After three revisions and over two decades of development, Ridley Scott’s noir epic Blade Runner cemented its place as a cinematic cornerstone. From the gorgeous visuals to the incredible world being developed and explored on-screen, the 1982 cult-classic would become a game-changer for the science fiction genre, going on to influence movies, books, comics and video games alike. Raising questions about identity, the human condition, memories and morality, Blade Runner was less concerned with storytelling and more interested in the conflict of its themes. Returning to the dystopian vision of a future Los Angeles, Blade Runner 2049 delivers a gripping story, awesome twists and a cinematic style that feels like a love letter to the artistry of filmmaking.
Picking up three decades after the events of the original movie, 2049 follows K (Ryan Gosling), a police agent tasked with hunting down rogue Replicants and ‘retiring’ them. Replicants are artificial beings which, despite physically resembling humans in their appearance, they are developed with incredible strength and reflexes. In the future, these machines are essentially used for slave labour, forced to pick between a life of servitude or the life of an outlaw. At the scene of K’s latest retirement, he discovers a case buried beneath the ground containing human bones. As he begins to investigate the origin of the body, he finds himself thrust into a massive conspiracy that threatens to change everything we know and understand about what it means to be human.
As K, Gosling delivers a performance that, much like his turns in Drive and Only God Forgives, feels somewhat distant and stoic. However, the film lingers on the idea that K represents something more than just an executioner, and this is where Gosling gets to showcase his true pedigree. As the mystery unfolds, K is taken to many places physically and emotionally, as his entire existence and creation are pulled into question – something Gosling conveys convincingly and accordingly. Sometimes a simple look, others a scream of blind rage that is raw and full of anguish.
It’s hard to go in-depth with a film of this magnitude, one that builds its own web of intrigue as well as spinning off of those woven throughout the first movie. In K’s quest to uncover the truth behind the mysteries, he finds Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who has been living in isolation. Ford too is phenomenal, his characterisation far more engaging than in the first film. Though Deckard’s cold exterior is undoubtedly part of his appeal, he’s much more exposed here. His displays of emotion are incredibly satisfying to watch, adding a sense of genuine passion that was arguably lacking from his romance with Rachael (Sean Young) in the original Blade Runner.
With Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve takes a brave venture into the dystopian world that was so brilliantly established in 1982. The thirty year gap between the events of the films allows the technology and detail of the world to better match our own. K has a digital girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas) who behaves much like Scarlett Johansson’s operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her. Although Joi is a physical hologram, her appearance is impeccably detailed through elements such as rain falling onto her skin, or hair being brushed behind her ear. The inclusion of Joi underlines the central conflict between humanity and the replicants, adding another layer of human life being simulated or man-made. Is Joi genuinely in love with K, or is she just a product responding to her user’s wants and desires?
The depiction of female characters in 2049 has sparked issue with certain audiences, who argue that their treatment is disposable. That being said, the character of Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is fascinating to watch. A ruthless, calculating replicant who, despite being driven to kill anything in her way, displays fleeting moments of genuine emotion and pain. There’s also Joshi (Robin Wright), who carries a strength and power that feels genuinely imposing, acting as a lieutenant over Agent K. When these two characters come face-to-face on the screen, it’s a beautifully tense moment that highlights not only the powerful performances of both women, but also the sheer perfection by Villeneuve, and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Deakins, who establishes and elaborates upon the world of the original, breaks away from Los Angeles to discover more striking destinations and locales. Much like David Fincher’s Seven, the original Blade Runner was permanently oppressed by the towering skyscrapers of the concrete jungle, and the relentless rain that set the tone throughout. Here, the film shoots in daylight, exposing barren plains of space, something that starkly contrasts with Scott’s vision of the future. From the junkyards where orphans are forced to slave away in Dickensian sweatshops, to the pollution-dense farm of Sappper Morton (Dave Bautista), we see the ramifications of humans living off-world, colonising and leaving Earth for the machines to inherit and suffer with. Every location is gorgeous and chilling, with the camera lingering on architecture and detail with patience and precision.
If you’re not prepared to stretch out your attention span and take in the world of Blade Runner 2049, a movie which moves along with a slow narrative pace, you may well want to give this a pass. For fans of the original, and those who consider themselves lovers of film as an art form, the film rewards in spades. Villeneuve assembles an immersive experience that is accompanied by a powerful score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, whose work does more than emulate Vangelis’ iconic score from the original.
There is so much that simply can’t be touched upon in a review like this to avoid spoilers, from the mystique of dark messiah-figure Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to an incredible and unexpected appearance that, as someone who considers the original my favourite movie of all time, reduced me to tears. Those who have followed Villeneuve’s recent cinematic career with Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival won’t be surprised to see the director hit the mark again, and for those who are looking for a Sci-Fi that questions the very nature of the human race, look no further. Blade Runner 2049 packs tension, mystery, a genuinely riveting storyline that it succeeds as a worthy sequel to the original. Don’t miss it.