Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
Run Time: 163 mins
Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, for many different reasons. Firstly and most importantly, it is the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, a film that has a turbulent history of its own of underappreciation and misunderstanding. It took a long time for the film to reach the stature it now resides, with different cuts releasing in the process. A sequel has been pondered many a time over the years with Ridley Scott frequently discussing such prospects.
Things took a turn for the better in 2015 when it was announced that Denis Villeneuve would be in the director’s chair, thus leading to the second reason why this film is so highly anticipated. Blade Runner 2049 feels as though it’s a cumulation of Villeneuve’s previous work, consistently proving multiple times in the past that he is one of the most exciting directors working today. Both Prisoners and Sicario are outstanding pieces of work, Enemy a very interesting piece and although I didn’t love Arrival, there were many who did, garnering Villeneuve a Best Director Oscar nomination and the film a Best Picture nomination. With Villeneuve at the helm, this also means he reunites with cinematographer Roger Deakins. Regular composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was also set to return but his score was unfortunately unused. Thrown in a star-studded cast for good measure and you’re onto a winner. Any normal groans that a sequel was being planned to a film 35 years later would muster were put to rest when everyone noticed the talent involved.
Without divulging any plot spoilers as there are plenty of reveals in the film, it would be fitting to say that this film follows Ryan Gosling’s Officer K and an investigation that he embarks on and that the film is set 30 years later (the clue is in the title) but a lot has happened in this world since the conclusion of Ridley Scott’s original.
My initial reaction to Blade Runner 2049 is the same as it was for Blade Runner in that it wasn’t quite the triumphant feat I expected it to be. There is a lot to admire, particularly on a visual level and there are many moments in the film which are mesmerising to behold on-screen. Roger Deakins’ transfixing cinematography should surely now have earnt him his long overdue Oscar and there are multiple sequences that are destined to be studied by future film students. However, I also have my reservations with it. Bearing in mind the overall history of reception with the original Blade Runner, this is a film that warrants multiple rewatches to truly appreciate it and hopefully then, I will have a higher opinion of the film.
What was really satisfying to observe was Villeneuve’s attitude towards the material. He clearly has a love for the original and the film never felt cynical towards its predecessor at all – it is very much in the same vein. Villeneuve toys with the philosophy and ideas behind the first film and further develops some plot threads but also still manages to keep the enigma sustained in other areas of debate. This is coupled with strong thematic elements such as memory, age and identity and the juxtapositions between what it means to be human or a replicant. There is an excellent exchange in the script that has allusions to Pinnochio which is really fulfilling.
The cast expectedly deliver and Ryan Gosling manages to take the baton from Harrison Ford in the leading role seamlessly. The role suits Gosling perfectly, not too dissimilar from his leading role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Gosling is our main point of view into this filmic world and he’s pretty much in every scene and the rest of the cast feature around his character’s journey. The two standout performances though are surprisingly from Dave Bautista and Ana de Armas. Bautista, who has steadily been on the rise in recent years in films such as Guardians of the Galaxy (and its sequel) and Spectre, only really appears in one major scene but his character is extremely committed, vulnerable and tranquil. Apparently Villeneuve originally was against casting Bautista until he proved himself in his third interview. I frankly can’t imagine anyone else in that role. Ana de Armas is also surprisingly brilliant and her character is instrumental to the theme of reality and self-awareness in the film. The rest of the cast are all sound although I don’t really understand why people think Harrison Ford’s performance is one of his best – I thought his performance was more in vein with his return to similarly lately revived franchise pieces such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The quality of the action sequences and Roger Deakins’ cinematography truly elevate the film and distinguish between the macro and micro elements of the world created. Villeneuve continues his trend of strong opening scenes, a scene that manages to both be particularly raw and blunt whilst also situating itself in the grander scheme of things within the film. A fight sequence in a theatre is also wonderfully staged as is a three-way sex scene which has many textual layers to it. Every single shot by Deakins feels meticulously crafted throughout the film and there are many instances in the film where my jaw dropped in amazement. It’s just a little bit of a shame that the final action sequence can’t quite live up to the others as it begins to touch a little too closely to the first film and loses a considerable amount of the spark the film had before.
This is just one of the issues I have on first viewing of the film. Whilst I praise Villeneuve’s stance towards the film, it is also his downfall. There is always the threat in a big budget blockbuster that you lose some of the director’s oeuvre compared to their previous work. Whilst there are some moments where Villeneuve’s input is clear, for example from some of the black imagery of greed and class, a staple of some of his previous works. Whilst this is not because of the fact that the film was made by studio executives (it’s certainly not) like many other blockbusters, perhaps part of the reason why Villeneuve’s input isn’t as apparent is because he channels Ridley Scott’s direction of the first film too much. The film feels like an exact continuation of the first film in the same vein resulting in this loss of authorship. Some may think this is a good thing but I think the film would be a lot more impressive if more of his director’s voice had seeped its way into the film as it certainly suits the material.
Linking to this lack of voice and the self-admiration from the crew of the original film, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score feels very safe. I covered the departure of original composer and regular Villeneuve collaborator, Johann Jóhannsson in a previous post and this is to the film’s detriment. Zimmer and Wallfisch’s score is too close to home with Vangelis’ original. This isn’t particularly unexpected considering how late they signed onto the project, late into the Summer this year. There are a handful of moments of greatness and I am sure that Jóhannsson’s score hasn’t entirely been removed as there is a moment set in the city early on in the film where Gosling’s character meets Mackenzie Davis which could only have been scored by him. It’s a cue that growls and wails and perfectly meshes with what is being portrayed on-screen.
The film is also overlong. I’m all for a film that is willing to take its time to explore its heady themes and tackle a well-woven plot. It is about twenty minutes too long in an intimidating 163 minute run time and whilst I’m all for gaping at Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, there are some moments which come to a standstill which could have been improved by a slightly quicker pace. The film also made me feel quite empty – I didn’t really emotionally resonate with it. There are scenes in its plot line which are designed for a reaction but like the numerous replicants that inhabit the film, it left me quite cold.
Blade Runner 2049 is frequently mesmerising to behold on-screen and Villeneuve’s intention towards the project is impressive. Technically, the film is a marvel to behold bolstered by its strong performances. However, it is not quite the victorious slamdunk I expected it to be on the strengths of Denis Villeneuve’s previous works. A lot of this masterful director’s trademarks aren’t immediately apparent in the film due to Villeneuve emulating Ridley Scott’s direction of the first film a little too closely. The film is also overlong and frequently emotionally lacking. Without trying to sound too critical of the film, it is testament to how strongly I regard Villeneuve as a director and the subsequent expectations I had going into this film. Blade Runner 2049 is generally a very strong sequel but like its predecessor, requires time and repeat viewings to further ascertain its quality and lasting impression.