♦Tripwire’s contributing writer JAMES DC took a look at Blade Runner 2049, the eagerly-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, directed by Denis Villeneuve and out now…
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks
In cinemas now
Note: there are no major plot spoilers in this review.
Film director Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) are two of the most influential and near-perfect diamonds of science fiction cinema, in the history of the genre. Scott may have seriously lost his mojo in recent years, but all SF aficionados will be eternally grateful for those two seminal films, if nothing else. Very few modern features can touch them (which says a lot about the current state of film-making, not least that 90% of stuff out there is total crud). Scott took an obscure 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by the then little-known SF author Philip K. Dick – one of his lesser works, actually – and transformed it into a stone-cold classic, replete with a nuanced, fascinating story, stunning, state-of-the-art special effects, beautiful cinematography and sets, incredible world-building, Neo-noir flourishes, and a gritty-realist setting, all underpinned by questions of psychological identity crisis and Existential philosophy. What more could you ask for? But, for reasons too complicated to go into here, the initial version was saddled with a corny voice-over by Harrison Ford, and a tacked-on happy ending. Thankfully, these damaging and unnecessary additions were eventually removed, when the ‘Director’s Cut’ and later the ‘Final Cut’ were released: true fans now had the total masterpiece they had yearned for, for decades. Suffice to say that Blade Runner: The Final Cut is all you need to see of the original – ignore all other, inferior versions.
Another revolutionary thing that Blade Runner achieved was to pull a radical, unique author out of a misunderstood and neglected SF genre ghetto and push him into mainstream, global pop culture. Philip K. Dick was still relatively unknown by the time his 1968 novel was optioned in the ’70s for screen treatment, but nowadays his presence is ubiquitous, with countless film and TV adaptations of his work (the entertaining ‘Electric Dreams’ TV series is currently showing on Channel 4 in the UK), and every academic and hipster constantly citing his works. Moreover, many of his incredibly prescient concepts, from the 1950s onward, are now an everyday reality; from mobile computer devices and social media, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, to semi-fascistic corporate governance, uber-consumerism and the ‘false’ media, on to a run-down planet and its faltering ecosystem – and much else, besides. It is no exaggeration to say that Dick was a mad visionary, a seer, a drug-addled yet incisive and humane commentator on the human race, and all its works. He may have had a few ‘literary’ weaknesses, in terms of hit-and-miss quality of prose, but, by God, did that crazy mother have awesome ideas to burn, prophesying much of our screwed up, bizarre 21st century (and no doubt beyond). There is a burgeoning fan base of Dickheads, and the Cult of Dick has strongly infiltrated our culture and collective unconscious – long may it continue.
Therefore, with so much riding on it, this new chapter in the Dickian universe was both depressingly dreaded and ecstatically anticipated. It should also be noted that Blade Runner came out two or three years prior to the beginnings of the digital revolution in film-making, when it still took a Herculean effort, using analogue methods, to produce realistic and elaborate worlds of fantasy, and this accounts, in large part, for the film’s legendary, ‘untouchable’ critical status. Nowadays, such ultra-detailed, imagined worlds can be brought to life at the drop of a hat, by a computer whizz on his or her laptop, at home. Scott and his peers had no such advantage back in the day, and thus their supreme achievements cannot summarily be compared to contemporary accomplishments in SF and Fantasy cinema. In other words, the historical context of such revolutionary classics renders them somewhat ‘indestructible’ to modern appraisals. But the reverse of this principle also applies to any new iteration; it is much more difficult to wow an audience with such technical inventiveness nowadays, given the seemingly endless, magical resources film-makers have easy access to; hence modern directors have to try that much harder in order to penetrate a spoiled and jaded audience’s boredom threshold. So, in turn, because of this difficulty, today’s audience should give a certain amount of critical leeway to modern film-makers – it is a paradoxical loop, a predicament for audiences, and especially critics, requiring a convoluted, fair analysis and assessment, in the final reckoning. Having taken all of this into consideration, we must alter suitably our criteria when it comes to judging the merits or not of modern science fiction cinema; much of it is about context, especially in relation to older ‘classics’, because, out of all cinematic genres, SF is the most beholden to advancements in technology and how it facilitates ingenuity, artistry and originality. (I am basically talking about the mechanics and semantics of film criticism, in the way it applies to SF cinema, but we will leave it there for now, because it is a very sinewy, lengthy subject!)
As the director of Blade Runner: 2049, Denis Villeneuve, has personally asked all journalists not to give away too many secrets of the plot, I will respect his wishes, and keep the following synopsis to a minimum: thirty years after the events of the original film, new Blade Runner/LAPD Officer ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is hunting down rogue Replicants – genetically created humanoids – in order to eliminate them. After one such assignment, he randomly disinters a long-buried clue to a corporate-led conspiracy that potentially heralds the end of the human race, and may also lead him to answers about his own mysterious past. As he navigates an ensuing deadly puzzle, he encounters various involved factions; those out to silence him and those ready to aid him, finally tracking down the elderly and reclusive Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who will hopefully supply him with the final revelation he is seeking.
The first thing one notices, as Villeneuve’s film gradually comes to life, is the subtly phantasmagorical atmosphere the director conjures. To put it simply, it is everywhere. There are also Gothic and baroque strains, and minimalist abstraction. Everything is slowed down and intensified, with surreal, otherworldly details focused on or enlarged, grandiose landscapes opened up to fill the corners of the screen with rich textures and colours, obtuse compositions, stunning physiognomies, realistic special effects which awe us but thankfully are not outré and, not least, the incredible set design. Wow, those Art Deco future-retro sets – they are gorgeous (many of them ‘real’, in situ, not created via computer trickery later, which would have been so much easier and cheaper to do). One amazing, hallucinatory sequence sees K walking through a melancholy, desert-like landscape, the ochre coloured mist gradually dissipating to reveal gigantic sculptures of nubile, naked women, sensuously towering above him (they seem to be styled on the fetishistic, female sculptures of 1971’s A Clockwork Orange). Other astonishing episodes are when K slowly flies, in his hover car – aka ‘Spinner’ – over an irradiated, partly destroyed landscape, outside of the metropolis (only hinted at in the first film, but there in the ’68 novel). We see vast swathes of agricultural-industrial emplacements, whereby gigantic geometric structures and solar energy receptors dominate the near barren earth, (probably) in an attempt to stave off global famine. Or when the Spinner similarly floats over the inordinately dense, vertical strata of the claustrophobic city, housing the poor and disenfranchised at the bottom, and the privileged super-elite at the top (much reminiscent of the visuals of the highly influential ‘Mega City One’, in the cult Judge Dredd strip of the comic 2000 AD, conceived a good five years before the ’82 Blade Runner was released). Such stately, mesmeric ambiance is, in turn, seamlessly conjoined with the almost Zen-like dialogue and measured plot structure, which slowly unfurls, as K slots the pieces of the narrative puzzle together. Nothing is rushed, Villeneuve taking his time to show us this deliciously built-up world, letting us gaze at it, gorge ourselves on it, at our ease; indeed lifting its veil simultaneously in microcosm and macrocosm, gingerly enticing us with its magnificent splendour. Villeneuve truly has paid noble homage to Ridley Scott’s exquisite, iconic original, in this sense.
It is also entirely apposite to remind ourselves that such delicately crafted visuals and meditative pacing are hugely refreshing, in a medium now saturated with shallow Hollywood blockbusters that cannot wait to erratically swish the camera POV past ultra-detailed, but blink-and-you-will-miss-it, CGI landscapes and phenomena; their laborious action scenes constantly battering us with bullet blasts of whip-crack editing, confusing and alienating us far beyond even the paper-thin characterisations and stupid, nonsensical plots. Not so here: as evidenced by his previous standout films, from bravura oddities like Prisoners, and Enemy (both 2013), to the riveting Sicario (2015), and the poignant Arrival (2016), Villeneuve is patently a craftsman of traditional 101 film-making, which is a major advantage when it comes to transmogrifying Scott’s original Old School elements into something novel, yet comfortably familiar. Usually the best way to delineate an odd, alien world is to tell the story in as ‘logical’ and straightforward a manner as possible, using the plain and simple, easily graspable grammar of classical film-making, and Villeneuve understands this; anything else – the ubiquitous visual tomfoolery and showy gimmicks of so many contemporary mainstream directors – would be contradictory, piling ostentation upon bombast, bombast upon strangeness, strangeness upon chaos, until it all becomes inexplicable, inane and self-defeating. (See the slew of hideously uber-flashy ‘Transformers’ films as a prime example of such folly.) As well, unlike so much modern science fiction cinema, Blade Runner: 2049’s complex, dreamed-up world sticks, in terms of physics and science, to its own Internal Logic, and because of this fine balancing act of realistic context with relatively restrained aesthetics, we are immediately relieved, knowing that we are in safe hands, and that, whatever happens, this will not be a grotesque and bloated travesty, retroactively tainting the memory of the original. Despite the odd minor niggle, as sequels go, Blade Runner: 2049 is a brilliant, stupendous achievement.
Equally, this sequel is not in large part a retread of the classic original, like Scott’s own Alien: Covenant (2017) so shamefully was, as was Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – although to a much less egregious degree. Here we have a continuation of the Blade Runner mythology, but also a film which can stand on its own, with enough reinvention and ingenuity to supply novel ideas and thrills. Thematically, whilst branching off in other, secondary respects, the main thrust of the story expands upon the core Existential dilemmas of Dick’s 1968 source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and, of course, its 1982 adaptation, whereby the dichotomies and paradoxes of human versus non-human, simulacra versus authenticity, reality versus illusion, play out through a Frankenstein-creation complex, combined with a detective mystery (though this film is less ‘Norish’ in many ways). Dick’s philosophical notions and quandaries pertaining to the perennial issues of ‘real’ identity and psychological fragmentation are given a bold new sheen, especially poignant in relation to K’s fascinating love affair with his alluring ‘artificial’ companion, Joi. There are juxtapositions of familial relationships too, which play out in unexpected ways, as the film progresses. Contemporary concerns, like global warming, pollution, (post) nuclear catastrophe, rampant consumerism, fascistic sociopolitics and virtual worlds are pushed to the fore here, where they were partially subsumed by the Noir and pulp-detective inflections of the original. This iteration of the Blade Runner universe elicits enough new concepts and thought-provoking tweaks to merit the qualities of growth and evolution, not just superficial add-ons, as with so many recent, fudged sequels. It is important to state this strongly, because it is such a rarity, nowadays – this is an ‘actual’ sequel, continuing the story in some unexpected ways, not simply a stale and inert rehash of the original.
Having said this, there are also, especially stylistically, welcome echoes of the ’82 original. For instance, the beautiful water reflections on the walls and ceilings of corporate office interiors, or the scene when a replicant, due to be ‘retired’, fights back and smashes K right through a wall, referencing Roy Batty similarly demolishing brickwork with superhuman strength, to get at Deckard. Then there are sundry conceits from the source novel which never made it into Scott’s ’82 film but have been inserted into the story here: from Deckard’s familiar, a shaggy, wolfish dog that follows him around and whom may or may not be real, to the mention of a ‘replicant goat’ that can be illicitly bought for cash – both these animals supplant the novel’s original ‘electric sheep’. Later, in one of the stand-out scenes in an abandoned casino lounge/auditorium – which wondrously mixes the past and future, real and unreal – luminescent, holographic projections of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe sing and perform on stage, albeit in-between intermittent digital ‘glitches’, whilst Deckard and K engage in a brutal fist fight below, in the shadows. These virtual, copycat presences, as with K’s holographic A.I. girlfriend Joi, come straight out of Dick’s whole body of work, not just the primary source novel, and it is very satisfying to see them portrayed in such a realistically conceived, chimerical manner; I am in no doubt that old Phil himself would have been blown away by such profound manifestations of his imagination (as he was, in fact, when Scott showed him rushes of the ’82 original’s epic cityscapes, sadly just months before he died).
Pretty much every artistic component of this film is handled favorably. One such aspect is the soundtrack. More often than not, in all sorts of films – not just SF – it will be grossly mishandled, where unnecessary emotional manipulation is achieved through patronising signifiers, blatantly ‘telling’ the audience when to feel anticipation, fear, excitement, sadness or joy. But here the score, by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, is refined, ethereal and alien, with enough elliptical reference to the original Vangelis music, but combined with new sonic elements: throughout, the audio is unobtrusive yet subtly adds extra ambiance and dimension, sometimes nightmarish and chilling with thunderous, choppy refrains, sometimes poetic and mournful, sometimes scintillating and aptly futuristic (thankfully, the original film’s slightly cheesy and parodic saxophone solos have been left out, one of the only misfires, at the time). The superior quality of this soundtrack makes a big difference, as so often good films are tainted or even completely ruined by crass, infantile music. Visually, Villeneuve has made another winning choice by deploying the unerring eye of revered cinematographer Roger Deakins (whose fabulous camerawork informs the films of the Coen brothers, to cite just one example of his prestigious CV). Similarly, the casting is spot-on, with Ryan Gosling carrying the film effortlessly, his insouciant, ponderous star quality riffing on the ghostly echoes of a youthful Harrison Ford in the ’82 film, whilst enjoyably sparring with the wiser and grizzled Ford, opposite him here, now – who, of course, lights up every scene he appears in. All of the other actors are fine, but Robin Wright, who plays K’s hard-as-nails superior, Lieutenant Joshi, is excellent, as is Sylvia Hoeks, channeling the psychotic enforcer Luv, a beautiful but ruthless, drop-kicking replicant, whose bestial but strangely captivating fury when despatching her opponents is a sight to see. Most tellingly, the screenplay, upon which everything else either succeeds or falters, was co-written – along with Michael Green – by Hampton Fancher, one of the original film’s writers. He has done a grand job here, sufficiently tethering the story to the universal Dickian archetypes, and Blade Runner/Scott mythos, yet instilling a sense of contemporary concerns and predilections, whilst also (apparently) drawing inspiration from recent SF movie highlights like Children of Men (2006), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and Ex Machina (2015) – all of which were, in many ways, the progeny of the original Scott film, of course.
If there are any negative aspects to the film, they are few and far between, and only minor quibbles: from a feeling that there could have been a bit more kinetic action, passion or violence, to add extra psychological rhythm and emotional variety to the narrative – it all gets rather cold and ‘distant’ sometimes; to a few slightly confused or inchoate expositions as to how certain things work in the future, or how unexplained elements of the plot fall into place; and on to some prolonged, minor sequences whose overly glacial pace doesn’t necessarily sit well with the rest of the film – perhaps some judicious editing would have honed the film to perfection. Then again, now I have experienced such vague, cinematic ‘reveries’, I wouldn’t really want to miss them on a second viewing, and that may be the crux of the matter; this film is definitely a type of slow-burn mystery, or ‘sleeper’, which I’m sure will provide ample reward and multiple interpretations on repeated viewings, just as the original still does. Interestingly, on that note, at the preview I attended, I noticed that once the final credits had rolled, the large audience was almost silent and seemed mystified (or maybe stunned?), half-heartedly offering a short burst of clapping, which petered out, listlessly – usually if a preview audience loves a film, they clap wildly, at the end. I construed this lack of instant outward reaction as a form of temporary puzzlement and delayed opinion on what was just experienced. Perhaps the cinematic template just wasn’t familiar enough, containing too many abstruse, ambiguous ‘arthouse’ tropes – for an ostensible Hollywood action blockbuster – to fully engage a general media audience, on first viewing. Sure, if one closely analyses the plot, it begins to look a bit simplistic and one-dimensional, but then, like Scott’s original, and unlike most modern workaday films, it isn’t really about an – often – contrived, twisty narrative, or the same old neurotic, crass soap opera of human relationships, but more an all-encompassing, sensory, audiovisual experience; the immersive feeling and atmosphere of an enigmatic, weird world, engulfing us in its vastness (to wit, I would recommend seeing this film on as big a screen as possible). Villeneuve is only following in the footsteps of ‘widescreen/abstract’ SF masters like Scott, Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron, to that extent.
Ultimately, executive producer Ridley Scott made an astute, selfless choice by fully handing over the reigns to one of the brightest stars in the film-making firmament, right now (perhaps he finally realised he has lost his idiosyncratic and youthful creative zest, mostly producing nondescript, corporate-led ‘tent-pole’ filler these days, and so didn’t want to mess this one up). Moreover, at the very least, all die-hard fans of Scott’s sublime, groundbreaking original should be thankful that Blade Runner: 2049 didn’t turn out to be another dumb, humdrum travesty like the franchise-factory-fodder Prometheus (2012) or Alien: Covenant (2017). However, most of the consequent gratitude should be offered to Denis Villeneuve, for his distinctive and thrilling artistic vision. If there is any justice in the world, then his film will receive near-universal praise, but, much like the ’82 original – which had difficulty connecting with mass audiences and thus was a flop at the time of release – if there is any initial befuddlement, it may well be to its long term advantage, as its multifarious strands and subtleties resonate more strongly down the years, and consequently its reputation as a ‘cult classic’, is consolidated.
This article is dedicated to the memory of the unique, brilliant, humane, but often troubled Philip K. Dick – if only he were still here to bask in the adulation his work now routinely garners. R.I.P.