Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Jared Leto
Running time: 163 minutes
30 years after the events of Blade Runner, and the Earth’s eco-system is in tatters. The Tyrell empire has all but collapsed, a void filled by Niander (Leto) and his Wallace Corporation: responsible for creating fully-subservient next-gen Replicants. Officer K (Gosling) is a Blade Runner for the LAPD and tasked with hunting and ‘retiring’ the last of the rebellious Tyrell-era Nexus-8 Replicants. When a routine mission unearths a discovery that…
…and I’m going to have to stop me right there. Any more, and I’d be tip-toeing dangerously above spoiler territory. Just know this: the highly anticipated return to dystopian California is an astonishing work of cinematic artistry and one of the finest visual spectacles in decades.
If history is any indication, 21st century re-boots, and in particular Ridley Scott re-boots, should’ve been given the boot long before they graced our cinema screens – here’s looking at you, Covenant. So, take a film with an unprecedented cult following, bring back one of the most ambiguous characters in all of cinema, and make it nearly 3-hours long, and you wouldn’t be blamed for approaching with immense trepidation.
It’s one beacon of light in the build-up seemed to be Denis Villeneuve: the French-Canadian director who gave us impressively unorthodox blockbusters in the form of Sicario and Arrival. But the risks were high and the questions remained: how much creative control would he get? Would we get answers to the questions that have plagued us for 35-years? And, crucially, how do you go about not pissing off an entire generation of Deckard disciples?
We begin with a hovering LAPD patrol car cutting through the thick fog in the skies above rural America. Below, a beige landscape slowly reveals itself; a canvas with a distinct lack of green – a patchwork of industrial protein farms. Here, it’s quickly established that very little grows. It’s not the immediate plunge into the belly of the dystopian beast that we got with Scott’s opening establishing shot, but it’s just as strikingly bleak.
On the ground, Gosling’s Officer K is met with the twisted carcass of a leafless tree, and the bubbling of a solitary pot on a stove. Almost instantaneously, we are once again introduced to Blade Runner’s very distinct brand of Sci-Fi: a slow-burning narrative pace that gives precedence to richly thematic explorations over high-octane action sequences.
As stated previously, to say anymore would be too much. This is most certainly an experience best had with as little prior plot knowledge as possible going in. Blade Runner 2049 is so much more than a sequel though, and while a trip back to 1982’s version of 2019 would certainly be advised, Villeneuve’s creation is a masterpiece in its own right.
His vision of dystopian LA remains largely faithful to its predecessor, however: the bellowing, roaring tones of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch accompany us down the dark, rainy streets and between the brooding, towering high-rise buildings that splinter the skyline; each laden with sickly neon product placement, promises of life in an off-world colony, and 50-foot holograms of scantily-clad women. It’s a society simultaneously thriving and rotting from the inside out; a city that encapsulates the ravaging conflictions that exist within its inhabitants, just as it did 30-years previously. And epitomising such an existence is K: an obedient cog in the unforgiving urban machine; a Blade Runner in every way Deckard wasn’t. But slowly, his swirling, bruising journey eats away at such a façade, and his desire for more, and to be more, gradually comes to the fore.
In line with this, Villeneuve’s gaze, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins’ masterful eye, also stretches much further afield. With every step across scrapheap peaks erected from the junkyard terrain of San Diego, and every footprint left on the deep, dusty orange plains of a surreal looking Las Vegas, Blade Runner 2049 enriches its ever expanding physical and ambitiously thematic universe with increasing visual wonder.
And such cinematic prowess is enhanced further by rich and patient characterisation. Gosling is the perfect fit as K, combining Drive-esc off-centre charisma with a deepening enigma that aligns perfectly with the film’s philosophical musings. Ford arguably hits career-best heights, competently tackling uncharted territory as Deckard’s arc takes us to much deeper emotional levels, and equally ambiguous depths than we got first time around.
Arguably the most compelling turns, however, come in the most unexpected forms. Sylvia Hoeks, a virtual unknown by comparison, brings an impressively complex blend of menace and fragility as the Wallace Corporation Replicant enforcer Luv, in a role that might otherwise have been as unremarkably generic as they come. And Ana de Armas masterfully channels subdued vulnerability and quiet tragedy as K’s holographic soulmate Joi (and Villeneuve’s finest creation here), where much is articulated from very little.
Despite such performances, however, there are less-than-subtle problems concerning the film’s overall depiction of its female presence. Largely characterised by their sexuality, the women are more often than not constructed as objects of the male gaze, and one cameo in particular feeling altogether misjudged when compared to how others are used elsewhere. Perhaps only a small blemish upon such a broad and spectacular pallet, but nevertheless, in a world of mind-frazzling concepts, it’s a shame the gender politics feel so regressive.
There’s tears. There’s rain. There’s revelations. More than a match for its predecessor, it will draw you in with captivating visuals, and spit you out questioning the very fibres of existence. A sequel we didn’t ask for, but boy are we glad we’ve got it. Put simply, Blade Runner 2049 is the closest thing to cinematic hypnosis this century.