Review: Blade Runner 2049

A remarkably unique sequel, Blade Runner 2049 combines stunning visuals and a weighty plot with a markedly considered pace, creating a great sci-fi thriller.

Decades after “blade runner” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) disappeared, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is now tasked with relentlessly hunting down older, non-compliant versions of replicants, androids nearly indistinguishable from humans. He makes a discovery that could change the world, for better or worse, and starts to dig deeper.

Even from five minutes in, the film is filled with twists, turns and revelations. Suffice to say, you probably won’t expect this to go where it does given the first movie. This is part of the reason why I liked it, though I can see (particularly with one of the bigger central plot points) why many might not! Perhaps the best aspect of the story and themes are that they look intelligently at man versus machine, and the variations within the latter in this world, raising questions of feeling and purpose, and at times (much like the original) making you come down firmly on the side of the latter.

Director Denis Villeneuve follows Arrival with another intelligent, tense and detailed thriller, helped ably by the expansive screenplay from the original’s writer Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. He helps you slip back into the world despite its changes in the interim, like Ridley Scott before him adapting Philip K Dick’s source into something more evocative, yet still full of questions as to our relationship with technology.

The French-Canadian’s intrinsic ability to stage and maintain creeping, slow-paced scenes filled with tension is everpresent in 2049, and he presents events in a series of slow, stunning reveals while tightening the proverbial screws. There is little action needed, and there are certainly (until the conclusion) no huge set pieces. That which does take place revolves tightly around the story, and the contrasts between man and machine, as well as where those lines blur. Those with a short attention span or waiting for punches, gunshots and set-tos should probably be aware of this before they watch.

This was music to my ears, and though the film is pretty long (two and three quarter hours!), this gives the story a luxurious amount of time to spread out and develop. Characters are introduced and given time to actually talk about their motivations, with even smaller appearances given a chance to make a mark. The weighty questions at play are also granted extra screentime to lodge in your mind, leaving you more engaged in characters and motivations than perhaps the first allowed us to be.

Ryan Gosling is very well suited for the enigmatic role of K, and his performance subtly changes over the course of events to leave a quite strong (if understated) impression, while Ford reprises yet another famous role with something approaching actual enthusiasm. You can clearly tell the famous actor was drawn back by the story and the character’s mixed motivations, and he plumbs surprising range in a series of combative and emotional scenes.

Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks impact as, respectively, K’s companion Joi and mercenary replicant Luv. Again, to say too much about the characters would spoil the plot, but de Armas gives a notable, emotional performance, her role provoking some of the most interesting questions that the film raises on the connection between its different types of character.

Hoeks unnerves as the new, compliant type of replicant, tautly controlled, slightly unhinged yet determined to serve her master’s best interests. She strains for primacy over her fellow machines, reflected in unemotional, random crying (deepening that uncomfortable feeling you get about the replicants imitating human behaviour).

Jared Leto is remarkably restrained and surprisingly creepy in just a few scenes as Neander Wallace (the new replicant manufacturer), while Dave Bautista makes an impact in a near-cameo, highlighting his range and presence and presenting ability beyond his lunkhead comedy in the Guardians of the Galaxy series. There are also notable but small appearances from Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James, as well as some surprise cameos…

Blade Runner tied in noir tropes with dystopian future visuals and sounds, the latter two elements taken to satisfying extremes here by cinematographer Roger Deakins and composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer. It was always going to be hard to top the influential, distinctive future LA of the original, but Deakins accentuates stunning sets and vistas with pale, ghostly whites, muted neons and hazy oranges to build on and push forward (in film time) the evolution of the alternate society’s look and feel.

It looks fantastic, and the use of largely practical effects (alongside CGI artfully supporting, rather than supplanting them) only builds on the tangible, lived-in feeling. Musically, the film was originally set to be scored by regular Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson, who departed at a late stage to be replaced by Wallfisch and the ever-present Zimmer.

Ironically, the score sounds far more like the Icelandic composer’s work, with brutal, atonal bursts of electronic booms punctuating scenes and accentuating a feeling of discomfort, as well as futurism. There is subtly clever reuse of some of Vangelis’ iconic score – a lot less than I would have expected – but when used it supports emotional feeling for those familiar with the original. Depending on how much involvement Zimmer had, this is perhaps one of the more interesting scores (read divisive) that he’s ever made, with this combination porting over Jóhannsson’s disquieting blasts and adding their own stamp.

I want to see this film again just to drink in the detail – and I think in time it will be considered one of the better sequels in its genre. For me, Denis Villeneuve can do no wrong so far, and as a sci-fi fan, I still can’t believe how many fantastic movies like this we are lucky enough to be getting in recent times. It’s a must for science fiction aficionados and a thought-provoking, visual stunner that deserves the recognition it’s getting.

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