This report features no plot details.
I wrote about Blade Runner 2049‘s first trailer here. Because the original film still stands as my favourite of all time (and has since I was fourteen-years-old), I was vitriolic in my ensuing cynicism. I thought a sequel would be ineffective in a number of ways. Firstly, Blade Runner itself is an enigma of spiralling complexity; all anchored by a simple central premise. Expanding on it, even faithfully, seemed a vacuous exercise in contrivance. More importantly, and of great concern, was the potential for a follow-up to dilute its parent. Trailers, and other promotional material, did nothing to quell my worries.
However, considering my adoration for Blade Runner, I had to attend the sequel’s first screening in my local area. Despite my expectation of a full house, only a small smattering of middle-aged obsessives joined me for my pilgrimage. In truth, this was a source of great comfort to me. Sat four rows from the front, without a plastic packet nearby to crackle, I took a deep breath and prepared. With a thick anticipation commanding the room as the others followed suit, the atmosphere felt suffocating.
Mark Kermode, the BBC’s celebrated film critic, reports breathing a sigh of relief thirty minutes into its lengthy run-time. For me, this sigh occurred far earlier. Within mere moments, I was certain of the quality to come. The earliest shots of Blade Runner count among the most striking and impressive in the medium of cinema. As such, there’s a legacy that needs to be treasured. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049‘s opening minutes are a triumph of visual splendour without equal. Obviously, that’s a high compliment. Fortunately, I mean it with every ounce of journalistic integrity in my bones.
Within seconds of its opening text, grayscale meadow-scapes, lashed in dusty smoke, roll beneath slow pans. Accompanied by the synthesised fizz of its score, which calls back gloriously to the work of Vangelis, the imagery slots naturally into the glimpses we saw of this world in 2019. The way in which this film begins sets out its store in a number of ways. By paying such clear homage to its progenitor, in pace, tone and style, it shows a respect that sequels all too often eschew. In addition, it’s realised with its own intoxicating brilliance. It doesn’t rest on laurels, or lazily fill in the gaps. Instead, the entirety is afforded the same meticulous detail that Ridley Scott‘s original achieved. In fact, it exceeds it by quite some distance.
Not one writer has disagreed on Blade Runner 2049‘s beauty. Though the use of CGI is copious, it’s the very best example of its power. Used carelessly, such computer trickery can miss precisely what made Blade Runner iconic. Director Denis Villeneuve approaches the technology in similar ways to how Scott incorporated miniatures into his 1982 magnum opus. Therefore, they become liberating to the eye as opposed to an ugly constraint. Here, they add to proceedings and break new ground in a fashion very reminiscent of its predecessor’s innovations. That said, a notable amount of the film’s aesthetics are physical too. In particular, scenes of overpopulated streets at ground level undulate with a tangible sense of life.
The old adage of sci-fi sequels is to go bigger, and louder. This is, all too often, their undoing. In this case especially, it instinctively feels like the worst possible path to tread. Blade Runner 2049 gives grace to the attitude. It may be bigger, and it’s surely louder, but so too are the themes. For every wide shot of pupil-dilating majesty, there’s a concept that highlights the finest of its genre’s inquisitive nature. I instantly wanted to watch it again, needing to tie up the loose threads of a heady virgin-screening. These elusive narrative fronds are the same in their intrigue as the questions left open by Blade Runner. It presents a film that I’m able to explore and dissect; a factor that assures this return’s status as worthwhile, more so than any fetching vista.
With both artful awe and labyrinthine contemplation rendered with elegance, Blade Runner 2049 makes for an appropriate and veracious restoration. Each character, all richly at home in the setting, brings something new to the mythology. Other franchises have degraded irretrievably into overly explanatory appendices, such as in the Alien series. Such deviations can affect the purity of once outstanding works. Now, we’re so concerned with where the Xenomorph comes from that we’ve forgotten why it was so terrifying in the first place. Luckily, this film ignores pointless dives into the mysteries of Blade Runner in favour of establishing its own merits. Through this, it’s found a way to grow without bursting the seed that birthed it.
Admittedly, it’s in its narrative where some feel disappointed. Sources have come out accusing the story of a handful of plot-holes. On this point, a second watch is undoubtedly necessary. Yet, in my experience, answers seem saliently hidden in the folds of the whole (and one’s own mind). Some reported “mistakes” are actually, annoyingly, the vastly published barks of people who appear to have missed some defining scenes. What remains is delightfully subtle; teasing closure for the sufficiently seduced. Its fractal script, entrancing design and accomplished performances reward the attentive with clues. This puts us in the shoes of the titular blade runners from both editions, leaving a portion of the detective work in the hands of the audience.
Though I’ve already mentioned Blade Runner 2049‘s soundtrack, I’d like to give it some fairer attention. Hans Zimmer, in collaboration with Benjamin Wallfisch, has curated a score as daring as the events it underscores. Filled with ghostly references to Vangelis’ distinctive melodies, it investigates its own shadows in tandem. Strangely, it may actually be more ambient than its ancestor. It forms a blanket that captures something of warmth, along with a vacant, encroaching chill. At times, abrasive stabs and resonant growls punch through; an ever-present warning of the anxiety of a broken future. I can’t remember the last time that a big-budget film featured such relentless minimalism.
It has to be conceded that some of the performances in Blade Runner are lacking. There are times when even Harrison Ford seems to be holding back. In this regard, its sequel is a sizeable improvement. Indeed, Ryan Gosling would have been the last person I’d want anywhere near the project. I would have gladly ranked him prominently in a personal list of least-favourite actors on the planet. Shamefully, I thought him a boring goon, fit only for Oscar-bait darlings with little to offer. It only took around two lines of his dialogue for his top-level talents to win me over. Before the opening scene concluded, I believed him in his role and the universe I so highly champion.
Around Gosling, everyone from Robin Wright to Dave Bautista is convincing in their place. Jared Leto has received, as ever, a modicum of flak for his turn as Niander Wallace. I found his scenes to be some of the film’s most engaging; however brief. Likewise, Harrison Ford has come under fire in some circles. My impression of his performance was one of sincerity. Ford’s longtime discomfort with Blade Runner is well-documented. He’s been rarely seen in documentaries on production, and he’s openly criticised it when asked. He has more faith in Blade Runner 2049, and the Rick Deckard we encounter is more interesting for it. The slight changes in the character’s demeanour make sense too. Like the work itself, it speaks of an evolution.
In the end, I was satisfied on every front. The 1982 original is a film about what it means to be human, the nature of emotion and the notion of meeting one’s makers. In this 2017 sequel, each of these themes gets its due focus. Ideas about memory and solitude become just as integral. It asks, again, who we are, but through an unfamiliar lens. Joyously, it does it all with a visual flare beyond imagination. With such unusual music to match, nobody would have allowed Blade Runner 2049 to exist without the original preceding it. It’s too bold, too sprawling, for approval otherwise.
I may change my mind on seeing it again. Perhaps some large problems will show themselves. Even worse, I hope I haven’t been completely charmed into bias by the glow of a big screen. Until I get my own copy, which I’ll buy at the first chance, I have only emotion to inform me. Regardless, the film is clever enough to make me think if that was the point all along. Emotion powers many of its cogs, so it’s fair to let them take over (to an extent) in its assessment.
Across its course, I smiled wide. Further in, weights burdened my heart. By its final scene, plight and plot had me exhausted. I sat with blank, pale disbelief at the marvel of every frame. This is where Blade Runner 2049 hides its truest strength. It forces you to confront your humanity, even if it queries it. No film can tell us the meaning of life, but it can remind us that we have life. In this case, that feeling is profound. For years, I thought that my emotion in writing this very review would be fuelled by acid and resentment. Brimming with contentment in their stead, I owe it all to the reverence of those involved.
Only a hack would end this report on a reference to Roy Batty‘s speech. But, he was right. In death, our memories fade forever. If the grave is the end of it all, the least I can do is take my first memorable response to Blade Runner 2049 with me to it. I recommend, with hardened conviction, that you see this at the cinema while you still can.