Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Cards on the table time – the original 1982 Blade Runner is not a perfect film. Any film that needs two additional versions a director’s cut not authorised by the director, along with a ‘Final Cut’, is by no means perfect. Not to mention the ongoing debate of whether Deckard is a replicant or not. But even so, there is no denying the inspiration that the design, style and ideas that Blade Runner had has given to the face of modern cinema.
The uber text for 80s visions of the future, the neon coloured, rain drenched vision of a future where things aren’t better can be seen across things like The Matrix, anime, nearly every Batman film, and of course any film that adapts a novel by Philip K. Dick – TV’s Electric Dreams started with an episode that looked to be a Blade Runner rip-off with Richard Madden a dead ringer for Ford’s Rick Deckard.
So, fast forward a good twenty-five years and we have a follow-up to the legendary sci-fi. It’s been years since the first look at Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? and despite the disappointing sort of follow-up Soldier (directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, written by Blade Runner co-writer David Webb Peoples) this true sequel finally comes to us from original co-writer Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villenueve.
It’s hard to really pin down the story of Blade Runner as it’s sort of both heavy on plotting and simple. Replicant agent K (Ryan Gosling) hunts down rogue replicants and ‘retires’ them for the police, but he begins to uncover a conspiracy spanning decades that ties the police, the replicants, the humans and a mogul into a web of intrigue that centre around one person – the enigmatic Rick Deckard.
From the off, Villeneuve was probably the perfect choice to helm this film, having cut his teeth with neo-noir crime thriller Prisoners, then the twisty psycho-drama Enemy, the war on drugs thriller Sicario and last years Sci-Fi grief meditation Arrival. With Blade Runner 2049 he melds them all into a future noir with art deco design, that is as much The Big Sleep as it is Big Hero 6.
From a simply design point of view the film is a technical triumph. Roger Deakins, Hollywood’s best cinematographer never to be given an award does wonders, making the actors tiny figures in vast landscapes, shooting a film that is gorgeous to look at. Contrasting huge pyramids with open deserts, huge monolithic statues with cloud covered farm land. Everything about the film is beautiful and there’s no doubt that this is the year for Deakins to win.
It helps that he’s shooting some of the best physical things in the world. Dennis Gasner’s production design is perfect, the sets all feeling like they’re the natural progression of the world from the first film. The oddly box like apartment that K finds himself living in, the Overlook style hotel that becomes Deckard’s fortress, the stuffy yet roomy office of Robin Wright’s police chief Joshi. The sets become another character, and the claustrophobia even from huge spaces is helped by the pitch perfect design. Even the technology that still looks 80s inflected is inspired. It’s a retro-future, but like Brad Bird’s space age obsession, this is a very 80s idea of the future, when screens are tiny, everything is neon and nothing works perfectly.
The lighting too, with massive neon signs blinding the audience as trenchcoat clad figures walk through deserts of rain is beautiful and the costume design is impeccable. Renee April too deserves accolades for her work, be it from the vaguely Deckard like costumes that K wears, to the military style clothing of Wright. There are great nods to the idea that this is both east and west infused society as Jared Leto’s industrialist Niander Wallace walks around in what appears to be samurai robes. The best piece of costume though is the yellow tinged see through trench coat that Ana De Armas’ Joi wears, clearly based on current fashion with a hint of the future coat Doc Brown wears in Back to the Future Part II.
Around all of these technical marvels are great performances. Ryan Gosling is as monotone and dead inside as Ford’s Deckard. At times, given the clear Asian influence on the film and Gosling’s minimal dialogue, with the film’s penchant for kicking seven bells of shit out of him, this looks more like a follow-up to Only God Forgives than Blade Runner. Elsewhere Robin Wright channels her Claire Underwood role for her imposing chief, and Jared Leto is a mixed bag, as he often is. Playing blind billionaire Wallace whose company as filled in the gap left by the fall of the Tyrell Corporation, the motives of Leto’s protagonist are never fully explored, and the noir plotting and his characters desire to monologue become a little grating. He’s no Roy Batty, and he never gets his ‘Tears in the rain’ speech.
It, much like the original film, falls on the supporting players to boost the film. There are one-scene-only roles for the likes of Dave Bautista, Wood Harris, Hiam Abbass, Lennie James and Barkhad Abdi, though they do all make a great impression. The real stand outs though are the women characters – something the first film failed on -Sylvia Hoeks villainous Luv is a great near Terminator like antagonist that aids Wallace and repeatedly punches Gosling in his handsome face, and Mackenzie Davis also steals scenes as prostitute Mariette who appears to have something more going on.
But actually, the two that really steal the film, and give it some emotional heft are Ana De Armas and Carla Juri as Joi and Stelline. De Armas was brilliant in things like Knock Knock, but here gets to play innocence, longing and loving in a way that echoes the Rachael/Deckard story but actually manages to make it better, and to give it a deeper more painful meaning. Juri meanwhile has only two scenes, and manages to leave a lasting impression, it’s her face we come to trust, and it’s her soft voice and gentle nature that bring hope to this world.
There’s been a lot of fuss about Harrison Ford returning, and despite the prominent billing, the result is more of a cameo/supporting role than anything else. The wait for him to show up becomes part of the film’s problem, it’s pacing is too long. While Arrival had a dynamite central reveal that blew everything we thought we knew out the water, this film tends to put another idea on another idea on another idea, when the main central concept – can Androids have children? Can they love? Are they really more human than human, is one that needs exploring. The A.I. revolution stuff, the whole evil corporation, all of that is second to this simple idea. Did a Replicant truly love a human?
Even so, the world is such a brilliant invention, and Villeneuve is such a master of his craft that this science fiction film does become more than the sum of it’s parts. It does become something truly special. Given that Alien: Covenant was a major disappointment, and that Ghost in the Shell looked like a lazy Blade Runner rip off it’s nice that Blade Runner 2049 is a great film, with a brilliant score, a technical marvel with heart, ideas, and concepts at it’s core.
It’s not so much another chapter in the mythology as an ageing of the world, one that definitely helps bring concepts from the first (two very important cameos prove that), but even so, even Blade Runner’s harshest critic can’t deny the joy found when gravel voiced Harrison Ford shows up, and by the end, even at a near three-hour stretch, the film never loses track of it’s ideas and it’s purpose. Overlong, maybe. Overdue? Definitely. Flawed at times, but still one of the best films of the year, a science fiction film that will last as long as the original Blade Runner and won’t be lost like tears in the rain.