From the moment Denis Villeneuve’s name became attached to the sequel to the iconic 1982 sci-fi classic, my interest elevated from cautious curiosity to ‘take my money now’ excitement. The French Canadian director has hardly put a foot wrong since his confident 2010 foreign language hit ‘Incendies’, with his following introduction to mainstream film resulting in three of the best thrillers in recent memory in Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013) and Sicario (2015).
However, it was his 2016 film Arrival which stamped Villeneuve’s name into everyone’s list of the best directors working, and apparently served as his audition for the monumental task of directing the Blade Runner sequel. Arrival caught movie-goers off guard (partly due to its misleading advertising campaign) as its alien invasion premise is skilfully diverted in favour of agonizing questions on fate and free will, whilst exploring humanity’s division and the importance of communication. The film received eight nominations at the academy awards, winning one, and initiated the challenge for a true craftsman to build upon these themes in the influential world of Blade Runner. After all, it was Blade Runner that first posed the question; in a world of isolation, decay and replicants – What does it mean to be human?
Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the events of the first film, with Ryan Gosling starring as “K”, a young blade runner who stumbles on a secret and follows the breadcrumbs, threatening the foundations of his reality. Delving further in to the plot points would do a disservice to the viewing experience, as the sequel follows its predecessor in allowing its audience to have unique interpretations on its compass. Firstly, lets get the obvious out of the way. The film looks heavenly. Roger Deakins revisits the vibrant neon-shadows of Los Angeles and illuminates its most dissolute corners with seamless CGI and sterile physicality to transport you straight in to its alleyways. The metropolis is authentic for the entire run-time. Even the most implausible devices imagined for our future, are never questioned when introduced to Deakins canvas of circuit-board precision and crowded strokes of the bleak underbelly.
It would be too easy and unfair to attribute the cinematography’s success to the advancements in technology available for todays designers, especially compared to what Jordan Cronenweth had at his disposal for the original. Rather, this is just another reminder of Deakins talents and his understanding with production designer Dennis Gassner. Faced with the invitation to play with crazy CGI effects akin to this years ‘Ghost in the Shell’, they decided to focus on the climate, with claustrophobic snow, rain and dust constructing the isolation of Noir films. Despite the futuristic setting, Deakins manages to sustain the realism he achieves in his other ventures such as “No Country for Old Men”, “Skyfall” and Villeneuve’s “Sicario”. When the film does decide to show off its sci-fi influence, with its flying vehicle Spinner 2.0 and colourful holographic ads in the skyline, it treads carefully enough to be a continuation of the analogue future imagined in the first movie. No touch screen apple tablets or google maps in sight.
The biggest surprise of 2049 was the pacing, which may split audiences and movie critics. The pacing is slow, patient and moody; with Villeneuve choosing to match the tone of its predecessor over its action filled contemporaries to which it inspired. This will please fans of the original movie, however the central storylines do take a while to kick in to gear and its hefty run time of over two and a half hours is far from a casual movie experience. It is important to keep in mind that when Blade Runner was released in 1982, the initial response from critics was mixed, with many citing the films pacing as dull and far too slow. I fear the same fate for Villeneuve’s sequel, but I’m confident it may share a similar future recognition as a sci-fi masterpiece.
The performances are good, without blowing you away. Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, and is significantly more animated and engaging this time around as the veteran recluse. Ryan Gosling again proves a commanding screen presence and, without spoiling the films complex themes, effectively carries the sensitivity and isolation of a man tasked with “retiring” life-like creations. Filled with a solid supporting cast of Robin Wright and Jared Leto, it is actually Ana de Armas who impressed the most playing the holographic love companion of agent K. As cliché as it sounds, ultimately the desert dunes and cyberpunk city streets are truly the protagonists of the experience, and provide enough dimension to make up for any lack of character spectacle.
Villeneuve subverts the character driven features of the Noir Genre in order to expand the scope of the story beyond the tribulations of the protagonists, choosing to develop sizeable themes on human consciousness, existentialism and the ethics of connectionism. In most cases, the decision to place the motifs in the forefront of a narrative would have negative implications for its connection to its audience. After all, themes don’t make you feel a story, characters do (sorry Prometheus). But in this particular case, the film is patient enough to let the overarching motifs land gently on its canvas, letting agent K naturally investigate in this bleak world without reminding the audience why they are there and what morals they should take away from the film. It took Ridley Scott five different edits to realise the potential of ambiguity in the answer to “do androids dream of electric sheep?”; Villeneuve only needed one.
My outpour of admiration for the skill displayed in this film is perhaps a result of relief more than anything, as the film isn’t completely perfect. The score by the holy Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch falls surprisingly flat of matching the dreamy majesty of Vangelis’ original, opting for strong synthesizers that occasionally plucked me right out of the story and right into a Transformers movie. There are also secondary plot points which gather extraordinary momentum throughout the first two acts of the film, but eventually result in incomplete timid sequences that make you wonder why Villeneuve would include them at all. But thankfully, these issues do end up being minor nit-picks in what is otherwise an extraordinary feat of patient storytelling and awe-inspiring imaginings of what this world could be.
The DNA of Riddley Scott’s vision is still there, but with enough exploration of its lasting effect on science fiction to question its maker, and drive through its hitches with confidence. In a time of bigger, noisier and lousier follow-ups, Blade Runner 2049 is an entirely new breed of sequel. Not a replicant, but something else entirely. A modern day great.