ARCHIVE Reviews, Part One: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

In this miniseries of articles, I shall be looking back upon the last decade of film and reviewing some of my favourites of the past ten years. Up first is Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, the film which proved that he is the man to make 2020’s Dune a modern sci-fi classic.

It is a brave voyage that Denis Villeneuve embarked on in 2017. The original Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of the curiously named novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, is one of those rare films that began with a disregarded wisp of smoke only to erupt and send seismic waves of influence within not only the science-fiction genre, but across the entire film industry. The awe-inspiring sets and visuals exemplified the transportive capacity of cinema whilst the permeating mood of ambiguity continues to inspire debate among contemporary cult followers about its fundamental themes, characters and images. Are the replicants more human than the humans? Is Deckard a replicant? What is the meaning of the origami unicorn?

The original Blade Runner‘s (1982) set and production design was a triumph, creating a dark reflection of our own future.

It is difficult to know whether or not lovers of the original would desire the answers to these questions. Would it ruin the soul of the original? Like I said, Villeneuve and co. had set themselves a task of cosmic proportions. Yet given Villeneuve’s recent directorial features, Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and more recently 2016’s Arrival, an alien contact story that strives for the provocation of intellectual questions rather than blockbuster action, it is clear that Blade Runner 2049 (2017) has at the helm one of Hollywood’s greatest visionaries. 

The film takes place thirty years after the events of the original, as we follow a new blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling) within a dystopian Los Angeles in which all the greenery of our once glorious ecosystems has faded into grey. His profession, to ‘retire’ rogue replicants, is still performed with the swift brutality as in the old days of Deckard’s career (Harrison Ford). After retiring a replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he unearths the remains of a female who died during a caesarean section underneath a prophetic white tree against the bleak landscape. The woman was also a replicant, only… replicants cannot reproduce, can they? 

The discovery forces K to follow the mystery down the rabbit hole as his human commander (Robin Wright) believes such a revelation could result in a war commencing between humans and replicants. His pursuit leads K through this bleak new world, in search of Ford’s Deckard but also in search of the truth of his own identity. What holds the film together is the thematic continuity between itself and the original. The profound questions posed by the original are explored further, as existential crises surrounding identity, purpose and what it means to be human pervades the ambivalent aura. 

Within the awe-inspiring world envisaged by Roger Deakins’ sublime cinematography (as ever – at least the Academy finally came to their senses this year), man has lost a spiritual connection with nature. The post-modernist dystopia is at the surface a dirty, un-romanticised city peppered with candy-pink holograms surrounded with wastelands basking in the glorious orange hue of radiation. It is, without a doubt, the best looking film of 2017. Yet the aesthetic serves a greater purpose than one may expect. Wallace (Jared Leto) reigns over the corporation who has created a new model of replicant, more obedient than Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) model in Ridley Scott’s original. During the film we visit his overwhelmingly expensive apartment: grand open spaces, reflective water shimmering off the smooth walls. Yet it is completely featureless. There are no grand pieces of art, no treasured heirlooms. Wallace himself has immersed himself within this artificial world. His opaque milk-coloured eyes require technology to enable him the gift of sight. The curtains are drawn upon the windows of the soul. 

The score, an unnerving combination of slow eerie synthesizers rising into hauntingly high revelations of double-bass and choral instruments, reveals more about how humans appear to have lost touch with what makes us human. Woven throughout the film are incomplete symphonies. A holographic performance of Elvis fragments “Sus-s-pic… iousss minds” whilst the harmonious swells of “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev are distorted, as the violins descend into synthetic white-noise. The humans we encounter can no longer appreciate humanity’s greatest cultural achievements. 

When asked by production designer, Dennis Gassner, to describe the film in a single word, Denis Villeneuve replied: ‘brutality’. Wallace embodies said brutality. He slices a new-born replicant like a sacrificial lamb in front of his ruthless lieutenant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Throughout both films, the killing of replicants faces no moral qualms because humans insist that they don’t have a soul. But is a soul something people are born with? Or is it constructed? In the original, Roy Batty, a replicant primed to kill, saves Deckard in rebellion of his programming yet we see a human, Wallace, kill without remorse or question. And so, the question swings in the air like a pendulum: have humans lost their humanity?

Such internal dilemmas torment K, and Ryan Gosling captures the quiet and afflicted protagonist expertly. Gosling, who has a knack of picking scripts in which he plays complex and conflicted characters, such as Drive (2011) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), appears to me Hollywood’s contemporary Harrison Ford – possessing an exterior of masculine magnetism that envelops a tender soul within. Ford, by the way, was excellent. The Deckard we know returns but he is evidently tortured by his past.

The entire cast deserves praise for their performances. Jared Leto is chilling and unsettling as Wallace. Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv is utterly relentless yet we suspect her inquisitive cogs are turning beneath the surface. Ana de Armas plays K’s devoted but holographic girlfriend, Joi, another AI application that relinquishes humanity’s innate compassion. Nonetheless, the dynamic between de Armas and Gosling manages to inject pathos and tragedy into an otherwise ersatz relationship. 

Despite such fine feats of acting, the greatest performance is Villeneuve’s. Brave enough to take a slow pace, like the original, brave enough to explore yet preserve the encompassing enigmas, like the original, and brave enough to prime such a beautiful yet gritty spectacle with not only violence but with an atmosphere which intrigues and unnerves the viewer, like the original. Such loyalty does not detract from innovation. Blade Runner 2049 is its own self-contained beast that seeks to tell a story. For me, it is such a refreshing approach amidst Hollywood’s tendency to unnecessarily plant seeds for sequels and franchises. Villeneuve, for one, has retained his humanity.

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