STARRING: Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto, Harrison Ford, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis
DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve
WRITTEN BY: Hampton Fancher (screenplay by), Michael Green (screenplay by), Hampton Fancher (story by)
When was the last time a blockbuster release was this intriguing? The overwhelming vibe in the build up to a fanboy-fever-inducing sci-fi (see also superhero, fantasy et al.) sequel is usually one of pure hype. Everyone wants to see the film in question because it is, well, the film. Rarely is there a concurrent feeling that it will be truly great. Remember The Force Awakens? J.J. Abrams behind the wheel; Disney as the backseat driver. We hoped it would be good, but deep down we knew we were only really excited because STAR WARS. The intrigue was missing.
When Blade Runner 2049 was announced, there was director Denis Villeneuve. And cinematographer Roger Deakins. And original co-writer Hampton Fancher. Naturally, there was hype – a real life Blade Runner sequel was being made – but with it came actual profound intrigue. This was going to be the real deal. It was going to be innovative. In blockbuster sequel terms, it was the unicorn. Months later, the finished article was unleashed to hushed, wide-eyed movie-goers around the world. The unicorn was real – that much we knew. But what did it bring us?
As the title suggests, it is 2049 – 30 years on from the events of Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 original. The Tyrell Corporation is gone; acquired after bankruptcy by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has successfully created a new line of replicants capable of living side-by-side with their makers. Now fully integrated into all corners of society, many replicants even serve as blade runners; “retiring” rogue older models. Alone in the “real” world, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K unearths the entrance to a rabbit hole that will spark a conflict laden with conspiracy and self-discovery…
Right off the bat, the defining quality of 2049 is the manner in which it treats its audience. Though it does not quite have the inescapable immersive atmosphere of Blade Runner (few films do), it does maintain a complex noir plot, delivered by way of unnerving misdirection, eventual revelations, and a need for committed patience. Seldom are we spoon-fed vital information. That feeling of confusion? That is your brain being challenged. At the movies. Feels weird, right? But oh-so satisfying.
Not to say the writing is perfect, but it is at least interesting. K’s journey is structured as a set of short interconnected chapters; some thought-provoking, others fleeting. The role is perfect for Gosling; his (re)strained emotions complimenting the gradual reveal of K’s deepest, darkest questions, fears and eventual quest for what he perceives to be freedom. In a heart-warmingly tragic, contemporary commentary on the blurred line that is “love” in a time when artificial intelligence is the norm, he shares his life and closest secrets with a hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas). The wonderful chemistry between the two – infused with gentle, tortured humour – strikes a chord throughout.
In the wider world, the technical prowess of Villeneuve and his team comes to the forefront. Demonstrating his continued refusal to adopt a signature style, instead adapting his direction to effortlessly take in, and ultimately reflect the tone of the production, Villeneuve succeeds in evolving the Blade Runner universe. The key development is the influx of natural light and wide open spaces into a previously claustrophobic environment shrouded in brooding darkness, representing the expanded scope and gravity of the characters and events therein.
The ironic beauty of the production, while outwardly designed to be far bigger and dig far deeper, is how understated each element. The production design is simply stunning, but Villeneuve does not pander to his audience by lingering in, or overplay Scott’s own iconic version of Los Angeles. The camera movement is subtle; almost following the action, rather than driving it, and ends up stationary a great deal of the time, allowing Deakins’s gorgeous framing and editor Joe Walker’s quite impeccably pacing to flourish. Even Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, which could so easily have been hammed up to the max under the influence of Vangelis’s classic original themes, simmers and hums in tune with the Villeneuve’s overall approach, punching up when required, but never needlessly dominating.
The creation of a more understated, ultimately rounded picture was always going to make it difficult to recreate the pure immersive atmosphere of its predecessor, and while the pacing is to be commended – the film does not feel its potentially off-putting length of 164 minutes – the content itself is not always as engaging as it could have been. K’s encounters, particularly during the first act, are either promising snippets of character development and thematic depth (primarily during his exchanges with Joi) or starkly empty plot pushers that suddenly force you to hang back emotionally.
Another issue as things progress is the lack of a fitting antagonist. Leto’s Wallace exists in the background, leaving Sylvia Hoek’s bland, Terminator-like replicant enforcer as the rather pointless straightforward doom-bringer. In a noir detective story of soul-searching excavation, the character feels hopelessly out of place and almost too traditional a villain – an aspect a Blade Runner sequel should really have done more with – even before comparisons to Rutger Hauer’s mighty Roy Batty.
When the cogs and gears align, however, 2049‘s second act comes alive in a show of flawless force. A poignant display of tender physical and emotional beauty (and an illustration of the quality of the production’s visual effects) between K, Joi, and prostitute Mariette (a brief, but memorable turn by Mackenzie Davis) is the first sequence to really exemplify this. And with that, Villeneuve and Co. hit the heights we were expecting, as K heads East to confront Harrison Ford’s Deckard in his gloriously metaphorical sinful surroundings. The throbbing sound design reaches its peak here, and incredibly Ford actually appears to give a damn, but when it comes to the nature of their encounter and how it plays out; that is a highlight I do not want to reveal a single iota of. Just remember it is coming.
The absolute definition of a “true” sequel (the original’s 2007 Final Cut is essential viewing beforehand), Blade Runner 2049 is proof that blockbuster audiences are intelligent enough to be challenged and still have the capacity to be thoroughly entertained. Though it is not without its flaws – the content does fall short either side of the second act – it is without doubt a technical masterpiece. Demonstrating Denis Villeneuve’s rapid, seemingly unstoppable rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood directors, 2049 should be seen on the big screen as soon as humanly (or not) possible.