Ridley Scott made the original Blade Runner back in 1982, loosely based on Philip K Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, taking as many creative liberties as he could to give us the influential masterpiece it is today. It was also a decade which saw the rise of many unique cinematic visionaries, and Hollywood was not quite the franchise-churning machine it is today. While it is difficult to find modern visionaries in the rubble of superhero films and nostalgic sequels, there is one I have been keenly following for a while – Denis Villeneuve. Standing miles ahead of his peers with his previous films like Prisoners, Sicario and last year’s Arrival, he has just ventured into sequel territory (which usually means creative death), but comes out all guns blazing, with Blade Runner 2049. Unfortunately, Blade Runner does not enjoy a pop culture fan following à la Star Wars and Ghostbusters, a compromise it made when it opted for thematic depth over blockbuster entertainment. This was made evident when I saw that I was one of only 10 people at the screening, and the pitiful box office response.
The universe of Blade Runner is one that seems eerily near: one vacant of nature (there are characters who have never seen a tree, and a few grams of wood can buy you tickets off the planet), run by corporations and advertisements, and always on the brink of war. Blade Runner 2049 picks up 30 years after the events of its predecessor, in a world where the old model Replicants (human-like androids) have been banned and replaced by newer models that conform to their place in society. K (Ryan Gosling) is one such Replicant, employed by the LAPD head Madam (Robin Wright) as a blade runner, tasked with the specific mission to take out the older models. On one of these missions, he discovers something which throws open a potential conspiracy that could break the world as they know it. I would be doing a great injustice to the film by revealing any more, as it is a strange, meditative journey that you ought to experience first-hand, without any of it spoiled. To those who have not seen the original film:
(a) please stop whatever you’re doing and watch it right now;
(b) this is a duology that explores the moral concerns of artificial intelligence, rights of the creator and ultimately, what it means to be alive; and finally,
(c) do not ignore (a).
Progressing in the style of a detective tale, but with lots more to offer than just clues and twists, Villeneuve’s film craftily carries Ridley Scott’s vision into the further future, where the questions only get deeper and more unsettling.
Is 2049 as innovative or groundbreaking in its visuals as the original? No, but that cannot be held against it, since it had to necessarily continue the story in the same universe envisioned by Scott so many years ago. However, Roger Deakins proves to us once again why he sits on the throne of 21st century cinematography, by taking the foundations laid 35 years ago and adding a humbling richness only he can deliver. Everything from the aerial shots of LA to the sequences in Vegas speaks volumes of the age the film is set in, and the literal and metaphorical ruin it represents. The imagery in the film also toes the line between the monumental and the intimate, its quiet, unassuming brilliance seeping down to even the tiniest moments – and a particularly intimate scene towards the third act of the film says it all. Simply put, I cannot remember a recent film which has blown me away with its cinematography as much as this one.
This brilliant a visual style deserves the right background score to set the mood for taking it all in. If Vangelis masterfully wove together the sounds of film noir and cyber punk back in the day, 2049 has some of the best masters in Johann Johannsson and Hans Zimmer, adding to that unique sound a sense of grandiose and sadness that is carried by the protagonist K. A film not interested in pandering to its audience through unnecessary exposition, the majority of what is going on inside K’s head is communicated solely through the music and Ryan Gosling’s subtlety. Every single actor gives a terrific performance, arguably the best in their careers – with the highlights of the show being Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas (as a lower-level AI) and Jared Leto (as the creator of the new Replicants). Harrison Ford also proves that he cares about Blade Runner more than he lets on, giving his best in years.
Villeneuve, along with writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have successfully taken the themes and questions left open in the original, and updated them for the 30 years that have passed in between. In fact, the progression of society perspectives and the new normal they predict are so organic that it feels like the world of Blade Runner actually exists somewhere, and we’re merely offered a peek every few decades. Staying true to the ambiguous nature of the narrative, 2049 does not provide answers to the provoking ideas raised in 1982, but simply adds to them, with not a shade of heavy-handedness. It is so easy for a sequel to such a complex story to either lose itself in pretentiousness or simply devolve to a genre film befitting the times, but it found the perfect balance – to my unbounded delight (it’s safe to say this has just entered my list of the top sci-fi films of all time). My singular complaint with the film is the potential for more films stemming from the third act, which I am dreading might turn this unique neo-noir, science-fiction social commentary into a generic franchise at some point in the future. If you wish to see more innovation and intelligence in future cinema, I implore you to go watch this immediately: you will not be disappointed.