More than a worthy successor, Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner sequel is essential in its own right
Delivering a worthy sequel to Blade Runner was always going to be a challenge. Not only is it one of the most groundbreaking science fiction films ever made, it's become so woven into the fabric of cinema, so often referenced and copied, that any revist attempt could have descended into homage, or even self-parody.
In Denis Villeneuve's confident hands, however, Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful, powerful and relevant piece of filmmaking. Masterful in its craft and elegant in its message, it doesn't simply replicate the themes and ideas of the first film, but builds on them in ways that are both authentic and inventive.
Thirty years on from the events of Ridley Scott's 1982 original (adapted from Philip K Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?), Los Angeles remains the same sprawling urban megalopolis of dank concrete canyons and bright neon, advertising everything from soft drinks to a holographic life partner.
While the Tyrell Corporation has given way to the Wallace Corporation, the business of Niander Wallace (an icy Jared Leto) remains the same; the creation of synthetic humans, known as replicants, who take on the service jobs that keep civilization ticking over. While these upgraded replicants seem to cause no trouble, some of the older, more feisty models have gone into hiding – and the LAPD wants to track them down.
That task falls to Blade Runners like K (Ryan Gosling) who, like his predecessor Deckard (Harrison Ford), must first determine if the targeted individuals are human via a series of rapid-fire questions designed to gauge an emotional response. Those who fail the test are permanently retired. When K makes an earth-shattering discovery, however, it completely changes the game.
To say any more would be to spoil a complex, carefully-plotted story that deserves to be discovered on screen. The slow-burn narrative by screenwriters Hampton Fancher – who also co-wrote the 1982 screenplay – and Michael Green snakes a path littered with secrets, lies and blistering revelations that echo not only through the corridors of this film, but those which came before.
So it is that eyes, those windows to the soul, are once again a recurring motif; replicants have their barcodes printed on them, colour proves important, they hold meaning and emotion that cannot be manufactured. ('There was something in his eyes', Edward James Olmos' veteran Blade Runner Gaff recalls of Deckard's uniqueness.) The idea of buried truths, primarily in terms of the reliability of memory but also with K's literal unearthing of a monumental item, ties his fate to Deckard's. New characters, though entirely individual and well-defined, bear the fingerprints of their 1982 forebears, like Daryl Hannah's Priss and Sean Young's Rachel.
At the heart of it all lies the question that informs Blade Runner's entire universe; what it means to be truly human. Gosling's brooding K acts as guide through the film's existential musings, the idea of humanity explored through his day to day interactions (with replicants, holograms, technology, people), his memories, his increasingly jaded view on the world. Gosling is exceptional in the role, measure and restraint giving way to flashes of anger, desperation, grief and, finally, understanding.
Elsewhere, Harrison Ford steals the show as the returning Deckard, in a late-entering but meaty role. Gruff, strong and sharp, he is no shadow of his former self but a quick-witted and fleet-footed man whose age and experience are shown to be his greatest strengths.
The masterful conductor of this epic, orchestral sci-fi is director Villeneuve, working in harmonious collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner. The camera soars above the concrete jungle of LA and the decaying wastelands of San Diego, recognisable but alien. Recurring visual motifs of circles (eyes, domed habitats) tie into central themes of life and death. The dirt and dust of industry blankets the screen in a haze, outlines of buildings and people waxing and waning in the gloom. It's all augmented by seamless CGI, and a nuanced score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch that is, at times, quietly contemplative and, at others, vivid and soaring.
This blend of invention and introspection is what Villeneuve does best, previous films like Enemy, Sicario and Arrival play with familiar ideas of identity and place in abstract ways. His latest work has much in common with Arrival; not only in its obvious genre identity, but also in its distillation of humanity through a fantastical lens which, for all its other-worldliness, is informed by recognisable human emotion. An expert blend of the familiar and the new, Blade Runner 2049 is nothing short of a triumph.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis, Sylvia Hoeks, Lennie James, Carla Juri, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
UK release: 6 October 2017
Blade Runner K (Gosling) is tasked with finding replicants who are passing themselves off as human, but then he makes an earth-shattering, game-changing discovery. Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel to Scott’s original is beautiful, powerful and relevant; Gosling is exceptional, and Ford steals the show as the ageing but…