We are thrown into the world of Blade Runner with a title card reminiscent of the first film, which updates the audience on the status of replicants. 30-years have passed since the original film and a new model of replicants, the Nexus 8, has been integrated into society. Unlike the older models they have been equiped with longer life-spans, and many have been incorporated into the Blade Runner devision of the LAPD, employed to hunt and “retire” (destroy) older models.
Ryan Gosling stars as K, a Nexus 8 and we are introduced to him as he arrives at a remote protein farm on the fringe of the urban sprawl. A replicant is detected and “retired”, but K uncovers a secret before he leaves, which sets him on a course of self-discovery and revelation. His own identity is questioned, and as he begins to dig deeper he find himself going against his superiors, as well as being hunted by the powerful Tyrell Corporation (the same corp from the original film). Of course I am avoiding spoilers, and the simplicity of my synopsis suggests a carbon-copy of the first film, but you can rest assured that it is a legitimate and smart expansion of the Blade Runner narrative.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a triumph as far as storytelling is concerned, and its relevance to the original is precise. Writers Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner) and Michael Green (Logan) have remained true to the overriding narrative, and have assembled a group of characters which would comfortably fit into the previous instalment without question. Fancher and Green's attention to detain and the pacing of their story suitably reflects the Blade Runner that fans hold so dearly, and their vision represents not only the 1982 film but also the book and it's subsequent sequels.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) committed himself to a colossal undertaking and, perhaps, bit off more than he could chew. His previous work places him as one of the most visionary filmmakers of the past decade, and on face value made him an obvious candidate for a Blade Runner sequel. And it was a project that posed the obvious “damned if you do, damned if you don't” conundrum. If he were to adhere to the exact vision of the original he would be chastised for being unoriginal, yet if he strayed too far he would be maligned for pissing on a legacy. And so his direction of BLADE RUNNER 2049 is clunky, and in balancing familiarity with originality he has created a patch-work production design that lacks consistency. Of course he's a skilled filmmaker and every single frame of the film looks incredible, but when attempting to put his “Villeneauve” stamp on the film he inadvertently fractures the aesthetic.
Where the production design works so well is in recreating the congested, neon-charged city life. The consumerism and corporate saturation are palpable as giant holographic signs invade personal space, and a toxic fog lines the pavement. These are the qualities and textures that made the original a work of art, and when used in this follow-up there's a tangible connection between the films. The familiarity is comforting and I can't imagine that any discerning fan would pass it off as disingenuous. To the contrary, when the story moves beyond the urban sprawl we are taken to new landscapes, where the atmosphere and aesthetic bare a stark contrast. From misty farm-fields, to desolate wastelands and dust-ravaged cities, there is something off about all of the – shall we say Velleneauve-tricities. These are not places you can easily imagine existing in the original film, be they on screen or off, and despite them boasting magnificent cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins, they just don't gel with the established Blade Runner verse. The script is also laced with profanity, which didn't sit well with me, and I see no value in lazy F-bombs. The '82 film never used them... so why now?
The cast is excellent with Ryan Gosling giving a solemn lead performance that rivals Harrison Ford's original role. He understands the weight of the character and allows the existential characteristics to unfold naturally. Through minimal expression, an introverted demeanour and an unwavering toughness Gosling commands the screen to equal effect, and helps place the viewer back into the world of Blade Runner as we remember. His support comes from players such as Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista and Jared Leto, who are all worthy additions to the legacy. Leto's performance as the merciless Tyrel Corp engineer is slightly overplayed, and feels (to me) like a heavy-handed attempt to mirror Rutger Hauer's villainous place in the story. Nevertheless his on-screen presence is engaging and he embodies the character as only he can. The stand-out performance comes from Ana de Armas, who plays K's holographic female companion. She brings a welcome level of humanity to the story and her presence nurtures and guides K through his identity crisis. She is a wonderful addition to the story.
And of course there's Harrison Ford reprising his role of Rick Deckard. Ford is absent for 2-hours of the film, which effectively builds anticipation amongst the audience. And with a heavy 163-minute running time, he still manages to wrangle a decent 40-minutes worth of screen time. It's exciting to have Deckard back on the screen and seeing Ford step back into character does trigger the sentimental fool within, yet he falls into is recent habit of giving very little. He is not the Deckard that we know, and Ford doesn't dig very deep to bring the character back to life. “Harrison Ford as Harrison Ford” is a more suitable billing and much like his recent appearance in The Force Awakens, he offers little more than a phoned it performance.
Negativity aside, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a feast for the eyes and boasts boundless wonders. It is a visceral, multicoloured slice of eye-candy, and a treat that demands to be seen theatrically. And it would be remiss of me to ignore the phenomenal score by Hans Zimmer, who builds upon the original sound design with a bold and all-consuming score that permeates your entire body. Suffice to say when BLADE RUNNER 2049 works it works brilliantly, and when it doesn't work it remains a thing of beauty. It may be aesthetically disjointed but it's always awe-inspiring. Being nearly 3-hours long the film begs for another cut, and perhaps in true Blade Runner style we might just get a “director's cut” in 10-years time, followed by a “Final Cut” 15-years after that.