TL;DR – Visually stunning, and a wonderful follow up to a true Sci-fi classic.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Besides Star Wars later in the year, I don’t think there has been a film as anticipated in the sci-fi world more than Blade Runner 2049. As I mentioned in my retrospective of Blade Runner (see retrospective) the first time I watched the original was just the other day so I came into 2049 with that whole story being very fresh in my mind. Which turns out was a good thing, because Blade Runner 2049 is not just a sequel in name only. So without getting into spoilers here, you may want to go watch the first film in preparation of seeing it here, not that you should need an excuse to see one of the most transformative science fiction films of the last century. I do have to say from the start that I went see Blade Runner 2049 at a premium showing (Gold Class for those in Australia) which I paid for, and I went during the middle of the day when there is usually fewer people. However, still with all this, I was in a session with a couple that loud talked throughout the film, in the quiet contemplative moments, and even answered an unmuted phone at some point. So while I am professional, I can’t put aside the possibility that this might have impacted my perception of the film. Now overall I really liked Blade Runner 2049 but it is hard to talk about it without hitting spoilers, hell even the cast list is a spoiler at this point. So just for the sake of precautions be prepared for [SPOILERS] ahead if you have not seen the film, which you should.
So to set the scene, it has been thirty years since Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) fled Los Angeles with Rachel (Sean Young) after finding a paper unicorn waiting for him, and let the argument of whether Deckard is a replicant or not begin. In the last thirty years things have gone from bad to worse, the ecosystem of Earth has gone through a complete collapse, a blackout wiped most of the world’s data, the very elements of the planet have turned against man, The Tyrell corporation collapsed and was brought out by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who created a new line of replicants that obey completely thus making all those who came before liabilities that need to be eliminated. This is where we first meet K (Ryan Gosling) a replicant who works for the LAPD and hunts down the old models to ‘retire’ them from service. He is flying across the synthetic farms outside of LA on his way to meet a grub farmer called Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). Sapper is one of the old replicants and a combat medic by trade, and does not want to come quietly to be retired. However, all is not what it seems, and Sapper’s death opens a box of questions that leads K down the rabbit hole and into the crosshairs of some very powerful people.
I have been a bit meh on Ryan Gosling in the past, but in recent years his work on The Nice Guys (see review) and La La Land (see review) has made him stand out. In 2049 he is amazing, so much of the film relies on him conveying the emotional weight of the narrative, and at each point he nails it. Of course, Harrison Ford is great, he could be phoning it in and still be amazing, but here you can see the weight of the past in his performance. Revisiting such an iconic character after so long can be such a fraught process, and can often times fall so flat it actually harms the original film. However, not only has Harrison Ford had experience in doing just this before, he always brings his A-game to films, and 2049 is no exception.
One thing Blade Runner 2049 does is make the most out of its extensive supporting cast, hailing the mantra that there are no small parts. Dave Bautista honestly has a really small part at the start of the film, but unlike his previous work in say Guardians of the Galaxy (see review) this is a really reserved character. He masterfully controlled the scene, and the build-up of tension, though this understated performance, and when he talks about seeing a miracle you feel the weight of the statement. You have Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) who shows that frame of mind of someone in charge that is desperately trying to keep control on a problem and world as it constantly sifts underneath her. Indeed, though in 2017 I shouldn’t have to point this out as being something odd and in need of comment, however, one of the great things about 2049 is the strong women throughout the supporting cast. We have Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) the prostitute and maybe replicant, whose resourcefulness saves K’s life and puts him on the path of his destiny. Also Joi (Ana de Armas) K’s holographic companion who is seeking more to her world than just apartment K lives in. Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) who has one of the greatest imaginations in the world, and the ability to create memories that feel real, but is stuck in a sealed room because the world could kill her. Now, of course, we have to mention Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) the main henchmen of Wallace, and who shows incredible physicality that makes it believable that she could snap a man’s neck with the flick of her wrist.
I think what will be really interesting going forward will be to see the feminist readings of 2049, because there is a lot really interesting subject material in the film. As we said one of the strengths of the film is it strong female cast, who give some really great performances. However, there is still an undercurrent of women being, in some cases quite literally, objects for men to use. Luv is a tool of Wallace and there is this undercurrent of her desperately wanting to please the person she literately can’t say no too. As well as this, Joi who is like a holographic personification of today’s Alexa or Siri is bonded like a slave to do K’s whims, until he gives her a freedom of some sort. However, this is in part a reflection of the modern world when most tech companies use female voices for their automated products. As well as this, as the movie goes on Joi gains more and more agency over her life, which is an interesting arc. We also see some interesting framing in and around nudity in the film. Now while not nearly as blatant as the original Blade Runner, there is still a focus on framing a number of female characters to show off titillation. In 2049 there is at least some parity with regards to nudity, however, it is still overwhelmingly (in both number, and in one case literally size) focused on one perspective.
Now as well as the strong cast, the other highlight has to be the visuals, which are just as revolutionary today as the first Blade Runner was all those years ago. When I looked back at the first film, one of the things I championed was the interaction of dark and light, and here it is elevated even more. The cinematographer Roger Deakins gives a masterclass in framing throughout the film, indeed you can see it in the very first frame of the film that pulls you in. Throughout the film we see so many different times of day, dusk, rain, sunshine, night, rain, dust storm, snow, rain. This gives the world a texture that maybe the first film was missing in places. The sections in Las Vegas is such a stark contrast to the rest of the film and gives it another dimension. As well as this, as well as darkness and light, he uses splashes of colour to give contrast and vibrancy to what could otherwise have been a drab scene. There is a reason that Roger Deakins has been nominated for an Oscar thirteen times, and frankly, I honestly believe that the fourteenth time should be the charm.
I have to say I really loved the soundtrack, the score had a way of blending the original sound with a more traditional orchestral sound. This kept the tone of the first film but helped avoid having it feel dated if it was too synth heavy. It also hit all the right emotional notes right when they needed too, in many ways it reminds me of the excellent soundtrack to Stranger Things (see review). But as much as I love Hans Zimmer’s work here and in other films, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s musical scores in movies like Arrival (see review) were ground-breaking. Now we’ll never know what happened, but I can’t help but wonder what would have been if his score had remained. As well as the score, another highlight of the film has to be the foley and the sound mixing. You hear it in those moments like when we don’t know who is at the bug farm and they take their protective suit of a peace at a time, and you hear every creak, every hiss, and every move. You also hear it in the sound of raindrops, which is usually just background filler, but here it is elevated and incorporated into the emotion of the film.
The director Denis Villeneuve has such a great eye for detail, which is important in a film like this when world building is such a core component of the narrative. Indeed, there are so many small details that show that everyone put the time and effort into getting it right. For example, when we are in the birthing suite, and Wallace mentions his angels, you can see Luv glance up subtly to the birthing bag for a moment. Or how at the start of the film we see that K cut out Sapper’s eye for identification after he killed him, you don’t think much of that until we meet Freysa (Hiam Abbass) the replicant leading a rebellion of some sort, and she reveals that she is missing that eye. This little detail automatically explains a lot of her backstory and immediately creates an aura of intrigue. The location sets are wonderfully realised, and the locations have a depth to them that makes this futuristic world feel real.
All this being said it is not a perfect film, and part of that might be its own marketing more than anything. I always try to avoid trailers and everything else before I go see a film, but no matter what precautions you took you couldn’t help but have Harrison Ford blasted in your face. Now while he is in the film, he is one scene away from being a cameo, and does not even come into the film until about an hour forty into it. Also, I do really feel that the movie is a touch too long, about 20 minutes probably could have been shaved off, and I think that it would have improved the flow. Also while it is a step up from Rouge One (see review) the CGI is still not quite there.
In the end, do we recommend Blade Runner 2049, of course, we do, and it is a stunning entry into the sci-fi genre. Just don’t go into it expecting an action film because that is not what it is, it is a film that looks into the notion of what it means to be human and in today’s world, and it is a question I think more of us need to ask ourselves. Also, it has an ending like Cowboy Bebop or Inception, that I am sure will provoke debate, much like the original Blade Runner.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Blade Runner 2049
Directed by – Denis Villeneuve
Story by – Hampton Fancher
Screenplay by – Hampton Fancher & Michael Green
Based on – Characters from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Music by – Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch
Cinematography by – Roger Deakins
Edited by – Joe Walker
Starring – Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto, David Dastmalchian, Barkhad Abdi, Hiam Abbass & Wood Harris with Edward James Olmos & Sean Young
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 16; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R