Milo Garner takes on the blockbuster revisiting of an iconic scifi realm.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is one of the pillars of sci-fi cinema, one of the two masterpieces that crystalized his pantheon position amongst directors (otherwise unearned). Though Phillip K. Dick’s source material underpinned Blade Runner with thematic strength, it wasn’t for its intellectualism that it became so acclaimed. Its heavy sense of atmosphere and style is its crowning achievement; in Scott’s vision, musing on what it means to be human is certainly important, but secondary. The atmosphere is instantly recognizable – a neon and crowded Los Angeles, beaten by constant rain; a future dominated by East Asian influence. Interiors resemble more noir than science fiction film, with ceiling fans revolving over lingering smoke. Dark rooms are sharply-lit through half-open blinds.
Blade Runner 2049, directed by sci-fi’s new kid on the block Denis Villeneuve, seems aware of this legacy, but stands markedly apart. Like its predecessor it is in style that the film truly excels – but 2049’s is not a style of the same kind. The film is characterized by its use of negative space, with saturated colours and sparsely beautiful compositions a constant throughout. The gritty and physical world of Scott’s film is replaced by one far more typically ‘sci-fi’, clean and bright. This results in both amazement at the visual palette delivered by the ever-excellent Roger Deakins, who imbues every frame with a sense of splendour rarely witnessed in cinema. But there is also a sense of sterility, a loss of the beating heart that gave the original such life and longevity. The short time this new film actually spends at street-level, despite its best efforts, is too beautiful to be dingy. Writing for Slant, Chuck Bowen notes that K (Ryan Gosling) gets his noodles from a machine, while Deckard had bought his from a street vendor, suggesting a conscious decision to present a world less ‘human’. This general theme seems to have carried over to the visual tone.
In terms of visuals the production design must also be considered, to similar conclusions. While Scott’s film purposefully presented anachronistic elements to create a sense of genre – the detective noir in that case – Villeneuve pushes his vision far in the other direction. While in Blade Runner the Tyrell headquarters were bathed in an otherworldly golden hue, Wallace’s (Jared Leto) base of operations is instead drowning in its orange tint. And while the former reflected the abode of an exuberant man, the latter is closer to the interior of some lost Egyptian tomb, breathtakingly vast and stunningly realized. This general theme is repeated throughout: the original film preferred an inky reinterpretation of recognisable locales; the new pushes for unseen scope and scale. Even a location that might be relatable – a run-down casino – takes on a mythological appearance, with towering statues engulfed by a sandy haze just outside. Yet while there are countless frames of the film that might make for a masterful printout – many more than in Scott’s film – they are also less suited for the detective slow-burn that both Blade Runners remain. The film’s leisurely 163 minutes allow for a wonderful tour of these incredible sights, but there is a pining for the creeping shadow the first film realized so brilliantly.
Beyond its look, the film also sounds mesmeric. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch succeeding Vangelis with surprising confidence. The music of Blade Runner was essential to its success, and about as influential as the visuals were for later sci-fi cinema. Zimmer and Wallfisch reflect this by retaining the synth-heavy tone of Vangelis’ soundtrack, while introducing a soundscape-style ambience and all-encompassing bass, signatures of Zimmer’s specific brand of score. Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve’s regular composer, had originally been the sole composer for 2049, but was later replaced; it seems the intent was to come closer to the sound of Vangelis. In this aim the film undoubtedly succeeds, imbuing 2049 with a genetic link to its forerunner otherwise forgone in the film’s cinematography.
Filling the film’s lofty world is a story a little less grand, but nonetheless functional. It takes place thirty years after the original (who’d have guessed?) The time-jump is filled by the fall of the Tyrell Corp and its replacement by Niander Wallace, who builds a new, more obedient, form of replicant. Any of the remaining older models, such as the original film’s protagonist, must be hunted down by blade runners. One such blade runner is K, a self-aware replicant of the new kind who finds himself pining for some sense of everyday life. While the original leaves a lot of the implications regarding replicants up to the viewer, 2049 is more direct – the term slave is said several times, and it is mentioned that a gap must be maintained between ‘us and them’. K receives verbal abuse from passing humans on top of this – even respected replicants such as himself are second-class citizens in this world. At home he plays Frank Sinatra and is waited on by his ideal woman, Joi. The twist is that she’s not a woman, nor even a replicant, but a hologram. Initially this strikes one as incredibly artificial, fraudulent as the holographic dinner she places over his vending machine noodles. But the thought process that follows naturally leads to the acknowledgement that we thought the very same of replicants initially – could this cheaper model of artificial intelligence not, too, ‘be’? Unfortunately the film does not engage with this question further than its surface implications, with Joi saying little of interest across her scant dialogue. Rachael didn’t have an enormous role in the first film, occupying an equivalent position, yet managed to challenge the audience far more than this new character ever does. The questioning, in this instance, is left to us.
After completing an assignment K discovers an impossibility – a replicant that has given birth. His superior, Joshi (Robin Wright), worries about what this might mean for the relationship between human and replicant, and so demands the evidence of this event be destroyed entirely. It is here the film flails a little thematically, since its assertion that reproduction – birth – is essential to ‘being’ is not as self-evident as presented. To be born or not has little bearing on the themes of Dick’s text or Scott’s film, and though the film does acknowledge this eventually, it seems too obvious from the start. More interesting perhaps is the film’s concern with memory, the way in which it defines identity, and the problem of duplicate memories in relation to this. Again, this isn’t explored in particular depth, but K’s journey does allow 2049 to revisit many of the ideas of the first film from a different angle, so engaging with them again if not necessarily offering much expansion or improvement.
The antagonists in 2049 are another stumbling block, mainly for their overt villainy. A good example is Tyrell versus Wallace – while the former could pass off as a businessman with wider, perhaps unhinged, ambitions, the latter is nothing less than an evil mastermind. He talks of his replicants as ‘angels’ in a slow and grandiose tone – it’s difficult to consider that he is from the same world those of the first film inhabited. Worse is his replicant assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who is incredibly malicious without any particular reason. In one case she causes K incredible pain and then, bizarrely, leaves him alive. A robotic malfunction, or lazy narrative device? Another of the big questions to ponder.
Blade Runner 2049 is an interesting film, and manages to be both astounding and remarkably unengaging at various points across its lengthy runtime. Versus the original its slow burn does not function nearly as well, though on the larger sci-fi scene it manages visuals that few other films could compete with. However, that a three decades-delayed sequel to Blade Runner, a film that did not imply a follow-up of any sort, managed to avoid being a total disaster is something to be celebrated.
Blade Runner 2049 is out now in UK cinemas. Check out the trailer below: