Blade Runner 2049 is a beautifully shot, exceptionally aesthetically pleasing sequel. In many ways, it’s almost a replica of the original film, but it doesn’t quite have the soul.
And that’s how this replica and replicants differ.
The beating heart of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in 1982 was the question of whether replicants have a soul. Whether they can assert free will. Whether it is ethical to keep replicants as slaves, or “retire” them. Whether they are more human than human.
In Blade Runner 2049, the question of whether artificial human beings have souls, becomes a question of biology – not philosophy – and the story is poorer because of it.
It’s difficult to discuss the plot of Blade Runner 2049 without giving too much away, but here goes. Thirty years after Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Sean Young) walked past that origami unicorn, a new blade runner, the replicant LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), coded for compliance, literally unearths a secret that his superiors believe has the ability to plunge society into chaos. His discovery sets him on the path to find Deckard, who has been missing for decades.
Director Denis Villeneuve, who made the wonderful Arrival in 2016, has crafted a film that does justice to just how influential the aesthetics of the original were. In the original, Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth created a smoky, shadowy neo-noir, a melting pot city of multicultural influences. San Fransokyo, but dark.
Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakinshave have been careful to set their film in the same city, but imagined it 30 years on. The city is even darker; blanketed in smog so thick it seems to drown even the neon billboards, choking out all colour. There are fewer flickering, buzzing neon signs too; instead, holographic women as tall as towers prowl through the streets.
The other landscapes from Villeneuve are just as impressive. The film opens in farmland, or what was once farmland. Now it is an endless plain of grey ash and mud, with the occasional skeletal tree clawing up towards the sky.
But the director’s crowning glory is where we finally find Deckard: the remains of Las Vegas. It’s an unnerving, sickly orange graveyard of abandoned sculptures and signs. The best scene in the film shows Deckard and K facing off in a deserted entertainment hall, empty of all people except for the eerie, wavering holograms of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
The other unequivocal strength of the film is how you feel the sound reverberating in your bones, so you know you have Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to thank. The soundtrack enthralls, and the sound design keeps you constantly on edge.
The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Ryan Gosling is doing his best Only God Forgives stoicism, which works for the character. Harrison Ford utilises his usual grizzled, hangdog charm, but in a few scenes gets to actually act more than we’ve seen in years. Robin Wright can do no wrong, but her character Lieutenant Joshi, who is K’s handler, doesn’t get a lot to work with.
That’s more than can be said for Jared Leto’s ‘villain’, Niander Wallace, who is an utter cliché of creepy, perverse corporate greed. (And I generally like films that paint corporate greed as creepy and perverse.) The most interesting question he presents, with his high-tech neck implant and unsettling, buzzing drone eyes, is whether human beings are coming to resemble replicants, even as they worry about the reverse.
Ana de Armas stars as Joi, a holographic personal assistant / ‘personal assistant’ AI. This reviewer didn’t quite believe the chemistry between K and Joi, but the existence of her character at all shows that the filmmakers were trying to ask questions beyond those posed in the original film. If a human and a replicant could fall in love, why not a replicant and a disembodied mind? That might sound facetious, but what is love if not compatible programs?
It’s unfortunate that the strongest performance of the film, Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, one of Wallace’s replicants, doesn’t have nearly enough time on screen for us to enjoy her increasingly deranged rage. She out-emotes Robin Wright when they face off, and that’s saying something.
The biggest flaw of Blade Runner 2049 is that it runs for 164 minutes and barely has a plot to sustain half that time. But perhaps even that could be forgiven, except that you can’t help but compare it to the original.
The plot of the original Blade Runner was lean and simple, but the film asked essential questions about humanity. More importantly, perhaps, were the questions it didn’t answer, like whether or not Deckard was himself a replicant.
2049 wants to achieve the same, but can’t replicate the raw and gritty simplicity of the original. The sequel tries to cultivate mystery through a convoluted plot; and wants to leave the viewer wanting more with a heavy-handed ending setting up a sequel. Robot uprising, anyone?
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