Who would have thought we’d ever see a sequel to Blade Runner? Released in 1982, and pitched against E.T. and Star Trek II among others, the now classic film barely stood a chance at the box office upon its original release. While, the theatrical version of the film, with its patronising voice over and tacked on happy ending, could barely even be classed a creative success. More a gorgeous, flawed curiosity. Added to that, the production was clearly not an enjoyable experience for Harrison Ford, who for many years had little to say on the subject. Then came the Director’s Cut which brought the film closer to Scott’s original vision (back when he had an original vision), and finally The Final Cut, which nicely finished the job and turned Blade Runner definitively into a masterpiece.
And yet, here it is, Blade Runner 2049, and we shouldn’t be surprised at all, as in recent years both Scott and Ford have shown themselves quite willing to turn their past glories into safe box-office bets.
Thankfully, real effort has been made to craft a worthy sequel. One of Blade Runner’s original screenwriters, Hampton Fancher has returned, sharing credit with Michael Green, best known for scripting Logan, Alien: Covenant and…. The Green Lantern (cough, cough). Better yet, the currently sizzling hot Denis Villeneuve handles directing duties. Certainly, his ability to deliver dazzling visual spectacle and a hypnotic sense of atmosphere makes him the ideal candidate. (It’s not really his fault that Arrival wandered off into illogical sci-fi codswallop).
Undoubtedly Blade Runner 2049 is a feast for the senses. As if in competition with the original, every frame is orchestrated within an inch of its life. The results are truly staggering, and it’s hard to look away, but despite, or perhaps because of this, 2049 never quite fascinates the eye as Scott’s original still does. Blade Runner ’82 is full of motes of dust that catch the light, revolving fans, smoke, and neon. The film is beautiful in a way that lulls you into happy submission. 2049 just beams out at you like a nuclear-powered lava lamp. The same could be said of the music. Vangelis’s classic soundtrack from the original Blade Runner is entrancingly seductive, like a soft kiss, or the end of a pleasant dream. It exists around the edges of the movie. Hans Zimmer’s new score is a monumental migraine of self-important noise that simply pummels you into submission.
There are issues on a story level as well. The plot is thin to say the least. True, the original Blade Runner also had very little plot. But then Blade Runner ‘82 wasn’t the best part of three hours in length. In fact, Blade Runner had almost no plot at all, which strangely is one of its strengths. With so little story to chew on, audiences have been wondering about Blade Runner for decades. It’s one of the most subtly enigmatic movies ever made. One could simply enjoy its tone and texture, or leisurely wonder over what it really all means. The biggest question that hangs over the movie is, of course, “Is Deckard a replicant?” Ridley Scott, who undoubtedly exerted the greatest creative control, says yes, others involved in the production say no.
2049 carefully dances around this mystery, in the most artless fashion. A character called Niander Wallace more or less says to Deckard, “Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t.” Frankly, it almost feels like a faux pas to bring it up at all. There’s also an overly convenient excuse for how Deckard has managed to live so long, which, again makes it possible to believe he may or may not be a replicant. (In Blade Runner ’82 replicants only have a four year life span.) It could be very easily argued that the fact that 2049 needs to be so careful not to spoil its predecessor’s central enigma, means that, you know, perhaps it shouldn’t have been made at all.
Despite the care that has been taken to avoid resolving the mysteries of the original, 2049 has also gone to considerable pains to make itself feel like a narrative continuation. Without giving anything away, the new movie has now added layers of meaning to the original, which were of course not intended at the time. For better, or for worse, 2049 has changed Blade Runner.
There are, it must be said, some truly visionary moments and ideas that successfully build on the universe of Blade Runner ’82. Ryan Gosling’s character K, has a romantic relationship with his hologram AI. A sequence in which she synchs with a flesh and blood woman, so that he can make love to her, is beautifully realised, if totally unerotic. Their relationship asks a question that’s present throughout both Blade Runner’s. Is love a programmed response, and does that matter?
The cast are generally excellent. Ryan Gosling plays another quiet character filled with repressed rage. We’ve seen it all before (Drive, anybody?), but it’s a charismatic turn nonetheless. Harrison Ford, who we spend a lot of time waiting to see, makes the best of what is little more than an extended cameo. Deckard has really turned into a grouchy old so and so. Best of all, however, is Sylvia Hoeks, as Luv, a beautiful, but incredibly dangerous replicant, working as Wallace’s henchman. The barely constrained fury that comes out of her when she’s beating, stabbing, kicking, punching and strangling people is worth the price of admission alone.
Blade Runner 2049 is hypnotic in a brutish, overwhelming way. Weakly plotted, but so assured of its own importance that you may not notice or care. A sequel that is so desperate not to have a detrimental effect on its predecessor that its existence is almost entirely negated. But, there’s no denying it’s impact. Watching it is rather like being sat on by a prancing circus elephant that’s lost its footing.
3.5 / 5