After a patchy response from audiences and critics in 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner found, through various iterations and rereleases, widespread acclaim as a high-water mark for sci-fi cinema. With its reflections on life and humanity, and an ambiguous central conundrum, the movie is held by many in great esteem, myself included. A sequel this late in the day, with the bar raised so high, is naturally going to invoke feelings of apprehension among a hopeful audience.
Any write-up must also necessarily undertake the tricky business of skirting around the particulars of the plot – at the insistence of director Denis Villeneuve, whose warning not to spoil any story details preceded the preview screening I saw.
Los Angeles in 2049: glittering in the ghostly light of 20-storey advertisements, constantly ringing to the noise of traffic, and often raining. The Tyrell Corporation has long since ceased to trade. In its place the Wallace Corporation holds sway over the technological Christmas lists of consumers and constructs the newer breed of replicants: sophisticated androids that have helped humanity colonise nearby planets. Older models, including leftover Nexus 8 examples created by Tyrell, continue to exist illicitly at the margins of society and are hunted by Blade Runners – LAPD cops tasked with detecting and “retiring” the trespassing machines.
It is on an apparently routine job that Blade Runner Officer K (Ryan Gosling) uncovers information about a missing child, piquing the interest of the Wallace Corporation and its enigmatic head Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and unravelling a case that appears to have links to a previous decades-old one involving the long-missing Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
Co-written by original Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher along with Michael Green, the script, much like its forebear (and the novel that inspired it), dwells on existential dilemmas including the ultimate nature of humanity, identity and freedom. K reassures himself as he earnestly confides in his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), that he has never retired anything that has been born and thus has a soul. His post-mission debriefs include a hectic variation of a call-and-response game involving passages from Nabokov’s meditative Pale Fire. The thematic reflections take an extra consumerist step, too. K’s girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is an interactive AI hologram who lives in a USB stick and has the ability to switch outfits and hairstyles in an instant depending on K’s mood. Acutely aware of, or perhaps programmed to acknowledge, her own ersatz nature, she wishes she could be more real for him despite his insistence that he loves her.
The world that Villeneuve has created, with help from veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins and support from musicians Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, is dumbfounding by virtue of its variety and the sheer scale of its dizzying and often oppressive nature. Blade Runner 2049 begins in the windswept concentric circles of a plastic-wrapped protein farm and journeys through stark, clinical cells, across golden deserts and frequently down rain-soaked alleys bathed in neon, in the shadow of hulking towers. A synth-heavy score, throwing back to the Vangelis original, combines with the visuals to create a photographic and aural experience that is as luxurious and spectacular as anything else in sci-fi. A stand-out set-piece fight in a Las Vegas casino showroom, set to an Elvis Presley accompaniment, plays out like a thrilling cat-and-mouse showdown like the Clash of the Titans Perseus v Medusa scene transported to a disco.
Narratively, it plays out pretty simply, but always intriguingly and as a very slow burner. Villeneuve is clearly in no hurry to cut to the chase, and crafts a drip-feed narrative that is hugely at odds with the crash, bang, wallop of the disappointing trailers that heralded the movie’s arrival. On a few occasions I thought to myself that the story was taking a long time to get anywhere, and I was immensely glad that was the case.
Blade Runner 2049 is an hallucinatory assault on the eyes and ears, that cuts no corners and offers little succour to viewers with a short attention span. Occasionally, you watch a movie that so thoroughly transports and involves you that it feels a privilege to have been in the audience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those movies.
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Scr: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista
Prd: Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Bud Yorkin, Cynthia Yorkin
DOP: Roger Deakins
Music: Hans Zimmer, Benjamin Wallfisch
Runtime: 163 minutes