Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Harrison Ford
While it took some tweaking in the editing room to secure its legacy, Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner was about as influential a piece of science fiction cinema as the decade would ultimately see. With his team of designers, Scott – ever the aestheticist – helped to invent the decade’s fashions. The art world bowed to his vision and quickly went about trying to invent it.
35 years later and Denis Villeneuve has picked up the unenviable task of taking on the baton for a belated sequel. Blade Runner comes with a lot of baggage; not just the pressure to tell a new story infused with the philosophical inquisitiveness of the first, but also the expectation that it should reignite that ability to invent the future.
If so then the next few years will be a decidedly empty experience. Blade Runner 2049 is so thoroughly concerned with measuring up against its forebearer that it ruminates heavily on every single moment, in case this will be the reverential sequence that fans respond to. The result is a film hobbled with a totally unnecessary 160+ minute running time; a turgid slog through a plot that’s nowhere near as interesting as it’s been made out to be.
But then, plot was never the point of Blade Runner. Deckard’s investigation of the rogue replicants in the original is paper-thin. What gave that film its integrity and might was the way in which Scott interjected this narrative with contemplations on what it means to be human. The value of a soul and how it is measured. 2049 attempts to key in to the same sensibility but the attempt is, ironically, too soulless. The question exists but isn’t explored. It merely hangs like so much exquisite set design.
What Villeneuve and his team have nailed are the aesthetics. They’ve taken a blueprint and added 30 years of history to it (even if part of that history involves deliberately stalling advancement thanks to ‘the black out’). What’s more, they’ve expanded the boundaries. Those off-world colonies are still tantalisingly out of reach, but 2049 takes us to other cities far more ruinous than Los Angeles. Still, little here looks set to inspire a new revolution in design (and we’ll come to why later).
All of this is captured with awe by cinematographer Roger Deakins, a man of no small talent who evidences some of his most majestic work since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The world of Blade Runner is typified by negative spaces. Though the proletariat huddle together in confinement, the rich or fortunate flaunt their social status by inhabiting vast rooms with minimal features. Power in this story is expressed by just how much room you’re not using. This despite an overall sense that the world is becoming more and more deserted.
Indeed Villeneuve is so enamoured with the idea that – and I’m not exaggerating here – as much as 50% of the film is taken up with showing us just how empty it is. Rarely has one character’s journey from one place to another been lingered on with such reverence. And 2049 is, at its heart, a road movie, as we follow Ryan Gosling’s K from place to place, picking up breadcrumbs on his search for a most valuable replicant.
Gosling was a shrewd enough choice to play a synthetic human, having built a career out of playing characters that don’t emote. This is as blank as he’s ever been. The question isn’t whether he’s human or not (a conundrum that Harrison Ford played brilliantly way-back-when) but if he feels anything at all regardless. Ford is back as Deckard (a point of contention in itself) but as in almost everything else in the last 20 years, he has the meter running. The old Deckard isn’t evidenced; it’s just Harrison Ford in something, again.
The depiction of women in science fiction cinema has a long and thorny history and 2049 resolutely fails to show any progression on that score. If anything it’s examples are regressive. Most here are prostitutes or programmable slaves, while the culture of the future is riddled with nude totems to the female form as though the brand wars were somehow won by Loaded magazine. Having said that, the film’s most sympathetic and dimensional performance comes from Ana de Armas as K’s holographic girlfriend Joi. Ironically, she’s the most animated presence here, though she adheres to the old ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope and is awkwardly prefigured by Kreiger’s virtual anime bride in the TV show Archer.
While K’s fondness and respect for her as a legitimate individual softens the blow and keeps things broadly on theme, she is still defined by him. For another example see assassin Luv (seriously, these names) played by Sylvia Hoeks, whose sole purpose is to fulfil the will of Jared Leto’s blind CEO Nirander Wallace (don’t worry, his scenes are mercifully few in number).
What’s slightly maddening about all of this is the shades of interesting avenues left unexplored. The concept of a replicant uprising is toyed with for all of about a minute in the final act when an exposition cyclops is hauled out only to disappear without a trace. On the other side is one of the most meaningless and frankly distasteful callbacks in recent sequel history revolving around Sean Young’s Rachel character. Mull it over afterwards and sincerely ask yourself what the point was other than it’s unpleasant, violent end. It might be the film’s most misogynistic moment.
Like those spectacular interiors inhabited by the rich, Blade Runner 2049 is a luxurious experience characterised by its torpor and emptiness. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and I would still encourage you to view this in a cinema for the fullest version that experience, but it’s a Fabergé egg of a movie. Opulent, expensive, hollow but for tiny treasures.