REVIEW: ‘Blade Runner 2049’

A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.

A Chequered History of Classic Revivals

Recent history tells a muddled tale with regards to classic film resurrections. First up there’s the belated ‘origin story’ best exemplified by Ridley Scott’s return to the ‘Alien’ series he’d fathered over thirty years earlier. ‘Prometheus’ had a gorgeous surface, but this prequel lacked the substance to stand close to his original creation.

Next, we have the dreaded ‘remake’. When ‘Robocop’ was released in 2014 it couldn’t hold a candle to the ‘87 original, and like most of its kind, it’s already a distant memory. Two years ago, ‘Terminator Genisys’ tried to make the ‘reboot’ smart, but playing around with established films only gave the ailing franchise another false dawn.

1991’s ‘Judgment Day’ was one of the few times a resurgence got things right, a justified and straight-up sequel that expanded on its predecessor to become essential viewing.

 

Arriving thirty-five years after the original, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is also a sequel, albeit less direct, and whilst the time gap makes its necessity debatable, as an engaging and uncompromising piece of cinema, it should certainly be considered essential. It’s not just proof that visiting old ground can work, but that with the right team behind it, a follow-up can flourish.

An Immersive and Emotional Vision

The trailer hinted at the films visual beauty, but the well-judged reluctance to examine the film’s narrative pointed more towards a straight-up re-tread: Mackenzie Davis’ seemingly blatant Daryl Hannah copy and Ryan Gosling’s apparently cheap Harrison Ford clone indicators of another needless cash-in. But nothing could be further from the truth.

 

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is an immersive and emotional experience that from the outset pulls audience members in with a thrilling wash of synth and future-scape. We’re back in Ridley’s dystopian LA, but never has it looked so real, so daunting, so near and yet so far. Every frame in the film has something captivating to see; the two hours forty run-time entirely warranted as each minute offers a genuine visual delight whilst still driving the plot forwards.

Every minute offers a genuine visual delight whilst still driving the plot forwards

Far from burning out, Denis Villeneuve has surpassed himself with this, his fifth American film in as many years, and on the evidence of what he has achieved, the world must now truly be his oyster.

All Roads Lead to This

The double-hit of ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Enemy’ (both 2013) showcased Villeneuve’s striking use of shadow and shape alongside his capacity to draw from actors raw and charged emotion. The colour palette was washed out and grizzled, a reflection of the increasingly desperate individuals at the heart of both films.

‘Sicario’ (2015) demonstrated the director’s ability to lead an idealistic character through a desecrated landscape, forcing them to examine their beliefs as they’re challenged from within and outside of their own institution. Colour now played a more pivotal role, a powerful tool in the filmmaker’s continued investigation into symbolic, labyrinth-like images.

 

Science fiction ‘Arrival’ (2016) had enough ambition without the added pressure of it’s director now being judged as ‘the guy doing the new Blade Runner’, but most critics were silenced by a thought-provoking inspection of communication and barriers.

‘Blade Runner 2049’ now stands as the finest identifier of Denis Villeneuve’s storytelling talents

In hindsight it’s clear that thematically, conceptually and visually, all roads were leading Villeneuve towards ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and it now stands as the finest identifier of his storytelling talents. But the team behind the lens is only part of the puzzle, and with Harrison Ford back on board, the rest of the cast would be crucial to the success or failure of a sequel three and a half decades in the making.

Gosling is the Centre, Ford is the Core

The film focuses on Ryan Gosling’s quietly brilliant portrayal of ‘K’ – a Blade Runner who, unlike Harrison Ford’s Deckard, is unquestionably a replicant. The decision to make this known from the outset not only ensures that repeating the same tricks as the original is avoided, but also results in a ‘synthetic’ lead character ironically having more pathos than most human ones.

Gosling.jpeg

Gosling is ably supported by Robin Wright as steely ‘Lieutenant Joshi’, a surprisingly poignant Dave Bautista as ‘Sapper Morton’ and Ana de Armas as ‘Joi’, a character through whom much of the deeper concepts of the film run and an upgraded echo of the original movie’s ‘Rachael’.

A powerful ‘Hero’s Journey’ that examines love and creation through the ‘search for a soul’

Returning scribe Hampton Fancher (collaborating with Michael Green) has crafted a powerful ‘Hero’s Journey’ that examines themes of love and creation through K’s ‘search for a soul’. It’s a credit to the writers that far from the introduction of Harrison Ford feeling shoehorned into the story, his ‘Deckard’ is the emotional core – the ‘soul’ – of the narrative, and the first meeting of the two Blade Runners is one of the most exciting sequences in the film.

Blade Runner

Ford has been criticised in some quarters for his older ‘Deckard’, but his performance feels movingly honest, and one wordless, expressive moment reveals far more than his entire (and obligatory) ‘Han Solo’ performance in ‘The Force Awakens’. Jared Leto is no Rutger Hauer though, and his villainous ‘Niander Wallace’ is perhaps the most disappointing character of ‘2049’, his performance the least inspired.

One of the Years Finest

Some of the plot points in the detective side of the story are arguably a little predictable, meaning some of the ‘twists’ may not hold the water that the performances and visuals suggest. The accompanying music booms at all the right moments, the score very much operating as the ‘sequel’ to the original. Yet oddly, even after the removal of ‘Arrival’ composer Johann Johannsson from production, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch were still preferred to a Vangelis return.

Elements of the plot offer a window into the wider Blade Runner ‘universe’, hinting at more sequels to come, but if this is the case, the filmmakers will have their work cut out to rival a film that is undoubtedly one of – if not the – years finest.

BLADE 2049.pngFor more thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, check out the SideWays podcast!

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