Blade Runner 2049 – FIlm Review
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana De Armas, Sylvia Hoeks
Review by David Turpin
Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner is one of the most gorgeous of all film objects – a visual piece so persuasive that it has managed to convince several generations of fans that there’s rather more going on beneath its surface than there actually is. Now, some 35 years after its original release, it gets a largely deserving sequel in Blade Runner 2049. Scott has departed the megaphone to make way for French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who hit science-fiction gold just last year with Arrival. The result is a meticulously controlled piece of grand-scale filmmaking with imagination to spare and a blessedly adult timbre. Among other things, it has the unintended effect of making Scott’s own recent return to the well of his earlier career, this summer’s disastrous Alien: Covenant, seem like even more of a mess than it did already.
While Blade Runner 2049 is very identifiably Villeneuve’s film, the original lingers around its edges – and not just in the return of Harrison Ford. In fact, Blade Runner 2049 is littered with ‘call-backs’ to the original film: the opening shot is a direct quotation, and the strangely mesmerising photograph enlargement sequence from Scott’s film is reworked no less than three times. For all that, one of the most striking things about Blade Runner 2049 is its visual deviation from Scott’s template. While Scott’s film was cramped and teeming, Villeneuve’s is very much in thrall to the expansive vistas of sublime monotony that Christopher Nolan has recently trademarked. One overhead shot of a city so densely built that it appears only as a smooth expanse of identical rooftops is particularly striking, as are some unexpected exteriors near the beginning of the film. This correspondent found the effect undeniably impressive, but rather Teflon next to Scott’s thrillingly sordid ambience. The same goes for the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, which thunders and booms in exactly the way one expects, but never hits quite the same seam of overblown neon melancholy that Vangelis’ original did – although a few direct quotations from Vangelis will tickle the ears of Blade Runner aficionados.
If this review is substantially a comparison between the original and the sequel, that’s unavoidable not only because of Blade Runner’s long shadow, but also because of exceptionally emphatic demands that reviews reveal as little of the new film’s plot as possible. Nothing will be spoiled here, except to say that the film is, in many ways, a reversal of what one might expect of a 2017 sequel to a 1982 film. While the visuals don’t resonate with quite the same power, the story is actually surprisingly rich and engrossing – particularly given that the original’s wafer of gumshoe pastiche was self-evidently one of its lesser virtues.
The acting is fairly strong across the cast, with Ryan Gosling less mannered than usual, and a nice cameo for Robin Wright. Those who still shudder at the absurd face-slapping/shoulder-gripping ‘love scene’ in the original may also be heartened to learn that Villeneuve finds room for five fairly interesting female parts – which is at least four more than most sci-fi franchises – although there’s nothing here to challenge Mad Max: Fury Road for its distaff dystopia crown. Of these, Mackenzie Davis – who made a strong impression in Black Mirror last year – is particularly intriguing, if a little underwritten. One scene, which she shares with Gosling and Ana de Armos, confidently wipes the floor with Ex Machina’s previous high watermark for eerie sci-fi sensuality.
This being 2017, the erotic gets short shrift in favour of the great obsession of 21st-century blockbusters: family. The preoccupation with parenthood that has come to define more or less every ‘franchise’ film is present and correct – although Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green actually manage to give it an intriguing slant that would merit further discussion were it not in danger of spoiling the plot. Suffice to say that it looks like Blade Runner 2049 might be about to do exactly what you expect it to – and then it doesn’t.
Ultimately, one of the great unsayable truths about Scott’s Blade Runner is that, for all its ample genius, it’s a deeply, deeply flawed film – and its flaws go deeper than anything Scott has tinkered with in its successive director’s cuts. Villeneuve’s film is flawed also, although in ways that are arguably less interesting because they are more superficial. Still, like Scott’s original, it’s about as unmissable as big-budget science-fiction gets, and it demands to be seen on as large a screen as possible. It’s a film that washes over you. If it rinses out a little faster than one might hope after the fact, it remains an immersive experience that’s unlikely to be bested for some time.