Film Review | Blade Runner 2049

* * * * Not just a nostalgic re-tread, but a true spiritual sucessor. Even at three hours long, it is certainly worth your time

Yearning for a connection: Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling have an existentially problematic relationship in Denis Villeneuve’s hypnotic and resonant Blade Runner sequel
Yearning for a connection: Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling have an existentially problematic relationship in Denis Villeneuve’s hypnotic and resonant Blade Runner sequel

When I went to watch Blade Runner 2049, a trailer of Thor: Ragnarok preceded the film. Now, that’s a film I’m looking forward to seeing. By all accounts, the Marvel Studios confection will be as fun a ride as most of them, even if – perhaps – its only claim to any uniqueness would be that its director is one Taika Waititi, the promising New Zealand actor and filmmaker partly responsible for 2014’s lovable and hilarious vampire spoof/mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows. 

But while the trailer showed evidence of both Waititi’s trademark humour as well as the usual kick-ass beats you’d expect from Marvel movies... it also made it clear to us – the 3D glasses-bespectacled audience – that what we’ll be getting will be much of the same. A polished-up superhero romp with the usual structure in place for the true believers, and a bunch of deflating ironic jokes for the non-converts. 

But the film that followed was, thankfully, a reminder that it Doesn’t Always Have To Be This Way.

As the title suggests, the year is 2049, and the world is edging even further to techno-dystopian oblivion than it was some thirty years back, when Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) stalked the LA streets in pursuit of errant androids – ‘Replicants’ – to decomission (i.e., kill) as part of his job as ‘Blade Runner’. 

Now, our focus is on a new model of Replicant, K. (Ryan Gosling) who appears to be content to hum along in his job as a blade runner for the LAPD, disposing of older models who run the risk of going rogue, working on orders of Lt Joshi (Robin Wright). But when a job lands an earth-shattering discovery, K. edges into murkier waters. The trail of existentially intriguing breadcrumbs leads him all the way to Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) – whose corporation had saved the world from mass starvation but who now yearns to accelerate his production of Replicants through what may seem to be miraculous means. 

With his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) in tow, K.’s trail eventually uncovers some startling truths about himself and his ‘status’. Truths whose upshot it may only fall to the aging, reclusive Deckard himself to unravel.

Blade Runner 2049 is a miracle against all odds. A three-hour sequel to a thirtysomething-old cult classic that is as immersive, beautiful and unsettling as Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ and infamously re-released countless times in theatrical/director’s cut versions which deepened the ambiguity of the story and helped to make it the long-lasting, long-debated and deeply cherished beacon of high-brow sci-fi cinema it is today. 

Perhaps the only director with the capability (and cajones) to take on such a titan, and win, is Denis Villeneuve. After all, he has already proven his mastery of intelligent science fiction with last year’s Arrival, and his adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel The Double into the mind-bending doppelganger drama Enemy (2013) already shares a genetic link with Philip K. Dick’s paranoid, reality-shifting worldview. 

Now, aided along by a game cast – Gosling in particular is just stellar as the emotionally stunted K – and sublime cinematography the legendary Roger Deakins, Villeneuve has created a film that cuts through the hype and just plunges you into its world for three full hours. Instead of the easy beats of Marvel Studios movies – a pinata-collapse of facile appeasement – we get a twisting drama with gorgeous vistas and an intriguing puzzle at its centre. Villeneuve keeps our eyeballs glued to the screen with some truly amazing moments and visual delights – the fistfight between Deckard and K. will remain a long talked-about sequence, and the shots of the gutted and desert-washed remnants of Las Vegas will also linger in the memory – and while an appropriately knotted backstory is at the heart of it, Villeneuve directs the proceedings with a remarkably confident clarity.  

'I had your job': Harrison Ford
'I had your job': Harrison Ford

Despite its apparently disheartening box office takings, Blade Runner 2049 is yet another example of Denis Villeneuve’s ascendant status as a director – he has now officially eclipsed even the likes of Christopher Nolan in the sphere of intelligent and beautifully realised blockbusters that are likely to stand the test of time. But perhaps the film’s most significant contribution is a re-jig of the remake/reboot/sequel formula we’ve grown so used to, and likely cynical – or at least blasé – about. 

Because this direct sequel is not just a nostalgic re-tread, nor a failure of the imagination regrown as a corporate cash-in. In its commitment to the elliptical beauty of the original, and the important questions that it asks about how we frame our existence, it stands as a true spiritual sucessor. Even at three hours long, it is certainly worth your time.