The smoggy skylines of the original Blade Runner (1982) first graced screens over thirty years ago, redefining science-fiction cinema like no other film since Metropolis (1927), a work to which it has always been, and will always will be, compared. It translated a whole sci-fi subgenre to the language of the movies, taking the cyberpunk literature of Philip K. Dick and turning it into a noirish neon detective story with an existentialist edge.
Blade Runner wasn’t a smash when it was first released, generating only round $6m in its opening weekend (versus a budget approaching $30m), yet since then it has gone on to be one of the most revered sci-fi films of all time. Despite the esteem in which it is held, a sequel has never really been demanded, yet ever since the first stills of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 were released, the film has been the subject of intense hype.
The quality of Villeneuve’s previous films no doubt contributed to the excitement that met the reveal of Blade Runner 2049, tightly-shot thrillers like Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) and, most recently, the more expansive Arrival (2016), another sci-fi that went a long way to assuring Blade Runner fans that the property was in safe hands.
The sequel, it is good to say, pays respect to its forebear without being in thrall to it. Villeneuve has taken the spirit of Blade Runner and, with cinematographer Roger Deakins, layered it with bold, expressive visuals, presenting the squalid metropolis of future Los Angeles even more vividly than the original.
Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years after the events of its predecessor. In that time, The Tyrell Corporation, the giant company responsible for the development of replicants, folded and was bought out. A new generation of replicants, more reliable and obedient than the old models, is now on the streets. Meanwhile, officer K (Ryan Gosling) is an LAPD blade runner, someone who ‘retires’ obsolete replicants. The opening of the film sees K arrive at a protein farm to bring in an old model called Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). This apparently routine case, however, sends K down a rabbit hole that leads him to question everything he has ever known.
The film’s most astonishing visuals arrive when the action moves away from the industrial piles of the inner city, such as in this opening scene. K’s emergence from the dewy mist of morning is an introduction cooler than anything in Drive (2011), and the pervasive amber smog of crumbling, irradiated Las Vegas conjures a sense of dystopia almost through colour alone.
The film’s vivid palette is matched by a shuddering soundtrack. Right from the opening, when K’s car speeds above the fields of sprawling protein farms, slick grey slabs as far as the eye can see, the sound of the future crashes around you. The deep, shaking bass and pounding drums have Hans Zimmer’s fingerprints all over them, but they are overlaid with a grinding synthetic buzz that leaves the music reverberating long after the final note has faded.
The Los Angeles of 2049 is a thoroughly built and utterly convincing world. Roger Deakins’ visual flair brings to life sets and costumes that at once seem futuristic but also entirely plausible. Many of the interiors look like those of the present day; Sapper Morton’s shack, with its threadbare kitchen and well-worn leather sofas, is marked as a home of the future only by subtle design choices, such as the rounded corners of his front door, slightly at odds with the abject interior it opens into.
These design choices are partly influenced by the characters to which they are linked. Morton, for example, is a relic of a former age, and his surroundings reflect his obsolescence. On the other end of the scale, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the new leader of the Tyrell Corporation and father of the latest generation of replicants, resides in a sparsely dressed tower, a giant modernist space that, despite appearances, is a technological Eden. Its minimalism no doubt derives from Wallace’s blindness – he relies on small teardrop-shaped drones to see – but the space also marks him as a visionary in other ways, a man who has far-reaching ambitions for his children, the replicants.
Where does K sit, in respect to these different realms? Much of Blade Runner 2049 is concerned with K seeking the answer to this, trying to find his place in the world. He is one of few characters that transitions between these different visions of the future, the sleek beauty of Wallace’s tower and the sodden gutters of downtown LA.
In one particularly neat moment, K crosses the border between the old world and the new in an instant. Escorted by Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s right-hand replicant, K tours the Tyrell headquarters. They are followed by a golden light, which looks like the sun’s rays, but which is really an artificial light programmed to illuminate rooms and corridors as they walk through them. When Luv takes K to a disused archive in the building – a room that clearly hasn’t been visited in many years – the artificial light still follows them in, except here it is of a previous iteration. Instead of a smooth, golden beam, it is now a cold, fluorescent white light, cast from ceiling panels that stutter to life as the pair explore the room.
Switches like this perfectly encapsulate the tension at the centre of K’s story, the idea that he is at a transitive moment in his existence, that there is a golden future ahead of him if he could just escape the cold steel of the city.
Ridley Scott, director of the original Blade Runner, is here credited as an executive producer, but his influence on the film is palpable. The philosophical concerns that made Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) equally ambitious and ambiguous are present here too. This time, though, they work in harmony with a story and an aesthetic that don’t stray too far from the original concept.
Blade Runner 2049 asks many of the same questions that those two films did. It seeks to find the touching point between the flesh and the synthetic, the connections that must be made for the latter to strive for equality with the former. The most tragic of all the characters in the film is Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI built solely to provide comfort to lonely men like K. Her holographic avatar wanders around his apartment playing the good wife, a figure of stability, until the point when she wins some freedom. Her widened horizons don’t liberate her, like they did for Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) in Her (2013), but only serve as a reminder of her artificiality. These creations have been made in man’s own image, and how sad that seems.
Country: USA, United Kingdom, Canada Language: English Year: 2017 Director: Denis Villeneuve Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green, Philip K. Dick (based on characters created by) Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto Runtime: 163 minutes
Arrival (2016) – Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion sci-fi served as an apt prologue for Blade Runner 2049, demonstrating that the director could skilfully pair lofty philosophical ideas with an engaging story and awe-inspiring visuals.
Unlike other movies of its type, it chooses dialogue over action, a choice that is central to the narrative. It benefits from a lead at the peak of her talent in Amy Adams, and is a thoughtful, intelligent take on a subgenre that is usually dominated by flashing lights and loud noises.