Sci-fi’s sacred texts don’t come much more revered than Blade Runner and you have to admire Denis Villeneuve’s nerve in taking this on. What becomes abundantly clear very early on is that he and his team are more than capable. This is a film that understands its predecessor, it has the style and craftsmanship to live in the same world, and, most importantly, it has a story that is worth telling.
Villeneuve has asked critics to hold off from revealing any plot details in their reviews, which is easier said than done. Revelations come thick and fast as Ryan Gosling’s Officer K is caught up in an investigation that, as his commanding officer Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright on fine form) puts it, is a time bomb that could start a war.
Like Deckard, K is a Blade Runner, hunting down replicants who’ve gone off the grid in the decades following a cataclysmic black-out. The film begins with a sequence that is essentially the original’s discarded opening, with K arriving at a farm in the middle of nowhere to retire an old model (a very well-cast Dave Bautista). He also happens to find something that could bring a genuine miracle into a world that’s on its last legs…or end it.
As expected, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is nothing less than stunning and the production team creates an endlessly sprawling metropolis of concrete tower blocks swamped by grey banks of smog, while a couple of familiar landmarks loom like monoliths from the fog. It’s breathtaking and suffocating. San Diego is a giant trash wasteland, Las Vegas is a hazy orange graveyard, and the only bursts of colour in LA come from adverts for the beautiful AI hologram women sold by replicant manufacturer/global saviour Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Joi (Ana De Armas) is one of these; a devoted companion for K who can’t ever quite touch him and whose affections, tragically, may or may not be entirely hollow.
Wallace’s creations are (supposedly) more stable than Tyrell’s and are now more or less integrated into society with all the problems you’d expect. The replicants’ social status and cognitive state provide the film with much of its thematic meat and, of course, its soul (the classic “more human than human” line gets a particularly lovely reprise). It should be noted, however, that Wallace himself is one of the film’s major weaknesses; an over-acted cliché who only appears (mercifully briefly) to provide monologues loaded with exposition and on-the-nose Biblical references in case we missed them in Scott’s Alien prequels.
This flaw perhaps wouldn’t be so noticeable if the rest of the actors weren’t so good. Gosling is perfectly cast in the lead: soulful, steadfast and desperate to keep his emotions in check as each clue cuts great bleeding chunks out of him and, in true Deckard/noir tradition, he can and does take several beatings in his hunt for the truth. Elsewhere, the most impressive new faces are Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Wallace’s replicant muscle who clearly enjoys her job, and Carla Juri, who plays a sensitive memory artist who can never leave her isolation chamber. As for Ford, he takes a while to show up but he’s worth the wait, delivering an exceptional and heart-breaking performance.
It’s not flawless. There are certainly arguments to be had about the film’s treatment of its women, with the character of Joi both the most problematic and potentially interesting. It’s also not without pacing problems as it settles into a narrative pattern early on and sticks with it, leaving some characters and elements that it would be spoiler-y to discuss feeling a little under-explored. On every other level, however, Blade Runner 2049 is excellent. Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s script continues to push the themes and questions of the original and finds a new angle from which to do so. We certainly had reservations going in, but Villeneuve has pulled it off. It’s immaculately made, it’s gripping and it locates this world’s mournful, romantic and ultimately hopeful soul.