Film Review: Blade Runner 2049
It’s been 24 hours since I saw Blade Runner 2049 and, while I’m not sure I can accurately describe the beast, I know what it isn’t. It’s not a retread. Neither is it an exercise in fan service, like Jurassic World or The Force Awakens. It’s miles away from the popular idea of a Hollywood blockbuster, though it’s been marketed as one: it lacks the predictable rhythms of one, and the clean through-line. It is, recognizably, a Denis Villeneuve film, with the same mixture of unease and beauty that he conjured up in Arrival.
Thirty years have passed since the events of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which had imagined a shadowy, neon-lit Los Angeles of 2019. The Replicants—bioengineered humans with enhanced strength—of the first film have been replaced by superior models developed by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), an inventor with a mild case of god complex. One of the new models is K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner, cops tasked with hunting down and “retiring” older, rogue models. Replicants are now part of society, and though they are discriminated against, their needs are catered to by corporations like those of any human; K returns home every night to Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram companion, Siri with a face and—could it be?—feelings.
Also read: The long shadow of ‘Blade Runner’
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner at the heart of the first film, is long gone, presumed dead. But there’s worrying news of a child born to a Replicant, a rumour that, if true, could threaten the existing world order. K, whose world-weary, task-fulling nature is established in the film’s extended, excellent opening sequence, is sent to investigate and, if need be, eliminate this child. This takes him to a lab where the electric sheep and everything else androids dream of are created, to a sweatshop run with child labour, and to the offices of Wallace, where he meets Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a Replicant assistant whose remorselessness puts K’s into perspective.
Villeneuve’s eye for startling imagery was clear in Arrival, and here he has Roger Deakins, a magician of light and landscape, to help him expand on Ridley Scott’s noir-influenced visions of the future. The result is closer to something like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert than anything Hollywood has done in years: a tentpole film that resembles an art installation. The unrelenting picturesqueness had an odd effect—I felt strangely obliged to admire the hell out of everything that was being placed before me. Even as it filled me with wonder, it kept me at a distance.
It seems fair to say that Blade Runner 2049 needed Gosling the star more than Gosling the actor. His charm nullified by the demands of playing an emotionally withdrawn partially sentient being, Gosling is as beautiful and arid as some of the environments he’s placed in. The women, though, are intriguing: the tight-faced Robin Wright as K’s boss; Hoeks, a lethal blank slate; Armas, very touching as the barely-there Joi.
This is a more contemplative sci-fi offering than audiences may be prepared for. I was reminded of the unsettling cadences and unstable created worlds of George Lucas’ THX 1138 and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but filtered through what one might call the Bogart prism: a tough dude discovering his humanity. There are some astonishing moments in Blade Runner 2049, and more than a couple when I longed for the pulpier, messier pleasures of Scott’s 1982 film. One thing, though, is clear: if Villeneuve keeps getting to make films on this scale, he’s as likely as anyone to change Hollywood’s idea of the big-budget blockbuster.