Blade Runner 2049 Review

Settling down to view Blade Runner 2049 at the Imax in Manchester, the preceding trailers appeared as a timely reminder of cinematic disappointment. Familiar blockbuster franchises beamed across the gigantic screen in new guises –  Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League – barely capable of papering over the tired tropes, numbing action and stale characters. In a world of safe uninspired reboots, sequels and spin-offs ready to milk the last drops of worth from their cultural cash cows, Blade Runner 2049, in true noir fashion, felt destined for failure. Yet instead of constructing a hollow Replicant of its 35 year old predecessor, director Denis Villeneuve has crafted a sequel of staggering visual supremacy and boundless innovation worthy of Ridley Scott’s original vision.

In the intervening 35 years since Blade Runner little has changed in its dystopian Los Angeles; a deluge of rain pounds the Brutalist fragments, Replicants remain ubiquitous and ‘blade runners’ still scour the landscape hunting AWOL androids. 2049 opens to K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant ‘blade runner’, encountering an old model Replicant in the charred outskirts of LA. The Replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), refuses to go quietly, but before K decommissions him Morton goads his killer with a phrase of enigmatic significance; “You’ve never seen a miracle”. On Morton’s farm, K makes a discovery capable of destroying the delicate balance of power between human and Replicant; the skeletal remains of a Replicant found to be capable of the seemingly impossible; childbirth. While K’s fierce police superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to find and destroy the mystery child, megalomaniac Replicant manufacture Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) envisions the miracle child as the key to his ambitious plans.

The original Blade Runner’s most venerated element was its paradoxically retro-futuristic urban landscape. Scott combined the shadowy underworld of Film Noir, the abrasive fashion of Punk and a parallel America overrun by Asian influence with hectic noddle bars and garish neon glows. If Blade Runner’s ‘cyber punk’ vision was anchored around the idea of cramped and dehumanising urbanisation, then 2049 is centred around alienation and isolation. K’s mission takes him away from the claustrophobic alleys and into the remains of California; sterile plains, the industrial dumping grounds of San Diego, an abandoned Las Vegas coated in an eradiated orange haze and Wallace Corporation’s Feng Shui blend of wood, water and shadows. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins imbues these varied locations with their own vivid, breath-taking essences that glow, shimmer and sprawl with supreme authenticity.

2049’s world building is a dizzying experience capable of lulling us into questioning our own understanding of what is real and what is not. Villeneuve’s achieves this disorienting spectacle through an obsessive attention to detail and a wealth of inspired designs anchored in 2017’s technological innovations. In one of the film’s standout set-pieces a fistfight unfurls within one of Las Vegas’ derelict bars with distorted holograms of Liberace, Elvis and Marylin Monroe ghosting through the backdrop. In another instance of pure inspiration, the imprisoned Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) crafts virtual reality memories to implant in Replicants, chillingly calling into question the validity of our own history and memory. Within this wealth of technological innovation K’s holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) presents the greatest extension of Blade Runners’ central question – what is it to be human? With a strong resemblance to Spike Jonze’s superb Her, Joi ambiguously straddles a life between human-esq sentience and merely servicing the subconscious desires of K. In a film that’s typified by an air of cool detachment the irony is not lost on the fact Joi offers a warmth and humility void from the supposedly superior human and replicant forms.

2049’s unconventional beauty resonates from its ability to present the familiar, even retro with its nods to Pan Am and Frank Sinatra, with a foot firmly planted in the exotic future. At times this focus on spectacle, and 2049 is the cinematic sublime, overwhelms the actual narrative. Equally imposing is Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s soundscape. While a faithfully reworking of Vangelis’ seminal electronic score, at times the sonic booms and thundering bass rupture the immersive experience with their sheer might.

In contrast to Blade Runner’s loose narrative driven by existential quandaries, 2049’s central quest for the miracle child drives the film. Unfortunately, this focal narrative fails to capture the imagination like the questions of identity, sentience and humanity that permeate every dark corner of Blade Runner’s universe. As a major Hollywood blockbuster, it’s unsurprising that Villeneuve has had to make concessions in his storytelling, offering something far more conventional and linear than the original. The obligatory linear narrative, reminiscent of Children of Men’s quest for another miracle birth, along with Jared Leto’s hackneyed Bond-esq villain are the casualties of this attempt to broaden the film’s appeal. Nevertheless, Villeneuve is still able to inject a deft twist to proceedings evocative of his own astounding sci-fi effort Arrival.  It’s hard to imagine now, but Blade Runner was a commercial flop on its initial release which offers a reasoning behind 2049’s attempt at a more conventional, cautious, guise.

In contrast to Leto’s villainous pomposity is Ryan Gosling’s typically understated, but entirely appropriate, performance. As K, he internalises his anxiety over his increasingly elusive identity whilst maintaining a hardened intensity befitting of a grizzled ‘blade runner’. K’s very own name is a sly nod to Kafka’s protagonists, Joseph K and K., and their existential struggles in an absurd world. In contrast to Deckard, who is suitably worn and weary compared to the bravado of his youthful self, K offers a much bleaker protagonist befitting of a world typified by civilisation’s, both human and robotic, increasingly distant relations. Perhaps 2049’s biggest disappointment is the lack of antagonists capable of rivalling the poetic lunacy of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty or Daryl Hannah’s acrobatic killer Pris Stratton. 2049’s closet alternative is Sylvia Hoeks’ cynical, violent henchman Luv. Luv’s erratic temperament hints at deeper world of trauma, but ultimately her obedience to Wallace prevents her from a greater sense of purpose.

2049 is not a perfect film, however it may well be the closest we shall come to a perfect blockbuster. Villeneuve, Deakins and Zimmer are a cinematic dream team at the peak of their powers, and 2049’s aural and visual landscape is an astounding joy to behold. The greatest compliment for 2049 is that at times it genuinely feels as if you’ve departed this world and stepped into another, one so real you can visualise through every door, down every alley and beyond every compact tenement building. Just as K feels the snow upon his hands and Joi revels in the rain on her skin, we too feel the reality of these potent hallucinations. The jolt of normality brings us to our senses, but if a film can produce a vision so believable does it matter whether it is merely a Replicant or real?

9/10 – K.