The future isn’t what it used to be. We’re only two years away from 2019 when, according to the original Blade Runner, we’ll all be flying cars around stylish neon dystopias and hunting killer replicants.
You can decide for yourself how disappointed you are.
One of the great joys of Blade Runner 2049 is that it doesn’t try to update the retro aesthetic. This is still the future as we imagined it in 1982, but expanded via modern tech to fill a much broader canvas. While the original kept us confined to the overcrowded streets of Los Angeles, here we’re granted stunning (if bleak) vistas of a devastated world.
Make no mistake, this is a spectacular film. It’s hard to think of another Hollywood film in which almost every shot is worth framing and hanging on your wall (only Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter comes to mind). Indeed, it’s such a visual feast that the first two hours wash by so hypnotically that it’s hard to give much thought to plot or pace.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a plot beneath the gorgeous cinematography. Without going into specifics, the story has a strong mystery element echoing its pulpish roots, unfolding a conspiracy that owes as much to LA Confidential as it does Children of Men. Ryan Gosling, like Harrison Ford before him, is a blade runner, sent to retire (read: execute) replicants who have outlived their expiry date. A chance discovery on one such assignment leads him to the heart of power, which here lies not with the police so much as their corporate masters.
In true film noir fashion, there are no innocents – although the super-powered replicants appear the most vulnerable. Director Denis Villeneuve makes the most of the ambiguities between who is allowed to be real and who must remain demonstrably false. Replicants are constantly tested to ensure they aren’t developing an emotional life (ie. becoming human). If they fail, they are destroyed.
This is the price of human civilisation in the late 21st century: slaves are never allowed to wonder how life might be different. Ryan Gosling’s K believes he might be real, encouraged in this be his thoroughly artificial holographic girlfriend – who in turn longs to be real enough for him.
There is a lot to ponder. At least, there seems to be. Just as some might find they’re left with more questions than answers as the plot tangles-but-doesn’t-quite-knot in the third act, some may be left wondering whether the poetic moments (enter Jared Leto as replicant master Wallace) are profound or merely pretentious.
Blade Runner (1982) was and is a film that’s hard to love on first viewing, revealing more to admire with each revisit. On opening night, I wasn’t sure if 2049 will live to prove as layered or whether it might reveal hidden shallows. I suspect, at the very least, it may prove less quotable.
As lead replicant K, Ryan Gosling is perfect casting. Like Harrison, he has a peculiarly sensitive machismo, about as vulnerable as he is butch. There is also something slightly unreal about him: an unnatural stillness and calm, not to mention the sort of good looks that might have been grown in a factory. It would be enough to have him swishing around looking cool in a really enviable coat; instead Gosling crafts a slow burning portrait of an emerging emotional life – at first hinted at but repressed, then simmering and ultimately explosive.
He’s supported in this by a powerful female cast including Robin Wright, Ana de Armas and Mackenzie Davis. Wright is as fierce as House of Cards fans would expect, but de Armas and Davis deserve particular praise for deepening hypersexualised characters stripped of any motive other than to please a bloke.
What about Harrison? It’s spoiling nothing to reveal his Deckard makes an appearance, but what is surprising is that this saps the film’s momentum at the exact point it should step up a gear. The confrontation between him and Gosling is oddly flat and the fight scene so lifeless that the eye strays instead to the (impressive) set dressing, rather than honing on what should be an essential, magnetic dynamic.
Ford is as charismatic as ever, which might be a problem. It’s hard to buy him as the assassin of the original. That was a restrained, near-silent performance, but here he’s more in wisecracking Han Solo mode. Nonetheless, he gets an all-too-rare chance to do some hefty emotional work, offering a useful reminder that he’s still as good at acting as he is at being Harrison Ford.
Doubtless many will come to Blade Runner 2049 nostalgic for the future they grew up with. But, aesthetics aside, where the retro vibe really comes into play is that this feels like the sort of science fiction film that Hollywood doesn’t make any more. Slow, thoughtful, ambiguous, possibly profound and unafraid of its ambition. In a sense, its long-form storytelling owes more to the television of 2017. Rather than trying to prove itself to the audience, it asks the audience to prove they’re paying attention.
No, I’m not sure it truly earns its three-hour runtime. Yes, the last act is messy, stumbling over the necessary plot points instead of building up to them. But I can’t shake the feeling that this clumsiness will, in time, be part of its charm. We’ll come to admire the way the film resists expectations as much as it exceeds them. Blade Runner 2049 should have been a cash cow, a cheap facsimile of the original. Instead, we might yet come to understand it as something even better.
Blade Runner 2049
- Opens October 5
- Rated MA15+, 163 minutes