Point of note, I will not be discussing any of the plot per se because that in itself is a spoiler and is better to be discovered on your own. I don’t always feel this way but this film has elements that need to be experienced without pretext, it will undoubtedly enhance your viewing experience.
When Blade Runner came out in 1982, it took a while to gain traction and gained mixed reviews from fans and critics. But it did attain a cult following and subsequent special editions released over the years eventually finally gave way to sequel talk. It wasn’t until 2011 that Ridley Scott would officially announce that he was working on a Blade Runner sequel with his brother Tony. Flash forward to 2015 and it is announced that Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) was hired to direct and Scott would produce. Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling were brought on board and principal photography began in July of 2016.
So, what would a sequel to one of the most popular sci-fi movies of all time look like? How would fans of the original react to seeing an updated version of a world so meticulous in its design and execution? As one of those fans I can tell you that Blade Runner 2049 easily matches its predecessor and bests it in some ways.
Blade Runner 2049 is exactly the kind of non-ubiquitous genre film we don’t see anymore in mainstream formats with studios preferring to hedge their bets. These films are typically seen as too avant-garde for the broad movie going audience and die in the festival circuit. Villeneuve is no stranger to this with his films garnering very high critical acclaim and award attention but not much in box office return.
But what he’s done here by tweaking the narrative just slightly is add a fourth dimension to a now overplayed artificial intelligence genre. There is the odd occasion where a director manages to tap into our loathing and self doubt and turn that into fear when being confronted with something so familiar but clearly the next stage in evolution. This isn’t a Turing test so much as an exploration of our place in the universe.
Ex Machina directed by Alex Garland was just about the best film ever concerning artificial intelligence but it was so based in reality it was more of a case of our not so distant future looking back at us. Blade Runner on the other hand, and the novel, while presenting us with environmental and industrial challenges that currently plague us, has always been more fiction than science. Forcing us to e-test ourselves while we put would be replicants through the Voight-Kampff machine. Not to say the issue isn’t a mainstay of this continued universe. After all like the first film, this movie is full of characters who are nomadic at best. They exist in a universe where they have no place to call home and are plagued with thoughts, images and yearnings that they can’t decipher if they are genuine.
The film is a test of will with a 2 hour and 45 minute running time (including credits) and the pace is hypnotic, methodical, surgical and entirely purposeful. That slight humming you hear just beneath the surface isn’t the natural vibration of the earth, it’s the worm beneath the sand that Denis Villeneuve has implanted in your brain. He is absolutely at his best, which I thought would be arduous after 2015’s Arrival but what he’s managed to do here is something likely only 2 or 3 directors on the planet could have done.
He made a great piece of science fiction even greater and did so by simply trusting his skills, his passion and putting the right people in place. Not to slag the performances in the film, they were serviceable at times and very good at others but the stars of this film are clearly Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins will most assuredly be around during award season as he’s created a literal seascape of rich atmospheric environments that almost come alive at times. The visuals are almost part of the cast as they seem emotive and surreal like a living world, in fact interaction between the citizens and cities and outer rim areas is a key part of narrative.
Creating a planet’s worth of environmental landscape in basically Southern California is familiar to the post-apocalyptic motif but Deakins has pieced them together here so seamlessly that you don’t question it one bit. It seems completely normal and is never thought of as being out of step with the rest of the films components.
That’s probably my best compliment is that all the pieces they’ve assembled work so well together that the sum of its parts does equal greatness. It dutifully covers up small cracks that would otherwise stand out in a lesser film.
Speaking of, the cast he assembled feels more like he’s playing moneyball rather than creating moments for exceptional individual performances. Other than the almost obligatory inclusion of Harrison Ford, you could have handed him a cast of newcomers or nobody’s and he likely would have had the same result. If you’ve seen the trailers then it’s easy to figure out who’s who and that’s one thing that’s remarkably clear from the very beginning. There’s no doubt who the bad people are and who the good people are, basically those lines aren’t blurred, it’s just the motivations for their actions aren’t made entirely clear or presented in a convincing way.
So if I had to pick on anything it would be the performances which seemed a little too sullen at times. The culprit is likely too many plot threads for the characters to gain any real traction but they service the needs of the story, besides everything else about this film is so on point it’s certainly not a death note.
I will give credit to a few of the cast members for inspired work. Ryan Gosling without saying much is as strong a lead as almost anyone out there and I really love the choices he makes. In supporting roles Ana de Armas and Dave Bautista really shine in smaller but vitally important parts. It’s obvious they really bought into what story Villeneuve was trying to tell.
The performances in the original were congealed but inspired, held within an insular framework. In 2049 they are part of a much larger world and seem predictably lost in that space. Another befuddled decision is not having any interaction between the two leads, in fact Leto and Gosling have no interaction whatsoever. A bold choice but I would have sacrificed a thread or two to have them enter into a meaningful dialogue. And Leto would’ve benefited the most from an antagonistic scene since overall he’s the weakest in the film, in fact I would say Leto’s part as Niander Wallace was largely unexplored and oddly out of rhythm.
The score is the combined efforts of Hanz Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, whom were brought in to replace Johann Johannson at one point. Without knowing Johannson’s effort, I can say the final result coincides with the striking imagery. It’s the soft and delicate digital sequencing bits that stood out for me. These are noticeable amongst the loud Zimmer bravado that we’ve gotten used to the last couple of years. Think the quiet moments of Ex Machina combined with the beautiful French horns from the Dark Knight. These two have struck gold twice this year now as the pair also knocked out the score for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk earlier in the year.
The story by Hampton Fancher is a natural one and a logical next step in the Blade Runner series. It evolves where it needs to and treads just enough on previous material as to not bring the film to a halt. Sure, it gets messy in the middle act but those issues disappear as characters do so you’re not necessarily feeling empty by the end.
Overall this movie does what a good sequel is supposed to do. It builds and expands on the previous iteration without seeming clichéd or tropey all the while ringing familiar enough that you’re not wasting time wondering what world you’re in. It is a Blade Runner film and it makes no apology for that but why should it?
I don’t rate films because the scale would logically be out of a 1000 but this film is one of the years best so far hands down and is a must see for fans of sci-fi and the original Blade Runner. I believe Villeneuve is one of the top directors in the world and I have no doubt this film will garner him great praise. There were a handful of films I wished he’d done now after watching this and I’m very much looking forward to his next one.
Till next time…