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Categories: Movie Reviews

Though it does not try to reinvent the wheel, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is an idiosyncratic, and captivating, cinematic experience.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about our culture that’s driven us to the point where we feel so incapable of just letting things go that we’ve made a sequel to Blade Runner. In the pantheon of classics it’s neither the most deserving or undeserving. The story’s universe offered as much room for exploration and expansion as Ridley Scott’s other sci-fi inspirer Alien (which Scott produced and directed another instalment of to be released this year also).

Similar to the endless argument inspired by another 80s obsession turned revamped Hollywood sequel/prequel/reboot/requel/whatever, 2016’s Ghostbusters, you can cry all you like about each segment not being comparable but if you don’t want people to compare Blade Runner 2049 to Blade Runner then you probably shouldn’t have called it Blade Runner.

One of the most noble qualities of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, for example, was its attempt to stand on its own two legs. Absolutely a part of the same story, but distinctly its own beast; and if the box office comparison between that and its follow-up shows anything it’s that unnecessary namedropping is a trick that’s wearing very thin with audiences.  

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, and it is very much his, is however, like all of Villeneuve’s films, exceptionally well made. It is a melancholic, exhilarating, engaging, highly (perhaps even unbearably at times) emotional, superbly acted, magnificently shot and arguably beautiful film.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography, as ever, contains boundless ingenuity and dedication to the craft. Gosling is perfectly cast as an emotionless statue slowly crumbling and cracking into explosive outbursts. Relative newcomers Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas are not only breaths of fresh air but the beating heart of the film, both equally captivating and ferocious. While larger stars Harrison Ford, Jared Leto and Robin Wright are used sparingly and correctly. Their gravitational pull never upsetting the balance of the other performances.

That is undoubtedly the film’s best quality: its restraint. Villeneuve manages to make Blade Runner 2049 feel unique enough in a climate of endless franchise blocks being moved around by boardroom committees and films that are, in many ways, near-identical.

Thematically speaking, Blade Runner 2049 brings absolutely nothing new to the table; which is undoubtedly its worst quality. Its themes of progeny and creation being shared by both of the year’s other large-scale, good, sci-fi productions; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Alien: Covenant. Compared to them on a visual and narrative level, however, Blade Runner 2049 is, relatively speaking, minimalist.

It’s difficult to say whether Blade Runner 2049 will hold the same power over audiences that its progenitor did, that being the power to inspire, only time will tell as their is a tremendous amount to digest in Blade Runner 2049 and it’s not exactly what you’d call light viewing. It is both unrelentingly grim and, similar to Scott’s other new Alien film, significantly bloodier than the original.

Despite Villeneuve being enough of a pro to keep the action well choreographed and, most importantly, intensely focussed on the subjects of the film and the audience’s investment in them; Blade Runner 2049 cannot escape modern Hollywood’s desire to turn everything into an action movie.

Don’t misunderstand me, this is infinitely better than JJ Abrams’ bastardization of Star Wars into a computer generated rollercoaster attraction; but the point that Blade Runner was never an action film still stands. The most heroic looking thing that Deckard ever accomplishes in Blade Runner is shooting an unarmed woman in the back.

This is what muddies the waters of your viewing of such films, you’re left wondering whether the most positive thing you have to say about is “it could have been worse”.

It is undeniable though that, in terms of visual design, the film never overextends itself. It utilises modern digital elements to its benefit but keeps the real focus on the practical aspects. Villeneuve takes care to make this world seem tangible and there’s clear allusions to the look that Scott and Syd Mead cultivated in the late 70s and early 80s, furthered by people like Terry Gilliam and then David Fincher.

The problem being that, unlike all of those people’s work, it rarely feels like it’s adding much to it. It copies it flawlessly but it is still, inescapably, a science-fiction film and the idea that any society would look as similar as this one does to itself 30 years previous is maybe the hardest thing to swallow about it.

Villeneuve, Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner do however both expand on preexisting ideas very well and, mercifully, keep each shot free from meaningless clutter.

To compare it to a truly unoriginal, and blasphemously awful, 2017 sci-fi remake/adaptation/franchise thing (it is genuinely dispiriting how often I am forced to write the word “franchise” in this day and age, it really is), Ghost in the Shell, the design of Blade Runner 2049’s world has purpose, function and meaning. The plot perhaps a little less so but it is structured methodically. In many ways Blade Runner 2049 is the film that Ghost in the Shell should have been; an engaging detective story wrapped in the aesthetic of loneliness and isolation in the modern, digital, age.

Some of the digital effects work is outstanding and, especially when coupled with Joe Walker’s brilliant editing, it makes up a large part of the film’s memorability. There is a clear focus on colour, hue and framing above anything else. There are other, very of-the-moment, technological moments, however, where you wonder how well it’s going to age. Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s score, similarly, is strikingly contemporary and, again, relatively sparing but you get the impression that its style is fleeting. Certainly not the grand centrepiece that Vangelis’ original was.

In spite of all of this though, the violence for entertainment’s sake and the commerciality of it all (they’re more tastefully hidden but Sony’s non-negotiable product placements are still very much in here and, at its lowest point, the film utters the focus group favourite line “we’re/they’re building an army”), Villeneuve makes Blade Runner 2049 quite a depressing, and often horrific, experience. Superfluous? Very probably, yes. But it’s not wish fulfilment.

Deakins’ focus on light and shadow emphasises that this may not be anything new but the lines that Villeneuve is tracing are the lines of masters. Though its story is predictably obsessed with its own mythology, as are almost all Hollywood tentpole films now thanks to the boom of comic book canon, and complex to the point where it needs to repeat itself several times but not complex to the point where it will inspire new ideas in anyone who’s ever read a science-fiction novel before (or seen a good science-fiction film); it is an adept exercise in cinematic subjectivity thanks to Villeneuve’s focus and Gosling’s central performance. The name Blade Runner may be Scott’s, but the film is theirs.  

Blade Runner 2049 is out now in cinemas.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, film-blogger and lifelong cinephile who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University Of London.

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Posted on Oct 7, 2017

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