thanks to DanielSTL via Flickr
The thought of a sequel to director Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi masterpiece seems like big screen suicide. Blade Runner may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but few can argue with the fact it stands as an iconic piece of cinema, one that has influenced almost every vision of the future since. How could any modern film compete with those lush, disturbing visuals, the moral murkiness and philosophical musings of that movie?
Impossibly, this belated sequel from director Denis Villeneuve succeeds on just about every level. And not simply in the sense that this is an adequate follow up. No, Blade Runner 2049 is a magnificent piece of cinema in its own right – it soars with heady ideas, astonishing images and a slow-burning melancholy that bleeds through every frame.
The less you know about its intriguing premise the better. To give a spoiler-free bit of set-up, however, we follow Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner – part detective, part hitman - dedicated to hunting and ‘retiring’ (i.e. executing) rogue replicants, lifelike androids used as a slave workforce by their human masters. On one such mission, K makes a long-buried discovery that could have huge ramifications for the fabric of this future society, and brings new urgency to his next mission. And all the while he starts to question the meaning of his place in the world.
Blade Runner 2049 absolutely honours the original film, but also stakes out its own territory. It expands and enriches the universe built by Ridley Scott, exploring themes of loneliness, identity, purpose, and the notion of what it is to be human – and perhaps even to possess a soul.
If this sounds like lofty stuff, that’s because it is, all done with a fierce intelligence and a beating heart. It is also, as you would hope, brilliantly realised from the first frame of film to the last. The visuals are jaw-dropping and gorgeously atmospheric – from vast agricultural landscapes, to garish, neon-lit cityscapes, through to rust-hued radioactive deserts. This is a film that will not wait for TV – it demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
And yet none of that spectacle overwhelms its enormous emotional resonance – one that most blockbuster scale films can scarcely dream of. It is profound, haunting – at times achingly sad - and will likely be kicking around in your head for days to come.
The trailers have sold this as an action film; probably best to ignore them. While there are certainly some tremendously visceral moments, they usually come in short, sharp bursts. The film moves at a deliberate, controlled pace, with none of the manic overediting that blights so many movies these days. That’s not to say it’s slow – simply that it takes the time to let its ideas grow and take hold of you, to let its atmosphere seep from the screen. When the action hits it comes as earned moments of tension and excitement.
K himself is a slightly more optimistic character than Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard ever was, even in the eye of his existential storm. His journey is utterly compelling and unexpectedly moving, all beautifully underplayed by Gosling. Speaking of Ford, he, too, is on excellent form – his best for years – as the returning Deckard. He’s absent for much of the film, but when he makes his appearance it offers far more than movie-star fan service or a cocksure Indy/ Han impersonation.
The entire cast delivers great performances. Ana de Armas is unexpectedly soulful as a holographic artificial intelligence called Joi, while Sylvia Hoeks is formidable as replicant Luv – an enigmatic figure who cuts a swathe through the whole film. Sterling support comes from Robin Wright, Lennie James and Dave Bautista, all investing their characters with depth regardless of their screentime. The only slight off-note comes from Jared Leto’s replicant-creator, Niander Wallace, who veers a little into Bond villain megalomania for comfort.
Like the first film, not everyone will love this – it, too, may divide, frustrate and won’t be to all tastes. But for those of us who are on board, this is one of the most awe-inspiring jolts of cinema in years.
When this project was announced, it seemed that the best we could reasonably hope for was a sequel that wouldn’t undermine the original film (a feat Ridley Scott’s own recent Alien prequels have struggled with). How amazing, then, that against all the odds this film is so much more. It seems hard to believe a movie like this even got made, so starkly at odds as it is with modern movie conventions. It’s an incredible feat from Villeneuve (director of last year’s excellent Arrival) returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a dazzling, evocative achievement that demands multiple viewings and will be rewarding its audience for years to come. It's a modern classic in its own right.