With the exception of perhaps “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, has there ever been a (belated) sequel which arrived under so much pressure of expectation as “Blade Runner 2049”? Picking up the baton from Ridley Scott’s lionised 1982 sci-fi noir, visionary director Denis Villeneuve leaps us further into the chillingly realistic dystopian future.
Following the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation and the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem in the early 2020s, the Wallace Corporation came to the rescue of both, introducing synthetic farming techniques and restarting the manufacture of replicants. K (Ryan Gosling) is one of a new breed of replicants, working as a ‘Blade Runner’ for the LAPD, hunting down older models of his own kind. When his latest case results in the discovery of replicant remains, K finds himself investigating a secret which has remained hidden for thirty years and could destroy the fragile balance of human civilisation.
Where Scott’s vision was focussed on the dark, claustrophobic mean streets of Los Angeles, Villeneuve brings us the vast desolation of open spaces and environmental ruin. Although it purports to be agnostic about which version of “Blade Runner” brings you to watch this continuation, there’s an innate dismissal of the Theatrical Cut’s bucolic ending of forests and rivers (which never made sense anyway because, given the choice, who would grind out a grimy existence in the soiled city streets when they could live in the lush and verdant countryside?)
One thing there’s no ambiguity about this time around is the nature of our protagonist. K is very definitely a replicant, albeit one without some of the limitations imposed on the Nexus-6s. As a Nexus-9, he has an open-ended lifespan and is allowed, more or less, to live as an independent citizen as long as he regularly undertakes Voight-Kampff-like baselining examinations. “Blade Runner 2049” won’t answer your burning question of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant or not but cunningly provide sufficient evidence to validate whichever side of that mystery you believe to be true.
Arguably, Villeneuve has taken the greatest strength of the original movie – its visuals – and built upon them, creating one of the most visually stunning movies of this or indeed any year. Together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, he’s created a feast for the eyes, a constantly dazzling cavalcade of beauty, using colour, light and shadow in breathtaking ways. It’s unfortunate indeed that Sony’s egregious addiction to product placement has been allowed to blight an otherwise perfect visual cinematic experience. Atari and Coca-Cola may, at least, feel authentic within the world as presented, but the self-promotion of Sony products grates and the idea that all vehicles in this post-apocalyptic American dystopia are Peugeots is jarringly unlikely. Plot-wise, “2049” is more coherent than the original and certainly more linear, meaning K gets to do some actual detective work. The linearity of the plot may disappoint those fans overly fond of the original’s inscrutability but the clarity of narrative purpose will come as a welcome relief to those tired of Ridley Scott’s onanistic philosophising which has so recently blighted the “Alien” franchise. The soundtrack, too, homages Vangelis’ score without being quite so self-satisfied and occasionally intrusive.
Gosling is terrific as the replicant who, despite full awareness of his nature, quietly yearns for more, finding solace and connection to a virtual reality software partner who – in a delicious nod to the original – may or may not be more than the sum of her algorithms. Harrison Ford’s aged Deckard isn’t too far removed from his aged Han Solo, skulking around off the beaten track with a hairy sidekick and conspicuously lacking the leading lady we last saw him with. He’s something of a destabilising element in the third act of such a tightly controlled film and, once he’s filled in the necessary missing pieces of the puzzle, becomes more baggage than contributor. Antagonist wise, Leto’s Niander Wallace is somewhat anaemic and underwhelming but thankfully counterpointed by Sylvia Hoeks as his replicant assistant Luv, one of sci-fi’s greatest on-screen villains. Her performance is almost a dark mirror to that of Sean Young in “Blade Runner”, her impassive ruthlessness almost palpable in even the slightest movement or expression and she electrifies the screen in every scene she appears.
In its further exploration of the nature of existence and what it means to be human, the story of “Blade Runner 2049” is surprisingly – and satisfyingly – inextricably linked to the characters and story of the original, but in exploring the nature of replicants it starts to unpick at the internal logic of the world it presents. At the heart of both films is the same conundrum which consumed Frankenstein: the creation of life but, in blurring the lines between humanity and replicant, the story poses questions there aren’t good answers for. Wallace laments his inability to create replicants in sufficient quantities or quickly enough, but the potential solution he’s trying to get his hands on is likewise not particularly rapid, especially in terms of producing fully functional adults. Also, if you were creating something which is designed to perform those tasks and duties a human being is ill-suited to do, why would you build something which has the same inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities as humans? What are replicants, anyway? If they’re entirely biological, they’re effectively eugenicised clones (but if so, it shouldn’t be difficult for Wallace to figure out what he’s trying to achieve) but if they’re bio/mechanical in nature, why make them unnecessarily vulnerable to things like stabbing, drowning or being shot? Replicants certainly seem more trouble than they’re worth, in both movies.
Just as visually stunning and innovative as the original, but blessed with a better story, better pacing and a more engaging emotional core, “Blade Runner 2049” proves itself to be the superior model without the need to retire or erase its predecessor.