Following hot on the heels of mother! in the ‘blockbusters that aren’t blockbusters, and will probably piss a lot of people off’ category, stands the languid, gargantuan Blade Runner 2049 – a slow burn art film that plunges viewers once more into the hypnotically harrowing vision of an environmentally ravaged L.A, where the concepts of reality and humanity are as fluid as the unending rain which soaks the cityscape. Taking on the mammoth task of returning to the story of Replicants and Blade Runners is Denis Villeneuve – not Ridley Scott. Having proven his arresting filmmaking ability with the enjoyably tense and thematically sharp Prisoners and Sicario, with Roger Deakins’ immaculate imagery to boot, Villeneuve then ascended his blockbuster filmmaking to lofty philosophical heights with the mind-bending Arrival, proving perfectly why he was the right man for the job.
I was taken aback by the sheer level of critical adoration that was greeted by the arrival of 2049. It’s unhurried pace, ambiguous nature and near 3-hour running time will test the endurance of mainstream cinema-goers, and whilst it doesn’t reach the dizzying, transcendent heights of the original – lacklustre villains, a somewhat paltry ending, and problematic treatment of females (again) – the sheer scope with which it posits both timeless and timely questions of humanity ensure it will join the original in the pantheon of modern sci-fi.
Starting with, as many commentators did upon the arrival of the trailer, Roger Deakins’ sublime cinematography. Gone are the intrusive beams of light from the oppressive state, Deakins instead paints a land of perpetual smog, shrouding its inhabitants, pierced only by sickly neon advertising and huge monolithic structures, as if the limbs of ashen gods walking the scorched earth. What this man does with light (see the refracted water landscapes of the evil Wallace Corporation headquarters) is nothing short of astounding. The images are at once arrestingly grounded and inspiringly poetic.
The story sees android Blade Runner ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling), a recently developed and obedient Nexus model, tracking down and eliminating previous Replicants at the order of the LAPD, and his chief Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). K faces abuse from both sides, exterminating his own kind who lament that he is only able to do so because he hasn’t ‘seen a miracle’, whilst working in a toxic environment – ‘fuck off skinjob’ – with a boss who is keen to remind him he operates without a soul. Gosling here is very much on Drive and Only God Forgives mode, expressing rich emotions through micro expressions and proving that Tom Hardy isn’t the only one whose eyes can tell a whole story. The aforementioned ‘miracle’ proves the basis of the story; K is sent on a quest to stop something that could ‘break the world’ – but that’s only depending which way you look at it.
Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker ensure there is ample time to bask in the world and its many textures. Together they craft a dreamlike haze which is burst by short, sharp moments of often quite brutal violence. Such is the world in which they have crafted – the huge commercial blimps keeping people intoxicated on the dream of off-world living still soar above. Calming female voices and ambient neon glows induce a shopping-mall like trance. Huge, naked holograms step down from their billboards like the ‘Lard Lad Doughnuts’ man in The Simpsons ‘Attack of the 50 foot eyesores’. The world of Blade Runner is endlessly fascinating and terrifying.
One of the most memorable scenes comes when Gosling, on the run from a withered and angry Deckard, attempts to evade him in an old Las Vega showroom. Stage lights dance and pierce the darkness, whilst holograms of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Liberace glitch ferociously around the room, the spluttering song echoes eerily around the room, in the closest the film flirts with outright horror. Thankfully, the film isn’t cheapened by the arrival of Ford, who is given some very testing work to do by Villeneuve. Ford doesn’t resort to grumpy old man and instead imbues his character with a stoic vulnerability that is most on display in a tense scene with Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, the Replicant creator who swallowed the remains of Tyrell Corp and is very hot on the further enslavement of his robots. Sadly, Leto, whose whole episode with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad has greatly diminished my respect for him, is all cheap monologue and hammy villainy. He seems unable to compete in the gravitas of the film.
Our main source of antagonism comes from Wallace’s Replicant right-hand Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Her character’s true allegiances remain murky and her threatening presence is under no question – but compared with the menace and pathos of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty her character simply falls short.
However, it is with the AI character of Joi (Ana De Armas), similar to Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her, that I found most troubling. A commercial product though she is, her role is to offer love and pleasure to K whenever he desires. It even goes so far as for her form to instantly shapeshift parallel to the whims and moods of her male owner. The overt sexism is chiefly the world’s, not the film’s, and the sickening plausibility of such male-focused product is visible today with the advent of sexbots. But, as Anna Smith rightly points out in a recent Guardian piece, the film doesn’t show any female focused pleasure products, and offers no exploration of how fucked-up it all is. Frankly, the thrust of 2049’s plot revolves around Deckard and his Replicant wife Rachael’s relationship – the foundation of which was formed in a nauseating and unbelievable circumstance with Rachael quite literally muscled into loving him.
The apparent genuineness of the relationship between Joi and K is testament to the actor’s ability. But it can also be seen in the wider context of the film that depicts Replicants as ‘more human than human’. It is us, the humans, who are painted as cold, calculated, unfeeling. Villeneuve is showing us how greed and narcissism may be stripping us of our very humanity. Gosling’s K is thrown through existential hell, and although he may not be as important as once believed, he survives with the intelligence and the empathy to do very special things indeed. As for the ending? Go and see for yourself – this is a film that, above all else, deserves your money.