06th Oct2017

‘Blade Runner 2049’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Robin Wright | Written by Hampton Fancher, Michael Green | Directed by Denis Villenueve


Films like this make me glad I don’t need to give a star rating. Because films like Blade Runner 2049 – and there aren’t many of them – take time to absorb, to fully comprehend. It’s a most unlikely mega-budget blockbuster: slow and long and extravagantly cerebral; the absolute antidote to YouTube instant reaction culture. Give me another 35 years and I might have finally made up my mind.

Where the 2019-set Blade Runner was a hardboiled noir in future-gothic clothing, Blade Runner 2049, its direct sequel, is an exacting detective procedural sketched on a desolate canvas. Except both those descriptions are hopelessly reductive, which is precisely what makes both films stand out amongst their peers. There’s so much going on here, so mesmerising in its execution, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s try the beginning. After an opening text crawl to bring us up to speed on the intervening three decades, the film delivers the first of many astonishing vistas. Not neo-L.A.’s flaming cityscape, but an endless ocean of grey fields, all memories of green gone.

“K” (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner fully aware of his skinjob status (and hated by humans and synthetics alike as a result), travels to a remote farm to eliminate a rogue Replicant (Dave Bautista). The encounter reveals a box of bones on the premises, belonging to a Replicant woman. Impossibly, she was pregnant. There’s no sign of the child. K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders K to find the kid, who’ll now be an adult. If word gets out that Replicants can reproduce then the vital barrier between humans and synthetics is shattered, and the Us and Them she seeks to uphold collapses. Word does get out, of course, and it reaches the ears of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a self-made crazy Christ figure, whose flock is an army of Replicants. To him, they’re angels. “We lost our stomach for slaves,” he laments of humanity.

The film becomes not so much a murder mystery as a birth mystery. The very slow, patient race is on to uncover the identity of the first Replicant to be born rather than made. K is joined by a virtual girlfriend, Joi (Knock Knock’s Ana de Armas), on his journey; but he also has more antagonistic female company in the form of Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s ruthless main agent.

K is quite a different cat to Deckard (Harrison Ford). Deckard, oblivious to his true origin, was entirely at home in his urban surroundings. For outsider K, L.A. is an alien world, and the film’s aesthetic – aided no end by Roger Deakins’ colossal cinematography – is more expansive and otherworldly as a reflection. At times it resembles the sepia-toned industrial wasteland of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker; elsewhere, it’s like another planet altogether. K possesses a deadpan wit and is less of a grump than his predecessor. But K is also burdened with loneliness, eased by his relationship with Joi, who also happens to act as a plotting device to avoid the need for the dreaded voiceover. Women aren’t particularly well-served as active agents here; rather, they tend to be symptoms of social isolation (K’s lowest moment is upon seeing Joi commodified in neon) or harbingers of doom.

Deckard was never human. But in believing he was human, Deckard was fallible. He never knew his own potential. K lacks this essential ignorance, which means it takes us longer to warm to him. But warm we do; Gosling brings more life to this robot than he has to any human under Nicolas Winding Refn. Sadly, the side characters aren’t quite so engaging. Remember the squawking eye surgeon from the first film? The anxious, excitable J.F. Sebastien? The playful interplay of Roy’s punky Replicants? There’s nothing so fun and offbeat this time around. It makes for a more sombre, monotone experience.

And for all my certainty that the film at large will grow in stature with repeated viewings, I’m convinced the last twenty minutes are just plain weak. After all the fresh ideas that came before, the final act feels perfunctory on numerous levels, and downright lazy when we’re landed with an old, re-forged synth piece. That’s another thing: the music throughout (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) is fairly unmemorable, coming alive only when directly calling back to Vangelis’s classic score.

The composers are vainly striving for a vastness to match the visuals. Intimacy is almost swamped by the film’s reach for enormity. Roger Deakins’ photography is staggeringly beautiful at times. Where Blade Runner tended to dwarf its characters in its oppressive, vertical dungeon of a metropolis, the sequel more often takes us away from the streets and over the world, whether it’s above the buildings to a mighty ocean wall, or to the netherworld beyond the desert.

That’s the macro. On the micro scale, the film sometimes feels like a toybox for nifty sci-fi ideas. Memories stored in marbles, in a vault where the air chills the breath; an “Emanator” device that gives Joi’s hologram her freedom (and yes, her joy); a speech-controlled drone, detaching from K’s car like a sentient sunroof.

The theme of master and slave is present once again, perhaps given greater emphasis in a narrative where the Replicants are the heroes. At one point, K ambles through a mini-cityscape of beehives – a key symbolic moment, what with bees being both lifegivers and slaves, like the Replicants themselves. “We are our own masters,” one Replicant says, unequivocally asserting free will. To master ourselves, we master our own memories. But of course, as another points out, memories are never mastered. They’re overpowering and messy. Memories master us.

Indeed, one of the central twists in the film devastatingly reverses the idea that what we remember is the truth – even when the memory was truly made, rather than implanted. It’s a bold narrative move, retroactively amending that character’s understanding of their own life, and amending the audience’s understanding of what has come before. Bold, yet also consistent with that central Blade Runner theme: memories are unreliable, therefore our identities are unreliable too.

Complex and labyrinthine, Blade Runner 2049 feels built to last. There’s a good chance we’ll be discussing it in 35 years’ time. It may even be superior to its predecessor, although it’s certainly a more challenging watch. It will consume an evening with its runtime; and more importantly, it will swallow the days beyond with the thoughts it provokes. It’s a beautiful, profound, flawed film – and in that regard, very human.

Blade Runner 2049 is out in cinemas now.


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