This film should not exist. Not just because its predecessor, released in 1982, was initially a critical failure – and who in their right mind would sink $185 million into making a sequel to a movie that took a decade to be appreciated? Not just because the original Blade Runner was a self-contained story, unsullied by the kinds of disappointing follow-ups and spin-offs that blighted the once mighty Alien. No, Blade Runner 2049 shouldn’t exist because belated, expensive sequels are so seldom worth our time and money.
How miraculous, then, that Blade Runner 2049 emerges not only as a film that complements the original – and arguably deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Ridley Scott’s seminal masterpiece – but also stands as a spectacular story all by itself. Denis Villeneuve, who previously directed the likes of Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and Arrival, is again on career-best form here; he’s joined by a group of actors and filmmakers who are all operating at the height of their own creative powers.
The story deserves to be appreciated intact, but the gist is this: it’s the year 2049, 30 years after the events of Blade Runner. A new corporation has risen up to replace the one once run by Eldon Tyrell; it too creates artificially humans that are indistinguishable from the rest of us, a slave labour force put to work on the worlds we’ve colonised throughout the solar system.
Like Rick Deckard before him, K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner – an agent charged with hunting down and ‘retiring’ the last of Tyrell’s old Replicants, in hiding and dotted around the devastated remains of a near-future America. While searching the home of one Nexus-8 replicant (Dave Bautista), K stumbles on a seemingly meaningless detail that sends him off on a case with far-reaching implications for the whole planet.
What’s immediately striking about Blade Runner 2049 is how completely and deeply immersive its world is. Villeneuve’s filmmaking doesn’t always come across too well in trailers; the long takes and deliberate rhythm are all part of the director’s way of building atmosphere and suspense, and you really have to see the whole film to appreciate what he’s achieved here. As in the original, 2049 takes place in a world that is at once futuristic and redolent of the past; there are no mobile phones, and Pan-Am and Atari are still major corporations, yet there are artificial intelligent machines, holograms and flying cars. Together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve crafts a world every bit as rich and detailed as the one Ridley Scott, Jordan Cronenweth and effects maestro Douglas Trumbull brought us in 1982.
The skyscrapers lit up at night, blinking neon signs and over-crowded streets are things we’ve seen in sci-fi films many times since, yet the landscapes are presented with such wonderment and delicacy here that they feel somehow new. Unlike so many other genre films, the background elements are more than window-dressing: they’re pivotal to the story, which is by turns sensual and leaden with melancholy. Numbed by his job as an assassin, K’s sole companion is Joi, an artificially-intelligent hologram played by Ana de Armas. There’s a wonderfully delicate spark between the two actors – both dislocated from the human race somehow, two souls disembodied by technology.
There’s a running theme in Blade Runner 2049 about holograms, in fact. At one point, we go into a futuristic club where science brings 3D ghosts of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra back from the dead. There’s an eeriness to these scenes that gets to the core of post-post-modern pop culture, where visual effects can create (almost) convincing replicas of long dead icons, yet new icons seem in curiously short supply. It’s as though our cultural staples – Star Wars, Marvel, DC – have already been created, so all we can do is revive them and refashion them to our current tastes.
In a lesser film, these might feel like admissions of creative bankruptcy, but Blade Runner 2049’s brilliance is such that it can afford to throw in these subtle moments of self-reflection. This is a film that’s aware of its lineage, and clearly the product of filmmakers who adore the world Scott created, but it’s also brave enough to strike out with a story that can succeed on its own terms. To Blade Runner 1982’s themes of mortality, memories and existential despair, 2049 adds a couple more of its own: self-worth, the human need for physical contact, purpose and meaning.
As in the original, there’s the overwhelming sense that this future noir isn’t so much populated by heroes and villains as a generation of lost souls, searching for something that is always slightly out of reach. Gosling is perfect casting as K, the taciturn detective and killer, but then, the supporting cast is also difficult to fault: Robin Wright plays K’s frostily authoritarian boss, Lieutenant Joshi; Sylvia Hoeks plays Luv, one of Niander Wallace’s replicants who starts shadowing K’s investigations. It’s to the actors’ credit – not to mention Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s script – that all these characters come off as more than just soulless archetypes. All display signs of buried conflict and suppressed feeling, giving their every move an air of unpredictability.
Taking slivers of Vangelis’ 1982 score and refashioning them, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch create a sonic backdrop that’s by turns thunderous and swooning – the perfect accompaniment to Villeneuve’s storytelling, which seldom resorts to reams of dialogue when a single, arresting image will do. Put it all together, and it’s an astonishing achievement – a movie that moves at its own deliberate, hypnotic pace, that never compromises its tone or rhythm with an out-of-place action sequence or ungainly slab of exposition. This latter aspect may alienate viewers expecting an aggressive, sci-fi action flick; it’s important to go in with the understanding that Blade Runner 2049 is an ambient noir thriller, and let its illusory world wash over you.
Philip K Dick, who wrote the source novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, never got to see Blade Runner in its entirety, and was openly ambivalent about Hollywood stepping roughshod over his literary dreamscape. But not long before he died in 1982, Dick got to see around 20 minutes of footage from Blade Runner’s opening, and he was completely entranced. When the lights went up at the end, he turned to Ridley Scott and said, “How is this possible?” It was as though someone had taken the contents of his mind, he said, and daubed it on the cinema screen.
I can’t help thinking that Philip K Dick would have the same reaction to Blade Runner 2049 if he were alive today. Like the paradoxical, disturbing and bewitching realms of the author’s books, Blade Runner 2049 should not exist. It’s a breathtaking film; a heartfelt burst of creative energy from some of the best movie-makers currently working. It is, in short, a masterpiece.
Blade Runner 2049 is out in UK cinemas on the 5th October.