If reviving the Star Wars franchise seemed a near-Herculean task, spare a thought for Dennis Villeneuve. Revitalising the superlative space saga might’ve had its challenges, but at least its legion of fans were of one mind about their expectations. In creating this long-awaited follow-up to Blade Runner, Villeneuve faced a much tougher assignment, its diehard supporters having spend the past 35 years pouring over every iteration of the sci-fi classic, endlessly debating the plot’s myriad mysteries. While Villeneuve wisely steers clear of offering any definitive answers to those questions, there’s no doubt Blade Runner 2049 defies even the loftiest of expectations.
Scripted by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher – who also penned the original – 2049 unsurprisingly picks up three decades after the first film. The intervening years have not been kind to Earth: the climate has collapsed and the wealthiest citizens have abandoned ship for the off-world colonies, leaving only the poorest, who survive on synthetic gruel and the companionship of holographic call girls.
The Tyrell Corporation has also fallen, bought out by the Jared Leto-led Wallace Corporation, who’ve created a brand new line of replicants, more compliant than the Nexus-6 models thanks to the eradication of troublesome features like emotions or free will. Ryan Gosling’s Agent K is one of the new breed, a blade runner tasked with hunting down and retiring older models. His latest mission leads K to an encounter with Dave Bautista’s protein farmer where he makes a startling discovery that causes him to question his own existence and the future of the human race.
To say anymore would be to spoil a bold, absorbing movie, who’s mysteries are best discovered as the story unfolds. What is certain is that 2049 is a much cleaner, easier watch than its predecessor. Whereas the original was deliberately, almost punishingly obtuse, Villeneuve’s update feels like a much brisker watch – despite being 45 minutes longer – and is more open about it’s intentions, rather than hiding everything behind a wall of portentous eulogising.
Not that Blade Runner has become yet another commercialised blockbuster filled with city-pulverising, vertiginous actions sequences. 2049 remains a slow-burning, deeply ponderous detective story that gently muses on themes of isolation, identity and human connection in a way that feels like a natural progression to the first film. Any violence is brief but brutal and purposeful, acting as a sudden, devastating blow within a supremely satisfying, emotionally compelling narrative.
The defining elements of the original’s dark, twisted future world remain intact, too. Eyeballs are a prominent motif, fluorescent-hared denizens still munch on Asian street food and the Voight-Kampff test has become an even more distressing experience. In fact, so delicately has Villeneuve recreated the look and feel of the original, it’s almost to his detriment. Blade Runner was such a ground-breaking piece of work at least in part due to Ridley Scott’s impressively realised neon-drenched futurescape, which has been aped countless times over the intervening years. By contrast, 2049’s rain-soaked tower blocks and dust bowl necropolises feel like just another respectful copy – albeit a superbly crafted one.
One area where 2049 undoubtedly excels is in the performances of its two leads. Gosling once again demonstrates his talent for imbuing deep pathos into handsomely passive characters, transforming the outwardly machine-like K into a thoughtful, engrossing presence. Harrison Ford is on similarly excellent form. Returning to yet another classic character, Ford’s skills are seriously tested in role that requires him to dig much deeper into Deckard’s emotional state than in his previous outing.
Only Jared Leto, playing self-aggrandising, monologue-prone industrialist Niander Wallace, feels below his best. Though given he’s lumbered with an entirely superfluous character who exists solely to deliver drawn-out theological rants to Sylvia Hoecks’ super-humanly patient replicant enforcer, it’s perhaps no surprise that Leto would resort to biting huge chunks out of the gorgeous scenery.
Without an engaging antagonist to match the Rutger Hauer’s tragic skinjob Roy and the unplanned poetic alchemy of his ‘Tears in rain’ soliloquy, 2049 misses some of the devastating emotional force of its predecessor. Yet that shouldn’t detract from what’s otherwise an extraordinary achievement by Villeneuve. Whether Blade Runner 2049 lives up to the expectations of its demanding fanbase will no doubt be debated for at least another 30 years, but there’s no denying Villeneuve has succeeded in crafting a smart, gripping and thought-provoking movie that immensley satisfying in its own right.
Runtime: 163 mins (approx.)
Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Michael Green, Hampton Fancher
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoecks