When sci-fi fans learned that Blade Runner was to receive the dreaded reboot treatment, the reaction was all too familiar: a cash-in rehashing of an untouchable classic best left to be ignored. With the recent cascade of failed reboots, the hope that Blade Runner could be given a fair hearing in today’s overtly commercial-orientated film industry was a slim one. That was, until, a major recourse was revealed: Denis Villeneuve.
Slowly, the idea of a Blade Runner prequel became a sequel, attracting more and more of the original cast and crew, which in turn then led us to believe it would no longer just be another vanity project for Ridley Scott, but something far more respectable with a reputable ensemble; after watching Blade Runner 2049 you don’t come away redolent of any stand-out, charismatic actor’s performance: it’s the movie itself which is the star. And that’s why it’s Villeneuve who can be seen as the saviour of this delicate revisit to sci-fi’s legendary dystopia — albeit a rehash in places, but one done with artistic integrity, precision, and most importantly, a faithfulness to the original.
Denis Villeneuve came at it like a fan would — It’s no secret that he’s a disciple of Scott’s original, and has frequently been offering a sort of apologia for his directorial motives at the beginning of every interview during the film’s marketing run. Getting the balance between being faithful to the original whilst transcending the story will surely stand to be one of his greatest feats. Almost like a kid in a candy store, nobody was more understanding and suited to direct this movie than a serious Blade Runner fanboy; one that just happens to have an oeuvre of incredible filmmaking.
The film is visually stunning and sublime, transporting us not only 30 years back to the mise en scéne of the original but also to a further visionary premonition of the future. Los Angeles in 2049 is more vast, detailed and, though we thought it impossible, actually darker than in 2019. It will come as a relief to some to find that the movie doesn’t rely on the lack of charisma from its lead actor or chief antagonist: the city and the visual effects, working in perfect symbiosis with the ambient soundtrack are the central focus.
Whilst Blade Runner 2049 matches the original vision of the first movie, it is, in essence, a sequel and should be treated as such. And this is where the line between what is rehash and homage becomes conflated and contentious: it opens with an image of the protagonist’s eye as he flies over LA set against a backdrop of special effects and synthesised sounds; it’s dark with lots of rain and neon umbrellas; we see zooming in of photography to reveal a hidden treasure; and the same ubiquitous commercialism is scattered about in the form of logos and advertisements. We are also subject to the same recurring ontological themes, where instead of a unicorn we have a horse. And even the original ‘tears in the rain’ motif is regurgitated in the form of snow falling accompanied by a playback of Vangelis’s seminal track of the same name.
But don’t get me wrong, recreating the beauty of Blade Runner is no small feat, and when done tastefully like it’s done here, the effect can be positively nostalgic without feeling hackneyed or superfluous. Zimmer’s electronic soundtrack, spellbinding as usual, helps to achieve this. The haunting but beautiful synthesised music acts as a temporal bridge, connecting the film to its predecessor both visually and emotionally. And when watched in Imax, the effect is an assault on the senses — just like how Nolan achieves a ‘snowballing’ effect with his collaboration with Zimmer, Villeneuve also creates an experience where the visual and auditory senses react in tandem.
There are some rehashes in the film that are slightly overdone, although these aren’t the rehashings from the original movie but from other sci-fi: the inclusion of the virtual girlfriend tends to drag a little (despite her clever name, JOI: jerk off instruction), offering nothing more than the movie ‘Her‘ managed to do in its facile outlook; the scene where two bodies are joined for romantic pleasure was like something out of Ghost; and Sylvia Hoeks’ unnecessarily villainous character came across as more Terminator than conflicted replicant. Jared Leto was also fortunately left to play a more remote role than expected, as his character, with a similarly inexplicable villainy as Hoeks’, seemed out of place.
Having said that, perhaps these oversights are in fact deliberate devices that simply need more time to fructify just like those in 1982’s film. Ryan Gosling’s stultified countenance in the movie could be seen as a selective choice by the director to represent the existential struggle of a replicant — his sudden outburst in the dream-watching scene certainly would suggest this. And Leto’s Bondesque delivery could even be seen as a moral critique on the teleology of modern society and consumer capitalism: Tyrell was an inquisitive experimenter, naive to the after-effects of his creations, whereas Wallace seems to be fully aware of his own insidiousness.
Maybe Villeneuve’s accomplishments are in the creation of a Blade Runner movie that not only matches today’s future rather than 1982’s but one that successfully retells the story and consummates it. The replicants are different, so are the blade runners (allegedly), and the corporation has become even more grotesque in a decaying world. The narrative is also far more complicated (with a running time of 2hr 43mins), lending itself even more so to a neo-noir detective story with an existential crisis than the original does.
Blade Runner concerned itself abstractly with its themes, often floating between characterisation and poetry, whereas Blade Runner 2049 allows for both the narrative and leitmotif to take centre stage where they culminate in a typical Villenueverian twist; as exhibited in the majority of Villeneuve’s movies, his signature schtick to keep a secret from the audience then offer revelation through epiphany is utilised perfectly.
Villeneuve’s ostensible talent as an auteur shows with his ability to concatenate the Blade Runner universe, seamlessly rendering a picture that both older and newer fans can relate to and enjoy; a continuation in the series that visually and narratively stays within both Dick’s and Scott’s vision.