There’s not going to be a more stunningly composed film this year than “Blade Runner 2049”. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have crafted a remarkable, immersive, sensory experience that embraces you wholly. For the cast Ryan Gosling, Sylvia Hoeks, Harrison Ford and Jared Leto, each scene comes with mood altering atmosphere. The world of “Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t feel like a creation rather that it exists and Villeneuve and Deakins have created a viewing portal into a prospective future.
Making a sequel to Ridley Scott’s frequently tinkered with, sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner” seemed like a project laced with poison. Villeneuve, who has made a string of terrific movies set within a variety of genres, approaches the source material with precisely the right outlook. He’s clearly inspired and influenced by the original film but he’s not making the film to simply remake or ruminate on the same ideas. This is an expansion and evolution of humanity’s relationship with technology and the tenuous ownership we have on the philosophy of being human. There’s a reverential tone to the source material that bleeds through the filmmaker’s work that influences the way you watch the film. It’s difficult to recall a time that I’ve been to the cinema and sat so still, or that the audience was so ‘mortuary’ quiet.
K (Ryan Gosling), a young Blade Runner is fresh off of his latest assignment, retiring a long missing Nexus 8 replicant, not imposed with a Tyrell’s traditional four year lifespan. In his search of the replicant’s hideaway, he finds the remains of a long departed replicant, buried deep beneath the site. His investigation leads him firstly to the successor of replicant architect Tyrell, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), for information about this second replicant’s origins. When K retrieves a lone murky sound recording he’s pointed toward a Blade Runner from an earlier era, Rick Deckard.
In an interview on the SBS Playlist podcast Denis Villeneuve explained the key environmental difference between “Blade Runner” and “2049.” This difference helped him better envisage not only the setting that the story would take place but also crystallise the philosophical intent. If the original occurred during a continuous downpour, its sequel would be set in concrete and neon landscape powdered with snow. The uncertainty of Deckard is mirrored in the fluid environment of the original film. From the theatrical release, to the director’s cut, to the final cut, Deckard has evolved from certainly human to all but explicit confirmation that he’s a replicant - a series that we’ve not yet been made aware. At the beginning of “Blade Runner 2049” the environment has crystallised in cold certainty these questions of humanity and replicant. “2049” goes beyond definitions of physical humanity and begins to ask the question of sentience and soul.
The original writer of “Blade Runner”, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (“Logan”) return to expand their thesis on the implications of man playing god. Fancher and Green pose questions of intergalactic dominion and colonisation and explicitly acknowledge that all great civilisations are built-in the backs of slave labour. Definitions of class and status in the traditional sense have been replaced with the contrasts between design and birth.
K (Gosling) has the same simmering intensity we’ve seen in Blade Runner’s in the midst of investigations. Ana de Armas’s Joi is as much a reflection of K’s internal workings as she is her own digital woman. There’s a great harmony in their interactions. Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi is a firm and focused boss, keeping K on a short leash. She’s a character that you would have loved to see more of but you also struggle to find a place for where you could increase her screen time.
Leto’s Niander Wallace is literally blind but has enhanced himself so that he’s able to see with the assistance of robotic drones. This blindly rational technological wizard treats these expressions of humanity with the same flippancy as one might regard the spare screws in flat pack furniture set. Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv is Wallace’s current ‘top of the line’ replicant, with frustrating conundrum. Luv is desperate to please and be loved by her master Wallace, but he is unable to accept love from these cogs in his ever turning galactic monopoly.
Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is living a life constantly vigilant that escape may be a requirement. He’s living a life curating leisure and non-perishable goods in the shell of a once glorious hub of gambling and self-serve ‘sin.’ It’s an unobtrusive supporting performance that doesn’t want to distract you with nostalgic flurries. The focus is gaining perspective on the 30 odd years between films.
It’s tough in the face of the modern political landscape to assume dire consequences for the future of humanity. In the “Blade Runner” universe, the demise of Tyrell paves the way for the emergence of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). The film refers to a blackout, a time where the wholly digital footprint of humanity is briefly corrupted and the world spins into chaos. Wallace, Tyrell’s successor and blind scientific genius, reassembles his cybernetic empire from the ashes.If you’re of a cynical mind, the very thought that such a genius could exist and be entrusted to save humanity from an inevitable self-destruction, flies in the face of the current leadership of the Western world. Taunts to unpredictable, nuclear enabled dictatorships do not scream ‘hope.’ Although one sees the rise of automation and robotics in our contemporary society now has a human face in the replicants. The newly obedient synthetic people are allowed to occupy space on Earth rather than simply taking the role of enslaved colonising force. There’s a technological racism toward the enslaved machines made in their image.
Early in the film K (Gosling) makes his way home from his most recent replicant ‘retirement’ debrief with Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). Stalking the steaming streets, his coat collar covering his face like a bandit’s bandana K enters a dreary apartment block. Unlike Deckard’s intricate, gothic apartment “Blade Runner,” K makes his home in a cubicle. The drab grey existence is enlivened by Joi (Ana de Armas) a digital holographic companion trapped in the closed circuit of rooftop projection device. Spike Jonze’s masterpiece “Her,” explored Theodore Twombly’s (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with a sentient operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johannson). Unlike Theodore and Samantha, this isn’t a blooming exchange, thriving on the intimacy of reveal after reveal. This is a deeply melancholic relationship. K’s salve for retiring his kind is this corporeal woman cycling through representations of the kind of woman that she assumes he’d want.
The most jaw dropping locale in the film is the husk of a futuristic Las Vegas, long abandoned to radiation. The ochre dust storm, inspired by the Sydney dust storm in 2009, creates a still and eerie and hellish sulphuric tone. The once vibrant gambling Mecca is a graveyard for decadence. The contrasts of K’s blue grey costume, offset in the frame like he’s got a gravitational pull, provides this strange lure for your focus.
Mary Shelley so perfectly distilled the key theme of science fiction with “Frankenstein,” to explore the devastating consequences of man playing god. The final cut of the original “Blade Runner” provided the closure that Ridley Scott needed for the character of Deckard. In his conception, Deckard is a replicant made to kill his own kind. The audience’s uncertainty about his humanity makes us self-reflect. In “Blade Runner 2049” there’s a focussed leap to philosophical musings of defying the limitations of the physical. In the original film, we’re preoccupied with how this replicants are a prosthesis that are being denied existence beyond a predetermined stringent lifespan. “Blade Runner 2049” all but accepts humanity’s fate. Whether we’re replicants or humans we’re living in isolation, satisfied with synthetic versions of love, companionship and purpose. “2049” is the “Blade Runner” for our time. We’re still left seeking the hopelessly miraculous and continuing to ask ourselves whether we’re unique snowflakes in a blizzard.
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.