*Possible Spoilers Ahead*
Denis Villeneuve has gone from strength to strength since he started making films regularly in the late 2000’s. He is a director who clearly has mastery over both story and imagery and I’m quite positive he has many more brilliant films to come. But when all is said and done, we might look back at Blade Runner 2049 as the best work he ever did. It’s that good. Not just as a sequel to an iconic film or as a sci-fi, this is an astonishing achievement all by itself.
Where to begin…
Let’s go with the visuals. Most praise for the film has been focused here and it is wholeheartedly deserved. Part gloomy neo-noir and part dazzling techno punk, it is very much in the same world as its similarly visually spectacular predecessor. I am as big a Roger Deakins fan boy as you get so I’ll just say that I agree with all the praise he has received for his work here. I don’t think he’ll ever top The Assassination of Jesse James, but he’s certainly tried his best to do so with this.
But Deakins shouldn’t get all the praise here. Villeneuve has clearly set out to enrich the screen in true Blade Runner style, and the world building on display is a treat to behold. This is a gritty, broken world, filled with unsavory characters and very little hope, on the outside at least. But Villeneuve brings with him not only an understanding of what the world looks like and the ability to make it so, but a grasp on the humanity that is required to make the story worth following. Villeneuve has shown his gift for shining a light on the human emotion and empathy in his films, but it has never been more obvious than here, where it is forced to battle through the ominous doom and gloom that blankets the film.
There is also the obvious irony of a film about replicants of humans displaying so much human emotion. Part of this is down to the writing. Besides Jared Leto’s villainous Wallace, all characters come across as three-dimensional and well-rounded. Throughout all the beats of what can be (far too simply) boiled down to as a detective caper, there is that question being asked that is so key to the Blade Runner world- what is it to be human? The humans want to maintain their hold on the world, the replicants want to more fully belong. The world was so cleanly established in Blade Runner, and so beautifully connected here, that the issue of replicants trying to find meaning and separate themselves from just being tools, becomes an area of surprising pathos.
and the acting. Ryan Gosling’s K, the replicant “blade runner” who works for the LAPD hunting down older rogue replicants, is the protagonist and the film’s emotional core. Though he first comes across as robotic, gradually we see a child-like desire to love and be loved, to have actual memories and dreams and to come from somewhere. While the criticisms that he is revisiting his Drive character are not completely unfounded, there is far more going on here. His K goes through a range of emotions both imagined and real, and the restraint he shows not to take the character out of his foundation as a replicant is something only an actor as strong as Gosling can achieve.
That’s not at all to say this is a one-man show. Harrison Ford, returning as Deckard, aged and somewhat softened by time, has maybe never been better than he is he. He is Deckard through and through, but one that has clearly lived through a lot since we last saw him, and changes in his manner perfectly reflect this. As mentioned, Leto has the film’s weakest character to work with, but he still does an admirable job. His genius creator Wallace exudes a genuine menace and Leto does command the screen when involved. Robin Wright and Mackenzie Davis both get a good amount to do and while neither stand out, they make sure their characters aren’t just by-the-numbers in the background. Dave Bautista, in a role where his physique isn’t the focus, has a brilliant cameo at the beginning of the film as a replicant K needs to take down. With just a matter of minutes to make an impact, Bautista tells the story of a man with a hell of a story who knows he’s at the end of the line.
But the two stand-outs are the two who were most at risk of being sidelined as token female characters. Joi, played by Cuban actress Ana de Armas, is K’s perfect virtual girlfriend, full of encouraging words and advice. Sensual yet vulnerable, de Armas plays Joi as if she is a recording of an actual person, someone with a long and real connection with K. It demands a strong faith in the technology from the audience, but considering K himself isn’t “real”, it’s not much of a stretch. Joi could even be seen as an extension of Blade Runner’s Rachel; she is not as advanced in terms of technology, but the bond that she and K have formed cannot be immediately dismissed as unearned. There is even a “syncing sex scene”, involving Joi, K and Davis’ escort Mariette, which while strange, doesn’t ring false due to the connection established between de Armas and Gosling.
The other is Wallace’s henchwoman Luv, played by another little known actress Sylvia Hoeks. Ostensibly, Luv is the muscle, a physically enhanced replicant who does a lot of Wallace’s dirty work. But as portrayed by Hoeks, we get the sense she is so much more. There is something bubbling underneath the surface, perhaps a desire to live a real life as a real person, that is only barely contained. It’s a performance that works so well because of what isn’t spelled out, because of what Hoeks is forced to show with just subtle changes in her facial expression and voice. It is a good character for an actress to work with, but Hoeks’ nuance really take her to another level.
I watched the film with the Dolby Atmos sound system so it was basically impossible to avoid the impact of sound on 2049. Sound is a major part of the world Villeneuve has created, and it plays a major role in the immersion of the audience, particularly in my case. It is at times a little overpowering, but the sound is such a significant factor that even the absence of it serves as a hugely effective choice. After using Johann Johannsson for his previous 3 films, Villeneuve decided to bring in the partnership of Hans Zimmer and Benjamine Wallfisch, who were coming off working together on 2016’s Hidden Figures. This is a whole new ball-game here though, and their sort of Vangelis tribute as a mostly excellent piece of work.
While completely outweighed by the positives in my eyes, the film does have a few negatives. The languid pace is undeniable, and will be the major reason the film doesn’t return a significant box office. The film is over two and a half hours long, and while I could have personally spent another hour in this world, it’s hard to argue it could’ve been trimmed down a little for a wider audience. There is a stretch of about an hour where very little action happens and if you aren’t already on board with the story and the film in general, it will probably lose you here. There is also a fair bit of expository dialogue from the Leto, Armas and Wright’s characters that is completely unnecessary. The story is expertly told without it and it only serves to diminish their characters’ impact.
Blade Runner 2049 is an immersive and awe-inspiring cinematic experience that not only does justice to its predecessor, but expands upon and enhances the original, with a little bit of embellishment on top. It is an all-round top-level production that introduces us to a couple of talented, mostly unknown cast members and does nothing but enhance the reputation of the likes of Roger Deakins and Ryan Gosling. But above all, it stamps Denis Villeneuve as possibly the preeminent film-maker working today and sets the bar very high for those trying to keep pace.