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Should I Watch..? Blade Runner 2049
What's the big deal?
Blade Runner 2049 is a science fiction film released in 2017 and is a sequel to the highly regarded 1982 film Blade Runner (1). Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film is a continuation of the story set thirty years after the events of the first film. The movie stars Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks and Dave Bautista. Like many fans of the original, I admit to a certain amount of trepidation regarding this belated sequel and more so when Ridley Scott announced that he would only be acting as a producer of the movie. However, Villeneuve's treatment of the material combined with a magnificent story by original scribe Hampton Fancher have made this one of the all-time great sequels. It is visually stunning, thematically deep and utterly immersive. It is nothing short of a game-changer.
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What's it about?
With the death of the company founder Dr Eldon Tyrell, the vast Tyrell Corporation goes bust and eventually bought out by Niander Wallace who continues production of replicants, synthetic humans mostly used as slave labour off-world. By 2049, replicants have been permitted on Earth although they still face discrimination from everyday humans. One such replicant, K, works as a blade runner with the LAPD whose primary task is to track down and "retire" older models.
K's latest case involves him pursuing a farmer and former military officer Sapper Morton on a remote outpost beyond the city limits. While there, K makes a discovery that challenges everything previously believed about replicants. Ordered by his boss Lt. Joshi to destroy the evidence and erase his memory of his findings to prevent such knowledge causing widespread chaos, K finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that links his findings with that of former blade runner Rick Deckard and inadvertently puts both their lives at risk from powerful forces...
Ana de Armas
Hampton Fancher & Michael Green *
Release Date (UK)
5th October, 2017
What's to like?
Admit it, we had reservations about this project. Sequels made so long after the original are rarely that good, especially when the original is still considered one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made and is still debated today. Fortunately, Villeneuve understands this trepidation and swiftly dispatches such fears very quickly. The film is awash with visuals that are nothing short of breath-taking and this in itself is quite the feat. These days, we are used to CG-stuffed pictures and the overwhelming influence of Blade Runner means we are all aware of how it looks. But this... it expands the scope of the original by having vast towers stretching into the night-sky illuminated by bright neon advertising and holograms, huge walls keeping the raging toxic sea at bay as the new-look spinners (flying cars) soar above them and abandoned statues and buildings dot the landscape amid mountains of rubbish and twisted metal. If cinematographer Roger Deakins is remembered for anything in his impressive CV then it will surely be this.
It also impresses on a more intimate level - sets are simply beautiful, although one suspects that they are designed for form rather than function. Even the lighting, often overlooked in the first film, underscores each scene with grace and elegance. Surrounded by the pretty visuals, the cast actually have a job standing out but they perform well, helped by an intelligent script that refuses to dumb down to its audience. Gosling may be a tad too stoic in the lead compared to the endlessly charismatic Ford but playing a replicant suits his style well. The real star, for my money, is de Armas as K's live-in partner Joi, essentially a home-help hologram that can accompany K via a portable projector. Hoeks also puts in a disturbing performance as Luv, evolving from efficient secretary to murderous harpy as the film progresses. Finally, a word on the score which was another real strength of Blade Runner. Written by Benjamin Wallfisch and veteran Hans Zimmer, it holds its own alongside Vangelis' synth-heavy soundtrack and borrows a few cues as well.
- Villeneuve's first choice to play Niander Wallace was singer David Bowie, who sadly passed away before the start of shooting.
- Ford accidentally punched Gosling full in the face during a fight scene and as an apology, presented a bottle of Scotch to his co-star.
- Due to the various versions of Blade Runner released over the years, Villeneuve had to decide which version would become canon as different versions imply different things about Deckard's true identity. Villeneuve has stated that he has the most affection for the original theatrical version and the 2007 Final Cut.
What's not to like?
There are a couple of things I didn't fully get on board with. The first is Leto - there's nothing wrong with his performance but his character felt underwritten and underused, not to mention that he's far too similar to Joe Turkel's portrayal of Eldon Tyrell. Unlike the original, this film feels too open-ended with blatant seeds planted for a possible sequel. It doesn't quite give you the pay-off you'd expect because of this, even though this film runs at well over two and a half hours long. I also felt the soundtrack was a little too intrusive at times, blaring over the film at times.
But really, that's it. It's a film that isn't concerned with box office returns or anything so corporate - this feels like a film made by artists for people who aren't afraid to think. It's certainly not a sci-fi tinged action blockbuster like I, Robot (2) as the pace might put less patient viewers off. This is something special, something to be savoured and watched a few times to be fully absorbed and understood.
Should I watch it?
Amazingly, Villeneuve has somehow produced a follow-up that is not only reverent to the first film but also acts as a companion to it, both in terms of quality and narrative. Blade Runner 2049 is a rare science fiction film of the type we hardly ever see nowadays. It takes you on a journey through the same philosophical questions, treats you like an intelligent adult able to take on its higher concepts and still has the time to blow you away with its awe-inspiring beauty, design and atmosphere. Like the original, this is a film that will be talked about for years to come.
Great For: fans of the first film, Villeneuve's reputation (this will open so many doors for him), lovers of intelligent science fiction
Not So Great For: younger viewers (this is a more adult film than before), anyone expecting wall-to-wall action, short attention spans
What else should I watch?
The most surprising thing about Blade Runner 2049 is how close it comes to overshadowing the original Blade Runner. Every bit as visually spectacular and based around one of the best screenplays ever written, Ridley Scott's seminal sci-fi masterpiece has stood the test of time. Opposite a fresh-faced Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer delivers the performance of his life as Roy Batty and the film has so many moments that stay with you long after the film ends. It's not afraid of leaving some questions unanswered and respects the audience enough to allow you to reach your own conclusions. It is, in a word, brilliant.
These days, I feel that there is a divide between intelligent science fiction like this and the more abbreviated sci-fi which relies far more on bombastic effects and action instead of story-telling. Even widely successful films like The Matrix (3) tended to let the effects overtake the narrative, as high-concept as it may appear. Even other films based on Philip K Dick's work fall into the same trap like the Arnold Schwarzenegger shooter Total Recall (4). I'm not saying that bullet-time and high-definition slow-motion aren't good but these days, films are made to make money and audiences tend to flock more towards the action-heavy end of the genre. This is what makes Blade Runner 2049 so refreshing - it's like settling down with a good book and letting the little details within wash over you as you grapple with the story's ideas and themes.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox