Simon Evans and Luke Ostler take a closer look at Denis Villeneuve’s
Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction film.
Blade Runner 2049 is the most unwanted sequel one could imagine; some films cry out to be left alone, and the announcement in 2015 of Denis Villeneuve as director only ramped up the apprehension for this follow-up to a treasured science-fiction classic. Then only a modestly successful name, it took until 2016 and Villeneuve’s huge hit Arrival for us to understand the logic behind that choice. As can be seen from the likes of Return to Oz and Psycho 2, making a sequel to an all-time classic is a dangerous game indeed.
Most fans of the original Blade Runner will cite the striking visual makeup and atmosphere of that film as particularly memorable elements, and Blade Runner 2049 lives up that legacy with a selection of sights that sear the eyeballs. As in the recent Star Wars prequel Rogue One, the world of Blade Runner has been restored with painstaking love and care. Of course, unlike the original, the cityscape is largely computer-generated, so it’s that little bit harder to engage with physically than it was with the very real original. Nevertheless the fans will be thrilled to be plunged back into the devastated yet achingly beautiful world they last encountered in 1982.
Where this sequel fundamentally differs from the original is in the scale of the plot. Blade Runner focused tightly on the simple tale of a cop hunting fugitives, with the film’s intricacy found in the detailed characterisation Blade Runner 2049’s characters are much more broadly brushed, and the scope of the overblown narrative takes in events that affect the entire universe. As a result we never get to know the characters in any depth and are given no opportunity or motivation to care about what happens to them.
The closest thing to a relationship between characters are the scenes between our under-no-illusions replicant Blade Runner (Ryan Gosling doing an outstanding robot impression – let’s hope he meant it) and his simulated girlfriend (Ana de Armas). The leading pair’s interactions carry genuine warmth, but still pale in comparison to those of Harrison Ford and Sean Young as Blade Runner’s Deckard and Rachel. This time around the goodies and baddies are very clearly defined, with head hench-replicant Sylvia Hoeks being the only exception. There’s a hinted-to depth to this role that may blossom in a sequel, and yes, one (or more) may very well be on the way. The plot of Blade Runner 2049 feels more like a Marvel film than anything else, with no satisfying conclusion, and by the end it’s abundantly clear this is intended to be part one in a new Blade Runner franchise. Please god no.
The biggest disappointment cast-wise is that of Harrison Ford, who seems to have forgotten which 80s character he’s playing this week. The original Deckard was the quintessential anti-hero, at no point appearing heroic, instead being driven along with the plot like driftwood in a river. Ford is at his most understated in Blade Runner and easily gives his career best performance, but settles for lazy overacting in Blade Runner 2049, possibly in an attempt to counteract the laconic yet effective Gosling.
You’d expect the inevitable meeting between Gosling and Ford to be a spectacular sequence, but instead the screen is bathed in a uniform ugly yellow light for the duration, giving the impression that the cinematographer and production designer had a few weeks off. To add insult to injury, a drawn-out inter-generational brawl adds nothing and leaves you only to wonder how it didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps it was deemed necessary to increase the action quota in the age of Marvel, but one overheard punter at our screening certainly felt differently (“The whole thing was just Ryan Gosling looking mournfully at things for two-and-a-half hours!”).
Jared Leto, who excels at choosing half-baked roles, is another let-down as the big bad, cursed by flat scenes both visually and dramatically when compared to Tyrell in the original.
Villeneuve’s soundtrack partner of his last few films Jóhann Jóhannsson may have left the production partway through, but his fingerprints are still audible in some very Arrival-esque numbers. Fortunately the final score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is spectacular, teasing the audience with the essence of Vangelis’ original Blade Runner music before veering off in exciting new directions. Only once or twice are the musical references to Vangelis a little too on-the-nose. The original retains the crown, but, as with so many aspects of this film, any hope of surpassing it was unrealistic.
By the conclusion the film has addressed its action issues with a masterful battle in which the viewer’s senses are assaulted. As a conclusion it’s a refreshingly brief one without a tinge of Marvel’s ad infinitum fight scene ethos, and in fact the entire film feels a lot shorter than its lengthy two-and-half hour running time. Whereas the original was art house science fiction anointed with a tremendous budget, Blade Runner 2049 has sanded off the unique elements to go mainstream, but it’s undoubtedly at the top end of that category. In the end this film suffers from being related to an all-time classic; as a stand-alone effort it’s nothing less than a splendid experience, but as a sequel to Blade Runner, a near-impossible challenge to take on from the start, it’s merely a good effort.
Words by Luke Ostler & Simon Evans
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis
Released: 2017 / Genre: Science Fiction / Country: USA / IMDB