Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner is one of the most influential films ever made. It created a visual language for a kind of seedy, cosmopolitan, post-industrial, dystopian future which has become almost clichéd through its subsequent use in films ranging from Akira to The Matrix.
But while Scott’s world-building was almost without parallel, his film was also flawed. The story was a mishmash of fascinating ideas (drawn from Philip K Dick’s 1968 novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and poorly developed characters, all hung on a skeleton that was roughly pieced together from the tropes of film noir.
By concentrating on plot and character, Denis Villeneuve’s film provides a stronger thread for the audience to follow through his expansive retro-futuristic world, which seems to have grown organically from Scott’s, and this is just as well, because with a run-time of almost two and three-quarter hours, it would otherwise have been incredibly slow. The only place the sequel feels less well served is in its soundtrack, where throat singing and Inception horns fail to capture the dark, ethereal quality of Vangelis’ synth-heavy original score.
The original Blade Runner was set in the then distant year of 2019, a future where there are off-world colonies, and work is carried out by synthetic humans called replicants. The titular blade runners are specialists who identify and destroy replicants that are deemed faulty.
Thirty years after the events of the first film, Ryan Gosling plays Detective KD6-3.7, a blade runner working for the LAPD, who comes to realise that his latest case has great personal significance. Gosling delivers one of his best performances, complimented by excellent work from Robin Wright as his commanding officer, Ana de Armas as his AI hologram hentai ‘girlfriend’, and Sylvia Hoeks as an impressively diligent PA. Reprising his role as Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford doesn’t turn up until the third act, but he’s a welcome presence, even if it sometimes feels like he’s dialling it in. There are other cameos that are sure to delight established fans.
Good science fiction offers a prism through which an audience can examine contemporary concerns. So while the original might have led viewers in the early 80s to ruminate on their fears about the loss of blue collar jobs to automation or economic decline, this instalment invites consideration of the unreliability and impermanence of digitised memories, the challenge of maintaining real relationships in a technologically mediated world, and whether or not Theresa May could pass a Voight-Kampff test.
One of the ongoing arguments about the original film surrounded its ending, which was open and ambiguous. Fans have argued whether or not Ford’s Deckard is himself a replicant; a controversy which has been fuelled over the years by the release of different cuts, which emphasise subtly different elements of the story.
Villeneuve wraps up his instalment more decisively, and thankfully avoids repeating the problem of his most recent previous film – 2016’s Arrival – where a slow, introspective, philosophical movie was brought down just short of the finish line by a bathetic injection of sentimentality.
Although 2049 does falter in some of its more heavy-handed allusions to Christianity, and its insistence that “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do,” it more often eschews moral certainties, and this is where Villeneuve’s film really shines.