Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana De Armas
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running Time: 162 mins
Synopsis: Set 30 years after the events of the first film left Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Ford) on the run, we meet Officer K (Gosling). A fellow Blade Runner for the LAPD tasked with hunting down obsolete Replicants. An encounter with one reveals a long buried secret that could break the foundation of society, and drives K to hunt for the elusive Deckard to seek answers.
I want to open this review with a bout of honesty, that will be sacrilegious to some. I have my issues with Blade Runner. The 1982 Ridley Scott directed sci-fi is certainly an influential visual masterpiece. Its dystopian imagery and evocative detail becoming a touchstone of the genre for years to come. There is beauty in its noir form too, elusive characters, moody setting and thematic storytelling giving the audience deep rivers of complexity, explaining its heated discussions in film study groups for years to come. However its commitment to theme and mood overwhelms an emotional connection. Lead hero Deckard kept at arms length from the viewer, not to mention the troubled Replicants (artificial humans designed for off-world colonisation in case you were unaware) never truly selling their conflicted desires towards humanity, despite Rutger Hauer’s fantastic work in the closing scenes. It is also ponderous, slow and pretty terrible in the action department.
The reason for this preamble is to give you clarity around my expectations for this hugely delayed follow up. Most sequels that release decades after their last instalment (Blade Runner was 35 years ago now) carry immense weight to deliver as well as the last one, hardcore fans being the hardest of those to truly please. I had none of those fears, all I wished for was a film that connected effectively with its predecessor, offering a visual and mindful treat for the senses. Fortunately director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) has delivered and then some. Producing something brooding yet gripping, affectionate rather than reverential and unlike the original hugely emotional.
In this age of spoilers and mystery plots it is hard to really delve into 2049 without spoiling major plot beats, so I will try my best to skirt the details. Opening 30 years after Blade Runner saw Detective Rick Deckard escape with his replicant lover Rachel to parts unknown, we meet Officer K. Tasked with hunting down old model replicants, now that the former Tyrell Corporation has been bought out and recommenced building new machines. A stark opening shot immediately clues us into the fact that this is Blade Runner but not as we know it. There is bright light, a clear horizon and not a brooding dense filled populace in sight. This giving me the perfect lead in to discuss the sense-defying work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Nominated over 10 times for an Academy award but still empty handed after all this time. 2049 should be the work that changes all this. Staggeringly composed, delicately framed and utilising environment in a way I’ve rarely seen. Sometimes it is almost hard to concentrate on the rest of the film when you’re met with image upon image of rapturous beauty. More than any other movie this year Blade Runner 2049 demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Enough with the fanboy enthusiasm and onto the rest of this wonderful film. After tracking down one such retrograde replicant K stumbles upon a hidden secret that threatens to unravel the carefully balanced world he resides in. The mystery itself is gently developed, the screenplay by Hampton Fancher (returning to the universe he helped create back in 1982) and Michael Green (Logan) taking its time to tease, twist and boost up the pertinent themes through the complex characterisation. Dominating the screen for almost its entire 162 minute running time is Ryan Gosling’s K. Tapping into that restrained subtle nuance he bought to cult classics such as Drive, he gives a graceful deeply controlled performance. Later outbursts of emotion feeling hard earned and palpable. K is a man fraught with notions of identity, purpose and desires to connect, culminating in a final scene of heartbreaking soul, equalling the finite moments of Hauer’s Roy Batty in the original with nary a word spoken.
The sheer genius of Villeneuve’s work is he uses the futuristic technology to further cement his themes. No more so than in K’s driven hope to connect with another individual and yet finding his only companionship in the virtual reality based Joi. Appearing whenever K needs her thanks to an adaptation that means he can carry her program in his pocket, Joi is loyal and loving. Yet her incessant need to please him and the constant flickering of her virtual persona reminding us of the tragedy of their kinship. Ana De Armas does a lot in a performance that veers into many facets, playful, sad and sexy. One seduction scene is hauntingly captured, in ways that are far too difficult to explain in a few words. Villeneuve clearly spending the time to only add new aspects to this world unless it makes story sense. Subtle updates to iconic vehicles or images from the first never feel overtly excessive or unnecessarily shoehorned in. The fact he has kept corporations that have long gone extinct but played a major visual role in the original (such as Atari) within 2049 showcases his affectionate nods to the past without the need for nostalgic explicitness. A major character cameo being the one exception, feeling wholly pointless and nothing more than fan service.
Speaking of cameos it is surprising to note that Harrison Ford’s much publicised return is quite brief. Arriving late in the picture but his presence hangs over the entire plot in unexpected ways. Grey of hair, weary but still capable of violence when required (a fight scene married to Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds is a joy) Ford gives Deckard far more depth than his 1982 outing. Saying anymore would constitute a huge spoiler but just know that Villeneuve has given Ford some of his toughest material in decades. One encounter with Jared Leto’s villainous corporation head is powerful, troubling and poignant. Ford gives it his all. The same cannot be said for Leto, whom despite only having about 3 scenes goes dreadfully over the top. As the head of the Wallace Corp, which took over the remnants of the Tyrell empire when it shut down, he desires for a world filled with replicants but it is hard to truly tell what exactly he is. Hints suggest he is in fact a replicant himself, but more often than not he just floats into a scene spouts some po-faced mumbo jumbo then leaves. As my cinema companion noted he becomes the Architect of the Blade Runner universe, that philosophy spouting bore who dragged The Matrix Reloaded into the realm of needless pretension.
The real villainy is saved for Sylvia Hoeks’s replicant assistant to Wallace, Luv. A formidably fierce hunter, her calm exterior hiding the monstrous determination within her core. You could argue her motivations are kept at a distance, seemingly just there to follow instructions, but she provides the film with the surprisingly small snippets of action. Blade Runner 2049, despite being an $100 million blockbuster, is remarkably absent of set-pieces. Similar to this summers War for the Planet of the Apes, the film prides dialogue, setting and drama over senseless noise. There is action, but it is short sharp and necessary. Villeneuve proving that should he ever wish to join the ranks of the Summer blockbuster season, he could handle it with brazen confidence.
In fact 2049 cements him as one of the greatest filmmakers working in mainstream cinema today. Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners, he continues that home run with a film dripping in masterful craft. Effects work is dazzling, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Walfisch continuing the seminal pieces by Vangelis with its symphonic electronica, and a deliberate pace that apes the first’s ponderous nature. Yes it is a tad overlong, likely turning off some viewers, but is never less than absorbing. Its themes of identity, love, memory, connection and ultimately humanity itself giving you plenty to chew on. This is a film that seeps into the mind, grips the heart (unlike the first) and consumes you. Blade Runner 2049 should be applauded. It may even please those hardcore fanboys ready to rage at its very existence, and you cannot ask for more than that.
Verdict: Slow and overlong, but captivating, haunting and thematically rich. Blade Runner 2049 confirms that Denis Villeneuve is a powerhouse director, Gosling is a masterful performer and belated follow ups can work. It is a masterpiece.