Review: Blade Runner 2049

Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures via YouTube

Blade Runner 2049 is a welcome return to the kind of big-budget filmmaking that has long been dead, at least since Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence or even Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner back in 1982. It is a wide-release, heavily marketed film about ideas, in which its technical accomplishments equal its philosophical and existential depth. In the grand scheme of things, no one could have asked for a more deserving sequel; it understands its predecessor in a way that most continuations of classic franchises do not, and it takes the necessary steps forward to silence any critics who may paint it merely as a piece of nostalgia-baiting, pseudo-intellectual fan service. While not perfect, Blade Runner 2049 stimulates the kind of conversation that has been sorely missing in the mass market movie scene. I am so excited that it is finally back.

Reviewing Blade Runner 2049 is a bit more complicated than reviewing most other Hollywood releases. So much that is immediately gratifying about the film on first viewing is found in the graceful way in which its secrets are unravelled, so I won’t go too far. What I will say is that Blade Runner 2049 builds on the ideas established so well in the first film, and runs with them, posing even greater questions than the ones left unanswered by the end of the original Blade Runner. Everything is ambiguous in the Blade Runner universe, from the identity of its main characters to the intricacies of what defines a human being. The new film presents you with a sea of questions, and the fact that it has the confidence not to answer all of them adds a lot, especially considering what the film could have been if put into the wrong hands.

Thankfully, this was not the case. Director Denis Villeneuve has outdone himself here, combining the tense atmosphere of his work in Prisoners and Enemy with the restrained intelligence of his previous film Arrival. Each and every revelation feels earned and appropriate, and the outbursts of violence have such a rawness to them that even a filmmaker as talented as Villeneuve struggles to capture them without seeming pornographic. Blade Runner 2049 also features some of the most stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins’ career, matched perhaps only by his work in the Coen’s blackly comic Fargo. Grand skyscrapers which climb seemingly forever, flanked by neon-lit advertisements for Pan Am and Atari. Whole landscapes built from rust and scrap metal. Dark cityscapes drowning in torrential rain, with streets worked by aggressive street vendors and glassy eyed prostitutes. All of them ring with an uncompromising visual eye for detail that it is often overwhelming. The casting is spot on too: Ryan Gosling plays the central character Officer K with an unease brimming underneath his handsome exterior, revisiting the quiet, subtle edge that made his performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive so gripping. Harrison Ford offers a suitably understated returning performance as an older, gruffer Rick Deckard, and though the film does lack the presence of a villain as sympathetic as Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, the appeal of Jared Leto in the scenes he appears in is hard to deny. 

One of the few things however that left me feeling uneasy was the soundtrack. Vangelis’ music captured so well the stark, elegiac tone of the first film that the new soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch comes up short by comparison. Zimmer was simply the wrong choice to score 2049; while he can compose great music, as he demonstrated earlier this year with Dunkirk, his contributions here are a little too generic to match Vangelis’ original. It’s not bad by any means; it just seems like the only part of the new movie which relies too heavily on recycled ideas. 

Running for a demanding 163 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 is a film with such a strong visual language and attention to detail that I’m surprised it exists. A passive watch this is not: the movie is dark, profound and satisfying in all the best ways. Its sweeping cyberpunk vistas help establish a world that is both beautiful and melancholy all at once, and it has the restraint to know that not all questions have to be answered. What could have easily become another Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has turned out to be a dense, reflective sci-fi story with enough visual grandeur to match its lofty themes. Go experience it. It’s the sort of vision that, while not perfect, has more than enough philosophical bombast and filmic style to soften whatever rough edges it has.

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