Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is an intoxicating neo-noir mystery story, a masterpiece of art direction and cinematography, and one of the best examples of science-fiction in any medium. It also, however, feels like a self-contained piece of work – a glimpse into a world that is all the more fascinating because we only spend two hours there.
So producing a sequel 35 years later was something of a risk. Scott himself has recently directed two follow-ups to his other sci-fi classic, Alien (1979), and both fell a very long way short of that movie’s seductive terror. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is *at least* the equal of the 1982 antecedent. Made with an understanding of the original’s power but also with a distinct voice by director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a big film, a difficult film at times, but an engrossing and hugely rewarding experience.
There are a multitude of reasons why it’s quite so wonderful. Here are just 10…
A sequel can do several things. It can go down the James Bond route of presenting another adventure involving the same character/s; essentially a new self-contained story. Or it can be more like the films in the Godfather or Star Wars series, which are discrete units but also work to develop an ongoing narrative. In other cases, ‘sequels’ actually have precious little to do with their originator – see Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which takes place in a different continuity, or The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which presents a whole new cast. But the latest Blade Runner film goes down its own path. It’s set 30 years after the events of the original movie and focuses on new characters. But its storyline is inexorably linked to the first movie; it could not exist without it. It is a sequel, there’s no denying that. But it might be more useful to think of 2049 as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s film; an extension; a development. It’s not just the literal narrative that’s being picked up and run with. It’s also the themes.
The story’s lead character is a replicant (a human-like synthetic lifeform) played by Ryan Gosling. The actor has recently developed a brand of impressively impassive acting that says nothing and everything all at the same time. He glides through this film, outwardly not emoting much or reacting very demonstrably to anything. But Gosling, whose wonderful deadpannery can also be enjoyed in great films such as Drive (2011) and The Nice Guys (2016), has grown into one of the best *movie actors* of recent years. Knowing his face will be enormous when viewed on a cinema screen, he’s able to convey curiosity, anger, frustration, excitement and especially melancholy with remarkable restraint… The slight rise of an eyebrow, an adjustment of the mouth: these moments always tell you exactly what his character is thinking and feeling. Like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the first Blade Runner, KD6-3.7 – K for short – is an LA cop who tracks down and deals with renegade replicants. (We still don’t get told why they’re called Blade Runners.) When he stumbles across some bones buried under a tree, however, he discovers a volatile secret: replicants can procreate. Knowing this information could cause widespread panic and unbalance society, his boss Lt Joshi orders K to find the child and ‘retire’ it – in other words, kill it. K’s gumshoe storyline also leads him to remember details from his own childhood, and he starts to wonder if *he* is the missing child…
In 1930, the average length of an individual shot in an American film was about 12 seconds. By the start of the 21st century, this had decreased to just 2.5 seconds. Coupled with the increased running times of movies in recent years, and that can mean an awful lot of shots. (Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, for example, has over 3,000 of them. It’s a decent film, but no one would disagree with the notion that a few trims would help.) Many people point to the influence of television, music videos and services like YouTube as the reason for this increase in cutting speed. The idea is that we’re all losing the ability to pay attention. But there’s actually no evidence for this. Studies have shown a steady decrease in shot length across the decades, irrespective of other media. (It’s probably more down to the development of user-friendly technology in editing rooms.) However, in an era of non-stop cutting and a fear that audiences will get bored if you linger on one image for too long, Blade Runner 2049 is pointedly slooooow. It’s more deliberate than your average blockbuster and it *takes its time*. The rhythm of the storytelling feels old-fashioned – joyfully so – and allows the plot, the characters and the world to just *be*, to exist and develop. The film seduces you, grips you, and doesn’t let go. It’s lyrical, cerebral and beautiful. If most sci-fi films are rock songs, this is a symphony.
K leads an empty life, alone in a small apartment in a seedy building full of thugs. His one source of solace comes from an ersatz girlfriend – an artificial-intelligence hologram called Joi, played by Ana de Armas. It’s fair to say that this film has come in for some criticism around the character, given that she’s essentially a spin on the ‘sex robot’ cliché. She’s a mother/lover totem who switches from domestic goddess to flirty girl in the flick of a hologrammatic beam; she’s artificial and has been programmed to serve and ‘love’ anyone who buys her. But does this miss the point? The central theme of the Blade Runner films is ‘What is life?’ (The novel that the original movie was based on, after all, was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Here, a pointedly provocative character is being dramatised so we can question what it means to be alive. K is ‘artificial’ too, after all: he’s a replicant. But he’s capable of emotion and independence and sentience. We don’t question his right to life or to be treated with respect. We accept him as a character worth investing in. Why is Joi any different? At several points in the film, she seems to make complex and human-like decisions out of genuine love – she even sacrifices herself to save K. We later see a giant, 3D advertisement for her model and it presents a crasser, more sexualised version. ‘Our’ Joi had broken away from this cliché and become a unique personality. Doesn’t that make her ‘alive’? Joi has been programmed, yes, and has pre-set parameters that control her actions and ‘feelings’. But how is that any different from a human being? Our personalities and psychologies are shaped by natural characteristics, our upbringing, our surroundings and a host of other factors outside of our control. It doesn’t stop us being us.
Cinema is imagery. If it were just people talking, it would be a radio play. And Blade Runner 2049 understands the beauty and power of visual images better than any other Hollywood movie of recent years. Just like in the 1982 original, both the physical world and the cinematography are *achingly* wonderful. Production designer Dennis Gassner and director of photography Roger Deakins (who both have Coen brother and Bond movies on their CV) create something that feels 360-degree real, 100-per-cent immersive, 3D vivid. It’s a logical development of the neo-noir LA we saw in Ridley Scott’s original – there are still cluttered streets and smoggy atmospheres and dramatic skyscrapers and neon adverts and dangerous shadows. But 2049 also moves the world on: America is now more Brutalist than Deco; more straight than curved; more scathing than seductive; more stark than sleazy. (Tellingly, director Denis Villeneuve’s keyword when trying to convey the film’s tone to colleagues was ‘brutality’.) There’s also still the Japanese influence we saw in 1982 (the bad guy’s lair is based on Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient temple in Kyoto), while several scenes take place away from urban sprawl: on a desolate farm, in sandblasted ruins. Each location has its own identity – a cold and sterile police station, the ethereal, golden offices of the Wallace Corporation, a cyberpunky brothel alley, an industrial factory, the faded, entropic ruins of Las Vegas – but they all feel part of the same whole and they all contribute to telling the story. There’s also a constant sense of size and scale: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in an enormous, wide-angle fictional world. Deakins rightly won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on this film; Gassner was nominated at both ceremonies. The craft and skill involved in producing something so wonderful beggars belief.
If there’s perhaps one blemish on this film it’s the lead antagonist. For the character of Niander Wallace, an eccentric, blind businessman who runs LA’s most powerful conglomerate, Villeneuve initially hoped to cast David Bowie. ‘He embodied the Blade Runner spirit,’ the director said. But then Bowie died. It would have been an interesting piece of casting, given the associations the actor would have brought from other roles and his career in general. Sadly, Jared Leto – an acquired taste of an actor – is a poor second choice. The character has a plan to steal the bones that K has discovered, because he wants to learn how replicants can conceive and then use this to expand his business empire. But Leto plays Wallace in such an affected and theatrical way, especially in a perverse scene when he kills a naked replicant, that the character teeters on the edge of silliness. He doesn’t fit with the movie’s mood or world. Thankfully, much more watchable is Wallace’s second-in-command, Luv, played with icy control by Sylvia Hoeks. She’s essentially the film’s ‘heavy’, who acts as Wallace’s proxy because he’s too important/lazy/scared to leave the sanctity of his palatial building. Luv carries out his orders and kills mercilessly when needed.
The first Blade Runner movie has a famously good score, so 2049 had a lot to live up to. Much like the look of the film, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s incidental music manages to both honour what came before *and* push things forward. The score begins with ominous, reverb-heavy noises that echo Vangelis’s music from the first film, but this is no empty copy. Zimmer has become Hollywood’s premier composer over the last 25 years or so, known for music that feels enormous but which still has telling emotional weight. His work with Wallfisch on Blade Runner 2049 is no different.
K’s boss at the police station is Lt Joshi, played with intelligence by Robin Wright, and she’s one of several characters in Blade Runner 2049 with an intriguing name. In Japanese, for example, jōshi with a long ‘o’ sound (上司) means boss while joshi with a short ‘o’ (女子) means female. Elsewhere, K’s single-letter moniker is a nod to Philip K Dick, the man who wrote the story on which the original Blade Runner movie was based. Niander Wallace’s name is a pun on Homo Neandertalensis, a now-extinct species of humans (suggesting he is destined to be superseded by replicants). Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri) is an enigmatic woman who designs complex fake memories for replicants, and has a name that refers to anastellin (a natural substance that suppresses tumour growth and metastasis – ie, she keeps things alive). The implication of Luv’s name when said out loud is obvious… but if you don’t understand why Joi’s name has that spelling, ask your older brother.
In recent years, Harrison Ford has been reprising the roles that won him such a venerated place in genre cinema history. In 2008, he got out his archaeologist’s hat and whip for a fourth time in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seven years later, he returned to the Star Wars universe to give Han Solo one last Kessel Run round the block. Then he completed the hat-trick of heroes in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049… Rick Deckard doesn’t appear on screen until after 100 minutes, and for anyone who’s seen the poster or DVD cover and knows he’s on his way, this delay gives his return to the two-film narrative a huge amount of significance and weight. A trail of clues has led K to the post-apocalyptic ruins of Las Vegas, where he encounters his Blade Runner predecessor. ‘You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you?’ asks Deckard. It’s a quotation from Treasure Island, a book about a young man on a dangerous, revelatory quest for an enormous prize. The line is said by Ben Gunn, a pirate who has been stranded alone for a long time – in much the same way as the isolated and bitter Deckard. After a punch-up that plays out against the gleefully absurd background of a stop-start hologrammatic Elvis Presley concert – another masterpiece of lighting from Roger Deakins – the two cops discuss the case. Ford is sombre, soulful, sanguine; there are decades of anguish carved into his granite face. (Commendably, this film maintains the original Blade Runner’s ambiguity over whether Deckard is himself a replicant. Evidence weighs towards yes, but it’s not conclusive.)
As well as Deckard, two other characters from the original movie have presences in Blade Runner 2049. Edward James Olmos returns for a one-scene cameo as Gaff, the prissy detective with a fondness for the multi-lingo Cityspeak. K visits him in a retirement home when he’s trying to track down Deckard. It’s a scene that could have been cut: precious little information is learnt and it’s largely a geek-pleasing moment (Gaff even does some origami – tick!). Much more significant is the reappearance of Deckard’s late lover – the replicant Rachel. She’s died in the decades since the first film, but makes a haunting cameo when Wallace taunts Deckard by presenting him with a facsimile of his lost love. In the finest use of computer-generated imagery yet seen in any film, the character appears exactly as she did in the original Blade Runner. Sean Young, who played Rachel in 1982, advised body double Loren Peta how to move and stand, then the latter’s face was replaced digitally. This kind of thing has been done a few times recently, most notably in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One (2016). But Blade Runner 2049 exceeds anything done in that film or elsewhere. It’s a stunning moment, full of awe and wonder. If Blade Runner 2049 is about anything – and actually, it’s about a lot of things – then it’s a movie built on memories. K questions his own recollections, searches for his real history, and tries to create new memories with Joi. Ana specifically designs artificial memories for other people. Deckard, meanwhile, is haunted by the past – and Wallace knows that. The latter takes the former prisoner because he needs to know what happened to his and Rachel’s child. He taunts Deckard by playing him an audio recording of his first meeting with Rachel, then offers an incentive to talk… ‘An angel, made again,’ says Wallace as a millimetre-perfect recreation of Rachel sashays into the room. ‘Did you miss me?’ she says, totally believable. ‘Don’t you love me?’ Deckard is stunned by being confronted by something so beautiful, that he loves so much, but that he thought long gone and that has been made anew. So are we.
Ten wooden horses out 10