“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”
Ever since 2013, when I first saw the fantastic Prisoners, I knew I had encountered my new favourite director for the first time and since then has only continued to prove me right with modern classics such as Enemy, Sicario and Arrival. Despite me not being much of a fan of Ridley Scott’s other seminal sci-fi film Blade Runner I was incredibly excited to see what Denis Villeneuve could do, adding his masterful sensibilities to a neon-drenched Los Angeles dystopia and exploring rich themes that tackle what it means to human in an increasingly dehumanised world. Add the legendary Rodger Deakins and a returning Harrison Ford as replicant/not actually a replicant Deckard and you have everything you need to create not just an excellent sequel but an excellent science-fiction movie on its own merits and I had to watch it twice before beginning my review, there’s so much to unpack. That Villeneuve has taken everything from the first movie and expanded upon it, adding some much needed humanity and depth, is a testament to his directorial abilities all while further exploring the dark and grimy world that Ridley Scott introduced in ’82 based off of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Adding another modern epic to his filmography, Ryan Gosling plays K, a newer model of Blade Runner who naturally, is tasked with hunting down and ‘retiring’ older, troublesome replicants for the LAPD under the command of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and he quietly obliges until he stumbles across a peculiar mystery and begins to pull on a thread that could end up having massive implications for not just him but the future of humanity. Despite being considered a masterpiece of science fiction the original film had a fairly basic plot. Deckard (Harrison Ford) had to hunt down 4 rebellious replicants and that was basically it. In 2049, we are given a much more interesting plot with a genuinely compelling mystery at its centre and much better protagonist in K. This is just me personally but in the original I really didn’t care much for the bland Deckard or his unconvincing romance with Rachel (Sean Young), preferring that the movie focused on the vastly more interesting Roy Batty (The truly brilliant Rutger Hauer who gives one of the best monologues in movie history) as he desperately races to extend his life cycle but thankfully I empathized with K much more as he slowly unravels this puzzle. I also appreciate being given immediate clarity over K definitively being a replicant as the whole ‘is Deckard really a replicant?’ discussion still rages on with even Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford still (playfully?) arguing over it.
On a technical level, 2049 is undeniably flawless. The cold, metal aesthetic has been perfectly recaptured here and the sublime practical sets are blended seamlessly with the CGI completely immersing the viewer in this world. But the immaculate cinematography is what makes 2049 unforgettable. The unfathomably Oscar-less Roger Deakins is absolutely at the top of his game here. Every single frame, from beginning to end, is a work of beautifully staged art and one can’t help but be transfixed, wondering just how does someone captures such mind-blowing imagery. The level of mastery on display here is the kind that will inspire future directors, cinematographers and set designers to create their own art just like the original Blade Runner did. If there’s any justice in this world Deakins will finally be handed the Best Cinematography Oscar (after thirteen nominations!) and the movie will certainly be up against Dunkirk among some others for the other technical awards.
Eventually K’s quest leads to him discovering Deckard who has been in hiding since we last saw him and Ford is better here than he has been in years. His years between the two movies have been tragically lonely and Ford sells us this sadness strongly. His part in the story is worked into the movie beautifully and his reintroduction doesn’t feel forced or unnatural. It’s really Deckard on-screen once more and Ford surprisingly brings a great physicality to the role. Clearly still knowing what makes Deckard tick.
An interesting sub-plot features relative newcomer Ana de Armas as K’s holographic girlfriend Joi, a product of replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) wealthy conglomerate, adds another interesting avenue to the theme of what makes something human and while Leto’s Wallace is tensely menacing with clear motivation I would have liked to see more of him as there is some promise of a memorable villain here that could be explored in another sequel. Dave Bautista’s appearance is a small but impressive display of how his abilities have grown since going down the dramatic actor route as he continues to find new and exciting roles.
Despite being a critical success Blade Runner 2049 has apparently underachieved financially at the box office which is a shame because it might weaken the chance for a sequel but it could be expected from a movie like 2049. At 163 minutes long, this is a lengthy slow-burn sci-fi with some thrilling action but most of the time is spent with K as he cautiously follows the breadcrumb trail which is definitely not going to appeal to all demographics (comedian and star of The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani nailed it on Twitter).
Still, 2049 is damn good sci-fi and a visual delight to experience and considering I don’t love the original, ends up being one of the most thought-provoking films of the year and cements Villeneuve’s place among the top directors working today.
So until next time…
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