Many things are certain in life. One such certainty is that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner will always hold a special place in my heart. A technical powerhouse, married to a complex interrogation of themes of enslavement and existentialism, it was defined within its generation as the thinking-man’s sci-fi.
Therefore, a sequel to such a profound filmic event would surely be scoffed at, not least of all by me. Yet Warner Bros. has accepted the challenge, hiring prolific filmmaker Denis Villeneuve to deliver the goods.
So how does Blade Runner 2049 fare? Is it a worthy successor to Scott’s original? Does it break any new ground? Are its themes as prominent now as they were in that previous film?
The answer to all three questions is a resounding yes. Jubilations and celebrations are in order. Villeneuve has reached for the impossible and dragged it to his knees, with a reflective, beautiful yet hard-hitting masterpiece.
Where to begin? With a synopsis? I think not. For if you are to truly experience the invigorating inventiveness of Villeneuve’s new film, you need to enter the auditorium with little to any expectation. Plot points must be avoided at all costs, save for two minor details: the film follows a new character, an LAPD Detective – or Blade Runner – that goes by the designation of K (Ryan Gosling), who eventually comes into contact with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the original film’s protagonist and a man with an elusive identity.
This is all I can allude to, for want of avoiding spoilers. Therefore, rather than focusing on the narrative, I will instead focus on Blade Runner 2049’s three strongest aspects: its weighty ideas, stunning imagery and emotive performances.
Firstly, rather than squandering this opportunity to deepen the mythology and philosophy of Scott’s film, Villeneuve and his writing team (returning writer Hampton Fincher and Logan’s Michael Green penned the script) have collaborated quite extensively to not only touch upon motifs from the previous film, but to introduce new layers and quandaries that widen the emotional impact of its narrative. The aforementioned themes of enslavement and existentialism are at the forefront of Villeneuve’s new vision, yet they are fleshed out, polished and thoughtfully guided down new avenues that cancel out any suspicions that this sequel would tread the same ground as the first. It’s an overwhelming concoction that left me floored as I left the screening, unable to immediately process my reflections, a promise worth the price of admission alone in this derivative decade of uninspired action movies.
Furthermore, it is without a shadow of a doubt that I finally make the claim that any one of us film fans has been waiting for: thirteen-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins will finally nab his golden statue. The visual poetry he brings to celluloid is astonishing: from the vibrant flashes of neon light across the cityscape, to the rouge-tinted dust plains of a cataclysmic Las Vegas, Deakins produces a painterly aesthetic within every frame. It is rare to feel transported into a world, but with Deakins’ photography and cinema’s strongest visual effects to date, Blade Runner 2049 fills the void of the film screen with sheer ambition and illuminating scale. If you want a guaranteed win at the betting station, always bet on Deakins to deliver.
Finally, the performances that Villeneuve extracts from his actors should, and certainly will elicit high praise. The most noticeable of these is Harrison Ford. A veteran film star, Ford rarely gets to flex his dramatic muscles, nowadays typecast as the grumbly, grouchy grandad of sorts. However, Ford supplies what is arguably his finest work yet, for the limited screen-time that he himself possesses. Highly emotive yet grounded in an ambiguity as to his true nature, Ford brings Deckard out of the ashes of uncertainty and into the light again, a definitive anti-hero for the ages. Furthermore, Ryan Gosling continues his run of impressive displays of talent with yet another challenging role. From last year’s lovingly optimistic La La Land to this new character that demands a passivity teetering on the edge of violent outburst, Gosling is the contemporary actor to turn to if you desire range, maturity and authenticity. We believe every word, every move, every moment. A cracking double-act made all the better from a brilliant assembly of supporting performances, the standout being Ana de Armas’ jovial, infectious portrayal of advanced artificial intelligence programme Joi. Suffice to say that she is the rare glimmer of hope within this morally-decrepit vision of the future, and without her, the film would certainly lose some of its soul.
It was always going to be difficult to review this film. The narrative is a tightly-knit, interwoven tapestry of philosophical and psychological delights, but can only be appreciated without anticipation. This is a film that asks you to ponder, draws you into its darkest corners and begs you to contemplate it hours after it has left you in its audacious shadow. It is a film that demands repeat viewings, in order to extrapolate the metaphors, the intertextual references to that film which came before, the foreshadowing of our own possible future. But all of this has to come from the screening: do not watch any promotional material, but take yourself off to the cinema to experience it fresh and in the flesh.
To avoid sounding overly cryptic, I can all but affirm that the optical and technical splendour of the production itself is enough to warrant a ticket. With a score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch that does justice to Vangelis’ seminal soundtrack – with electrical riffs that palpitate through its baritone hums and slow but serene symphonies – to Deakins’ supreme cinematography and Dennis Gassner’s provocative production design, it’s a feast of cinematic treats. However, this is just the outer shell to a soulful, impactful narrative centre that defines it as the prodigiously powerful film that it is.
It is the must-see film event of this year. Villeneuve has outdone himself and crafted a classic, a striking and sagacious artwork that will be considered as one of the great sequels of all time.