To attempt a sequel of such an iconic, influential film as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a risky undertaking; waiting 35 years only ups the stakes. Yet this bold undertaking is so strange, thoughtful, moving and stunningly beautiful that it defies hype or cynicism. This is stand-out science fiction and cinema at its most ravishingly seductive.
Director Denis Villeneuve has made some of the best films of recent years, including last year’s alien science fiction Arrival; so Blade Runner was always in safe hands. At the same time, while drawing upon the themes and cyberpunk aesthetic of the original – and orchestrating the return of legendary star Harrison Ford – he’s crafted a highly distinctive work of his own.
In story terms, 30 years have passed since Ford’s Rick Deckard was finding life heavy going as a blade runner, an LA cop charged with hunting down highly sophisticated slave androids, replicants, who had gone rogue. Deckard ended that film fleeing the city with one such replicant, Rachel, with whom he’d fallen in love.
Scott’s dystopia has only got worse: pollution is even more toxic, climate change has caused a global famine that was barely survived, many still flee to a better life ‘off world’. Replicants are no less persecuted; while the newest models are now designed to be totally compliant, blade runners continue to hunt and ‘retire’ the older ones still in hiding.
In the years since the original, and fuelled by subsequent new cuts of the film, the discussion has raged as to whether Deckard himself is a replicant. And identity drives the new script. Suffice to say that the corporate branding of replicants as “more human than human” is extrapolated in such a way as to threaten this fictional society’s precarious stability and give some protagonists a profound existential crisis.
Ryan Gosling is the blade runner K, a dour loner who only relates to his virtual reality girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who dazzles with her costume changes but, with the exception of one memorable scene, can’t exactly deliver tangible companionship.
When despatching a replicant in the scorched countryside, K makes a discovery that throws everyone into a spin, notably his hardboiled boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and the replicant inventor Wallace (Jared Leto), a mad genius with a god complex. Joshi orders K to investigate; Wallace sends his most lethal replicant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow. All paths lead to the man who has been missing for 30 years: Deckard.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins and the production team build on the original’s template – the futuristic pyramids and giant advertising holograms, the East meets West cultural melting pot – to create one mesmerising image or sequence after another. One moment Deakins seems to have found a painterly way of shooting different gradations of grey; in another, K walks into a radioactive landscape soaked in orange; flying cars glide past buildings in a way that makes one’s jaw drop. With a hefty running time and a pace that has more in common with rigorous arthouse than mainstream blockbusters, Blade Runner 2049 plays like a particularly wondrous, slow-burn dream.
Yet the visuals never obscure character or the film’s pathos. A scene involving the memory maker, a woman who creates the memories that lend replicants an inkling of humanity, is heartbreaking; those involving the ironically named Luv, a kick-boxing villainess who has her nails done while orchestrating a drone strike, are fabulously good fun. And the confrontation between the determinedly low-key Gosling and the typically irascible Ford, each oozing charisma, completely fulfils its potential.
“Is it real,” K asks when Deckard gives his dog a drop of whisky. “I don’t know. Ask him.”
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald