Watched: 7 October
I must admit that I wasn’t initially keen on the prospect of a follow-up to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott’s put out enough variations on the original himself 😜), but like many sci-fi fans my expectations began to rise in tandem with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s stock during the past couple of years. And I felt some relief upon seeing the captivating opening shots of his latest film: Blade Runner 2049 begins with an extreme close-up of an eye, an image that makes an instant connection with the original movie, followed by a flying car as it approaches what seems to be a huge rural farm, where perhaps genetically-modified crops are grown en masse in order to feed the city-bound masses. This was clearly the same world that Philip K. Dick and Scott had created, the first on paper and the second on celluloid, yet it instantly felt different, Villeneuve clearly intending to show us more, to move the action outside of Los Angeles. The futuristic, industrial thrum on the soundtrack kicked in and, later, the simple sound of a pot boiling could be heard in a kitchen; different again, but also weirdly familiar too.
The sound design is one way that Villeneuve forges a link with the first movie, the sheer breadth and number of wonderful images we get to see of this futuristic, hellish version of LA another: the sequel is packed full of those vast cityscapes in which skyscrapers, air traffic and giant interactive adverts compete for space, and down on the teeming, rain-soaked streets it all seems to be one big, jumbled black market or red light district, as per Blade Runner. Though Harrison Ford does reprise his role as the closed-mouthed, weary detective Rick Deckard, Ryan Gosling takes over the lead role, playing another Blade Runner (‘K’) with an identity crisis tasked with ‘retiring’ or questioning replicants (essentially slave labour androids). Gosling’s studied blankness (or maybe even just ‘his blankness’) is a good fit, bringing to mind Ford’s Deckard long before the older man shows up. I think Gosling’s expressionless face may eventually do for him as an actor, despite his current popularity, but at least it makes sense within the story.
Visually, of course it’s all rather incredible, from the neat little touches in the city (Atari! Pan-Am!) to the eerie wastelands that lie outside of Los Angeles (there’s still a mysterious, eerie acceptance within this film that the world is as it is, though there are various nods toward a nuclear war and the effects of global warming). I liked very much the set design in K’s appartment and in the offices of insane CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), which echo Deckard’s living space and the Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters in the first film in a reasonably subtle fashion. So yes, it’s a wonderful spectacle on the big screen, with Roger Deakins’ cinematography rightly being lauded here, there and everywhere, and I very much want to see Blade Runner 2049 again at some point and wallow in this moody, lavishly-depicted world.
That all said, there are things that didn’t work for me. I think Leto’s over-the-top performance suits the film, but Blade Runner 2049 does seem to have a gaping hole where you might expect to find a larger-than-life Roy Batty-style antagonist; as the ultra-tough henchwoman Luv, Sylvia Hoeks certainly fits the bill physically, but she is given no memorable dialogue and that ultimately makes her character rather one-dimensional (the replicants of the first film had much more personality than those seen here). I also didn’t care at all for the slight whiff of franchise building that creeps in towards the end (even though it was a nice surprise to see Hiam Abbass pop up in a blockbuster), and I hope that we’re not now opening this up to a slew of sequels, as per that other sci-fi movie series initially created by Ridley Scott. Other criticisms that have been made about the film, such as the pace, running time and the depiction of some women within the story, didn’t bother me at all. I liked the slower pace, and the fact that it’s completely out-of-step with the kineticism of modern blockbusters. I also thought that the character who has been the focus of much of the criticism, Joi (Ana de Armas), is one of the primary ways in which Villeneuve explores one of the main themes of the first film, i.e. whether synthetic beings are able to experience love and desire. There is gratuitous nudity here, and though I don’t want to completely excuse that, it’s worth noting that it takes place within a seedy world in which many women work as prostitutes and female androids and holograms have been created for the sole purpose of giving men pleasure.
Despite some reservations I have about the plot, and how it affects readings of the first film, this is an excellent blockbuster that smartly takes the ideas and themes of Blade Runner in new directions and retains some of the look and feel while also feeling very much like Villeneuve’s own vision. Those yellows… the weird, ultimately empty and worthless AI relationship… the noodle stalls… the honks of machinery… the mix of races and cultures on street level… the throwaway idea that wood has become a valuable commodity in 2049… the relentlessness of corporations… the genetic leaps… the grim sense that humans never learn and keep fucking the world up. There is much food for thought, and it’s a delight to see on the big screen. (****½)