Released: October 2017
Director: Denis Villeneuve
25 years after the original Blade Runner was released, Denis Villeneuve brings a futuristic Los Angeles back to the big screen with Blade Runner 2049. The old-style replicants that were being hunted in the first film are now being sought out by other, more advanced and obedient, replicants. One, K (Ryan Gosling), uncovers a mystery that leads him back to Richard Deckard (Harrison Ford) and starts him questioning his own past and role in society.
The city K inhabits is familiar, but more. It is bigger, more neon, more decrepit, more self-serving and selfish. It is a beautiful film, with enthralling dust-filled, sweeping shots over the endless buildings. You can practically hear the neon buzzing when in the city proper, and feel the desolation when outside the walls. The film uses these enormous, scene-setting shots to create spectacle in what is essentially a very small story, and it works well.
The story can afford to be small because the fundamental purpose of Blade Runner is to make the audience question what it is to be human, and these enormous sweeps of infinite landscapes, be they current man-made metropolises or the collapsed ruins of a recent “great” past, help to give a sense of smallness in the overall world, and reinforce the vastness of time and how little a mark all human achievement will leave in the end. This is most evident in the ruins of Las Vegas, with two huge legs and smashed head nearby referencing the folly of Ozymandias in the famous Shelley poem.
The philosophical dimension of Blade Runner 2049 is easily summed up by the depiction of K’s relationship with his AI holographic girlfriend. It is such a small element of the overall story, but it prompts so many ideas and questions: can replicants feel real love? If not, is there any reason they shouldn’t play-act with an AI? If they can, is there anything wrong with them feeling it for an AI? And if there is no issue with a replicant having genuine feelings for an AI, what does that mean for human/AI relationships? If the conclusions we come to are different for replicants and humans, then we are then back to the fundamental question of both films, which is what is the difference between humans and replicants? Is there something indefinably “human” that we have and they don’t? If so, what? If not, how can we justify their use as labour for us?
The joy of the film is that it doesn’t address these questions directly. It just includes the concept, and many more besides, and lets you pull it apart as much or as little as you want. Your conclusions will not really affect your enjoyment of the plot, nor, indeed, will the choice to ignore any opportunity for further thought. While without further dissection it may be a little slow, you still get an excellent noir-esque detective film, with a solid mystery and a good few twists. With some extra analysis, you get a film that may change your concept of your own existence.
Overarchingly, as both a philosophical musing and a standard detective film, it does well, but on the lower, more technical levels, it definitely has flaws.
Some of the dialogue is really very poor, with some characters just spewing exposition like they are in a Radio 4 afternoon play. Minor characters, in particular, are often delivering very wooden lines, which it seems unlikely the best actors could bring more realism to.
Niander Wallace was a wildly out of place character, seeming to come from an entirely different film. It is unclear how much of this was caused by Jared Leto‘s over-the-top performance, but it seems as though, rather like his Joker role in the Suicide Squad film, he was sold a leading role only to have it cut away to a few disparate scenes, lacking in context and build up, so it may be unfair to blame him entirely for what appears to be a very misjudged performance. His super-cold replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) also feels slightly misaligned, with a skill set and muddled motivation that may be better suited to a role in a Kingsman film or similar.
Overall the acting is superb. Ryan Gosling comfortably shows existential angst with little more than a tweak of his eyebrows, and Harrison Ford is wonderful as a man who has asked too many searching in his life and realised whatever the answers are, he’s still just alive and the world is still just there. Ana de Armas does such a good job playing a simpering, loyal projection of an AI girlfriend it’s easy to forget she is someone acting and not actually just a computer. The stand out performance, however, comes from Dave Bautista. He may only be in it for a few minutes, but he is so convincing as a powerful man living a life of constant restraint. It is hard to believe he only really entered film acting 3 years ago, and this is easily his most nuanced performance yet.
Die-hard fans of the original, whichever version they want that to be, will probably take issue with the film. It is more explicit in the themes and ideas it presents, and Gosling’s K character is quite different from Ford’s Deckard. However, as a sequel that expands and builds on the established premise, rather than being a remake of or update to the original film, Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent sci-fi film, whose uniquely thoughtful strengths more than compensate for it’s few shortcomings.