‘It’s like old dirt in a new structure’ Barkhad Abdi’s Doc Badger tells Ryan Gosling’s K about a significant clay toy horse in Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049. Like a certain unicorn-shaped piece of origami, the horse is the key to an issue of identity, but the statement is significant also as it encapsulates the success of Villeneuve’s worthy follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 visionary film. Inviting us once again into the morally ambivalent universe of mid-21st Century Los Angeles, a paradoxically dense urban sprawl of profound emptiness, Villeneuve’s innovative exploration into Blade Runner’s underlying themes is matched by an overwhelming visual and aural power that feels both distinct, yet evocative of Blade Runner’s unique dystopian landscape. With a script from the original’s writer Hampton Fancher and co-writer Michael Green, Blade Runner 2049 relocates the ‘dirty’ thematic essence of Blade Runner, but decides to reverse-engineer rather than replicate its predecessor.
K (Gosling), a working blade-runner in 2049, is assigned to locate a rogue Nexus 8 replicant (Dave Bautista). A violent end has a new but troubling beginning for K, as he becomes embroiled in the growing dissatisfaction between humans and replicants that are now living closer, but no less stratified, than before. The figurative ‘wall’ that Robin Wright’s bureaucratic Madam that ‘separates kind from kind’ threatens to come down upon a startling revelation. K is impassively efficient at his job but solitary in his private life, he only finds connection with a commodified holographic interface Joi (Ana de Armas)- sold for the very purpose of companionship. Told to destroy an emergent threat to the established order or, on the other hand, a ‘miracle’ to the growing insurgent replicants, K takes up a twisting, turning case that forces him to navigate the echelons of Los Angeles. He crosses paths with the many denizens of this wasteland, including the familiar, wizened face of former blade-runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). As his own place in the world becomes more questionable, K is soon forced to rethink and confront his fundamental nature- and whether to live or die by its consequences.
The underlying sense of Blade Runner’s world remains pervasive here despite the thirty-year gap: the profound lack of meaning in a technologically-advanced, hyper-capitalist dream-world with hedonistic human consumers and brutalised replicant slaves. The perennial question of this type of sci-fi (‘what does it mean to be human?’) still informs this vision, but the approach is altogether different and, fortunately, more compelling for it. Without reverence to the original, Fancher and Green’s unfolding script subverts our expectations regularly and allows these new characters to breathe into an established place. Where Ford’s Deckard began in an agitated indifference, Gosling’s K has a clear purpose, but is not purposeful- he remains fixed in constant, passive acceptance of his place in the world. Blade Runner lingered mustily in the ambiguity and indifference of this future so that any distinction between man and machine slowly eroded as we traipsed through a decaying city that eventually discarded certainties of identity (on that note, Fancher and Green offer only teasing acknowledgement of a long-held fan debate). Conversely, 2049 sets out to rediscover and reaffirm the virtue of identity: to find the significance of memory, desire, purpose, choice and genuine connection to our fundamental humanity (though neither writers go beyond questioning these typically cherished facets of ‘human nature’- it is somewhat philosophically shallow, but remains satisfying enough here).
Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins unhesitatingly departs from Scott’s gritty, claustrophobic but visually arresting world with a new vision of routine efficiency and sterility (recalling Arrival’s expansive fog-rimmed horizons) that is less 80s cyberpunk than the ‘dirty sci-fi’ of Blomkampf and Villeneuve himself. Its deviation is welcome however- continual acidic rainfall has turned to ice and snow. The stark, cold lighting and wide angle accentuate K’s loneliness; a man apart in contrast to how Deckard was held as one amongst the heaving, multi-ethnic masses. Yet, even with our modern developments in technology updating Blade Runner’s previously analogue-digital aesthetic (drones and Amazon Echo are part of the cityscape now), Villeneuve also imbues his own landscape with a similar degree of awe and sensuality. It makes for the film’s most sublime and memorable sequences as K travels through wastelands of mechanical-patchwork foundries used as Dickensian workhouses; an otherworldly, irradiated necropolis of lurid orange and suggestively-posed, dilapidated statues of naked women; to gargantuan corporate-temples of cold marble with rippling reflections and probing, angular light that ominously follows K as he walks under replicants held in haunting suspended animation like museum artefacts or vacuumed-packed livestock. Alongside that vast emptiness, is its sense of decadence and decay. This is a pure visual feast- as rich in textures as its thematic premises are cerebral.
It is matched by an incredible soundscape, with a reverberation kicked to eleven in a way that only Hans Zimmer will attempt. Unlike his overdone score on Dunkirk, the visceral mixture of synthetics (nodding obviously to the surprisingly absent, but unforgotten Vangelis), 50s swing and rock to the guttural, Eastern-inspired chanting in Wallace’s monolithic chambers enhances the uncanny and the brutal action beats. During those usually unreserved, protracted fight sequences (including the casino theatre cat-and-mouse between Deckard and K) the sheer sound is an assaulting force on you- stuttering, breaking, escalating and then calming down into eerie silence. Zimmer and composer Benjamin Wallfisch have clearly understood the importance of this aural texture to the appeal of Blade Runner: where the sound feels once again both organic and mechanical; responsive and static. Perhaps more than anything else, this score will strap you into the experience.
Gosling brings an impassivity to K that slowly wins you over as begins to show signs of fragility, his eyes growing softer and more emotive as the film progresses. His own steady gravity, bearing this troubling world with a consistently, blank expression, is never quite outmanoeuvred by Ford’s grizzled charisma, though the old antihero gets the best laugh after a slugging punch-up is decidedly put aside for a drink instead. Jared Leto’s blind, but wispy and quietly megalomaniacal Niander Wallace (styled as Jesus Christ with ominous floating chakra-stone cameras) is unsubtly sinister, though fortunately like his Joker, this appearance here is quite contained. de Armas and Sylvia Hoek’s Luv are only slight variations of noir archetypes (the damsel and the femme-fatale), that feel a little reductive but ultimately emphasise that underlying theme of identity- de Armas’ as facilitating any man’s desire of the perfect wife (‘Everything you want to see’ declares her advertising) while Hoek’s replicant Luv appears internally conflicted but won’t hesitate to turn to sadistic violence (‘I’m the best one’ she tells K- a revealing but disturbing self-identification) . de Armas and Gosling’s relationship (again, a product of consumerism) offers the only sliver of genuine intimacy in the entire film (leaving aside Gosling and Ford’s begrudging admiration for each other). This leads to a bizarre, uncomfortably enabled, sexual encounter (a threesome the likes of which you’ve never seen before with un-synced peculiarity). Their relationship is more than a bit upsetting- a burgeoning connection bound by limitations and projections of a commodified and mechanical nature.
There is some muddy plotting, especially in the third act, and 2049 does threaten to overburden slightly with its visual and sonic saturation. There is slightly more humanity to this affair, unlike the damning assessment New Yorker critic Pauline Kael gave Scott’s original, but this feels like a patched addition- too often the sensual overtakes any deeper emotional investment in these characters. To his credit, however, Villeneuve has achieved in what was seen as an unenviable task of following a much loved, sci-fi classic. Blade Runner 2049 is a refreshing change to the cloying, nostalgia-ridden revivals of late that are so fearful of even attempting anything innovative. This is a proper, considered sequel that understands both the sensory and cerebral appeal of its originator while taking it in a bold and distinct direction.