. The original’s Tyrell Corporation has been taken over and replaced by Wallace, whose Brutalist building washes the screen in more orange, this time more muted, a company that’s blown way past fascist Apple into architecture that’s better suited to temples, befitting the nutter-butter-god-playing-monologue-spouting boss buried in the heart of it, played irritatingly and inevitably by Jared Leto.
Though both Blade Runner and 2049 are detective stories, there’s more of a mystery at play with the elusive figure that Ryan Gosling’s LAPD detective K is trying to track down, compared to Harrison Ford’s mission to hunt down and ‘retire’ rogue replicants. K has the same job, and in the process of carrying it out he uncovers a secret that threatens to tear this futuristic society, which already seems fragile enough, apart. His boss Lt. Joshi (the icy Robin Wright) tasks him with taking caring of the problem, without regard for the human toll, such as it is, of doing so. When asked about the cost of his work to his soul, she replies “you’ve done just fine without one”. Meanwhile Leto’s Niander Wallace wants to find the same thing Gosling is after, in order to get to the next, meglomaniacal step of his replicant-building empire. Wallace is overly-mannered and ponderous and not the best villain, but he does have a PA/Killbot to send out in the field, whose determination to be the best of his creations at least makes her more interesting than his Damaged Jesus routine. They track K as he tracks down the truth, a quest that drags the emotions kicking and screaming out of the taciturn detective and one that leads him to search for answers both about his case and himself from Harrison Ford’s Deckard, who fell off the grid 30 years previous.
Reprising the role of Deckard completes a trilogy of 80s Kid’s nostalgia by Ford, but where there seemed to be a reluctance to coming back as Indiana Jones and Han Solo, Blade Runner 2049 represents something of a do-over at playing Deckard, which Ford didn’t nail the first time around. He brings a similar gravelly gravitas here to his work in The Force Awakens, but with nothing to cushion the weariness. There is no “we’re home” moment here, Deckard is a man who wants to be lost in time, and digging up his past is painful for him in more ways than one. Ford is impressive not just for the emotion he brings to the role here, but for the physicality, at 75 he still swings a Hollywood punch better than anybody and shows impressive endurance as the action starts to ramp up. For Gosling, K is something of a logical conclusion for the character type he’s played several times before. Like before, K says little, tries hard not to emote and can give and receive beatings in equally brutal measure. Closer to the surface than ever before though is the wounded man beneath the blank expression. Gosling’s sad eyes becoming more animated the more he finds out. If Blade Runner was about a “Good Guy” seeing the humanity in androids and realising that being a Blade Runner is bad, here K is a desensitised Bad Guy who finds the humanity in androids and realises that he can actually do some good. He’s motivated and inspired the first time he sees a ‘mirace’, like a beautiful yellow flower pushing improbably out of the grey, synthetic, lifeless farms or…well we’re not supposed to spoil the magic as you recall. The film cements Gosling though, as the Humphrey Bogart of our times, the sad punchey boy with masculine good looks and hidden depths. Most noir stories are cynical, but what puts 2049 up with the great ones is the hope it strives for even when it seems buried in despair. Believing in the second part of “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for” as Morgan Freeman once said.
That capacity for hope even in a film that seems downbeat and lifeless speaks to the sensibilities of director Denis Villeneuve, who seems to be getting better all the time. He blows up his arthouse sensibilities here to an impressive scale, combining expertly with Deakins or the composing of Hans Zimmer to create a very modern blockbuster that builds off the past, with creative designs and a willingness to explore interesting science-fiction ideas about humanity. Can it be on the nose? Of course, you won’t be getting out of this film’s near 3 hour running time without a few weak Pinocchio analogies, Nolan-esque visual repititions for the weak of memory or Screencrush-ready cameos and callbacks. But as with Arrival, the director presents a film that is both thought-provoking and moving. Some may find it to be overly slow and exposition heavy, but Blade Runner 2049 is the kind of film that will stop to take a few minutes to consider the emotions of a hologram, and how your smartphone might desire the touch of the rain. And then the film shows massive, gorgeous CGI cities. And then it starts blowing things up. And also there’s a dog. Is this not everything you could want out of Hollywood cinema? Visually stunning and cerebral, Blade Runner 2049 looks into the past like so many modern movies, but it sees the value in its predecessor clearly and fashions something intelligent and new out of it, making for one of the best blockbusters of 2017.(5 / 5)