Let’s get this out of the way first: Blade Runner 2049 has not resulted in the kind of film I feared it would be when I first heard that this belated sequel would happen and thought: “That has to be the worst idea in the history of bad ideas.”
Quite the opposite, in fact. Director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriters Hampton Fancher (also partly responsible for the original) & Michael Green, executive producer Ridley Scott and their crew have offered up one of the most powerful science fiction films of the new millennium. It’s been a long time, in fact, since we’ve been given a cinematic experience as pure as this.
Set 30 years after Scott’s classic, the sequel sees a mystery set in place when Ryan Gosling’s Blade Runner retires a Replicant-in-hiding who has been guarding a secret which could change the course of the world forever.
From just that plot description it’s clear this is no mere retread of the first movie, which had a fairly contained hunter versus hunted narrative.
Villeneuve and company paint on a much broader canvas, and this time the questions seem to revolve around not what it is to be human, but what it is to be more than human. It has an utterly palpable mood of tense gloom, giving you the constant feeling that something big and awful is about to happen, but it does this by widening the scope of Scott’s world, which is quite an act to pull off.
The music (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, with plenty of nods to Vangelis) is bold and wonderful, the sound design by Theo Green and Mark Mangini is overwhelming and the cinematography by the cinematic god that is Roger Deakins is dazzling and beautiful, all of which work together to produce something that absolutely demands to be seen on the big screen. As big a screen as possible.
Gosling is great in the lead (as ‘K’), and while it’s a little difficult to go into depth on his role while avoiding spoilers, he finds just the right balance of what must have been a tricky character to get right. The rest of the cast is filled out by superb actors who know how to make the best of smaller roles, but the film really belongs to Gosling and, of course, Harrison Ford.
Ford returns as Blade Runner, Deckard, and I honestly can’t recall when I last saw him so fully engaged and fully immersed in a role. He is magnificent, Deakins’ camera loving every deep crag and crevice on his sandblasted face, and is a full-on the movie star of the old guard. I hope this is the beginning of a renaissance for the actor, because I’ve missed seeing him do great work onscreen.
There is a slight thorn in this rose, however. An unfortunate element that stands out is that the future as presented here is very much patriarchal: street-walkers roam in packs, artificial women are everywhere, as companions and toys for men, their sole aim to pleasure. And there’s a great deal of violence towards women (four female characters are brutally murdered). This troublesome theme pushes to the forefront of the story with Jared Leto’s Wallace, as he casually kills one of the synthetics his company has just given birth to. It’s a (deliberately) horrific scene, and I’m still trying to decide whether this is a deliberate part of the texturing, a barbed comment on misogyny in society and even if so, whether it was a necessary choice for the film. I’m not so sure.
I love the original with a vengeance, and while I’m glad they didn’t attempt to replicate (…sorry…) that film, what results is a somewhat colder effort than Scott’s remarkable and enduring tone poem, and only time will tell whether this will similarly work its way into my affections.
It’s rather like hearing a new track by Led Zeppelin, riffing on one of your favourite Beatles songs, you know you’re getting something astonishing but you’re not sure if you’ll grow to love it.
However, against all the odds, Blade Runner 2049 is a towering achievement, a smart, powerful juggernaut of a movie which ultimately suggests something akin to hope for mankind. In an era of cookie cutter sequels that we’ve been given a sequel to a great movie that forges it’s own unique path is close to a miracle, which means that, much like the original, it’s a film which comments on its own premise (you’ll need to see the film to fully understand that).
Movies like this don’t come along too often and when they do we should celebrate them. Go to a cinema and experience it.