*This review contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049*
Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, was everything I wanted it to be and more. The original film is one that splits people; it’s not an easy watch and unless you are willing to give yourself over to how it wants to tell its story, you will struggle to engage with it. Questions do not result in answers – at least not from the film itself. This time round though, it isn’t as difficult a film to approach. There is enough, that I think a general audience can interact and comprehend what the film is trying to do. But that doesn’t mean original fans are left wanting. 2049 is a film that is full of qualities to adore and consume and I’m looking forward to talking about as many of them as I can, while also touching upon the achievements of the first film. So, come with me on this rambling journey through two brilliant films.
Officer K – played by Ryan Gosling – is a Blade Runner who stumbles upon a long-buried secret that could re-shape the direction of humanity as it’s known. Certain groups want it destroyed; never to be known about, while others want it, so to advance a stunted manufacturing line. K must seek out the person who he thinks can help shed light on the buried mystery and stop it from falling into the wrong hands. That person is, Rick Deckard – played once again, by Harrison Ford – a now retired Blade Runner who hides from civilisation and may be the only link left that can help clear the mystery up.
I remember years back when I first heard that there were plans to do a sequel to Blade Runner and I personally wasn’t a fan of the idea. I thought it could never live up to what the first film achieved. But then when it was announced that Denis Villeneuve was going to direct it, my opinion completely shifted. He is one of my favourite directors working today. I have loved every film that he has brought to the big screen, and Blade Runner 2049 continues that trend. So let’s explore in detail what Villeneuve and his team did, that now causes me to consider both films to be as good as they’re counterpart.
This is a film that takes full advantage of the cinematic landscape. It utilises every aspect of the medium to tell its story – nothing is wasted. Which brings me to my first main point of this review and the thing that immediately grabs you when this film begins: It’s score and its vast, visual attractions. Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer provided the score for this film and they had the difficult task of balancing the exquisite work done by, Vangelis in the first film, while also bringing an updated but still familiar tone to what had come before. Well, in my opinion they succeeded.
It’s a thumping, enraged score that seemingly snaps at you like a caged animal, and then at other times pierces through the speakers; almost like it’s demanding your attention. It is an entity of its own that pulsates through the film, creating an almost nostalgic like feeling; one that pulls you back to the first time you experienced, Blade Runner and its massive presence.
I was instantly grabbed by it. There was a power behind it that communicated everything to me that I wanted to hear – it was stunning. And much to my pleasure, there were many more stunning things to come. The next standout one of course being the visual majesty of the film.
Blade Runner 2049 had much to live up to. There is so much to the original, that people are still dissecting every inch of the film today, and one of the aspects of the film that went onto influence and re-shape sci-fi as we know it, was the unique, bold visual voice that both cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth and director, Ridley Scott brought to the film. So, for 2049 they had to bring in someone who could capture that, and they of course went for one of the best and most visually well-versed cinematographers working right now: Roger Deakins – someone Denis Villeneuve has worked with twice before. Those films being: Prisoners and Sicario.
Scenes are bathed in darkness; something Deakins is fond and talented at doing. That’s because, despite the dark, there is an ever-present and ever noticeable source of light, and no matter how small that bit of light may be, it forces its way into the scene and is then able to illuminate exactly what is needed. Characters may be hidden in shadows but you are still given that tiny little hint of illumination on the exact part of their presence that helps communicate what we need to learn from them. That’s what is so great about this film, is that (like I pointed out earlier) it uses the full scope of filmmaking to tell its story. That includes having the camera tell the story, not just the characters.
But it isn’t a film solely consumed by a dark, moody colour palette. It also at times, pops with untamed colour, as the city fills its lifeless exteriors with vibrant neon that gives L.A. of 2049, that futuristic look. And at other points there is the murky, toxic orange landscape that consume a forgotten city. The film stretches itself out over a palette of colour choice and lets it fill the scenes – fill our eyes with a wonderfully eclectic selection, that gives the harsh future a look that explodes from the screen.
And so, to then bring the visual voice of the film together, Deakins couldn’t have accomplished the stunning scenes that he creates, without production designer, Dennis Gassner and the team that he managed. They all did an incredible job of blending the old with the new. They perfectly captured the physical look of the world; with the harsh, cold architecture that is attacked by neon advertisements, or the costumes that feel authentic and true to the world. It all comes together in reinforcing what the world of Blade Runner is, and it genuinely felt like returning to a place that I hadn’t visited in some time.
Blade Runner was a film that caught your attention with how different it was. It looked and sounded and performed like nothing that had been seen before. I remember seeing it for the first time when I was a wee lad and being hypnotised by it; wanting to know more of what this strange looking thing was. And it went from a film that caught my eye and tickled my ears, to a film that I would want to keep thinking about and search out the answers to, because right behind the captivating scenes of an unforgiving future was a film that had so much to say. Though for some, this aspect made them want to turn away from the film, to look upon it negatively because it didn’t line up with their perception of how a film should present its narrative and what it chooses to make its narrative about.
However, when it comes to Blade Runner 2049, I foresee this not being an issue. The issue may actually lie somewhere else for general audiences (but I’ll touch upon that in a moment). This time round, 2049 delivers a pretty simple, easy to engage with plot. Where is this missing child and who are they? It builds itself around a mystery and people love a mystery. That helps to drive the film and keep the audience engaged with what is happening. Those questions persist and the film doesn’t lose focus; it does allow for many other elements to exist in tandem – one feeding into the other, but it does a good job of never getting lost in all that it tackles.
And then, when it comes to the actual handling of the plot, I think the film does a great job of playing with your expectations/assumptions and having things develop in a way that keeps you coming back for more. Just as you think you’ve sussed it out and can see the film moving towards a particular outcome (that K is Deckard’s son) it pulls the curtain away to reveal that both you and K were wrong and that he is simply a minor part in a much grander story.
I loved that moment. When the film went and side swiped both the main character and the audience with the revelation that K was not the chosen one; he wasn’t the next stage of evolution. All that he thought was real was taken away from him. He wasn’t this almighty new person that would save the world and become who he always thought he’d be. He was a small part of something bigger, and he would never see that bigger picture complete. There’s something powerful in focusing on a tiny part of a story, as it really emphasises the scale of the story and the world they exist in.
I think it’s a really bold choice to set your protagonist up as being the link that brings the chain together and then reveal that he is nothing but another part of the chain doing its part like everyone else. That may feel defeating for some audience members – like they’ve wasted their time. But I loved that direction. It pulls the film away from an obvious path (that it just so happens that our protagonist is the long-lost son of Deckard) and instead messes with the audience’s expectations. We’re continually told that K is special; that there is something different about him that means he must play a bigger part. But nope, it was all in HIS head. He willed it to be so and so we the audience followed along and never questioned the alternative: the child is a she, not a he.
We’re so used to cinematic universes or sequels etc. where everything is connected and everyone has this all-important part to play in saving the world. So it’s a smart move by the writers of this film to play with those expectations and then pull it off so well.
And it couldn’t have been done so well, without Ryan Gosling’s performance. K goes on a tough journey. From thinking he is an abandoned child who is the next possible stage in evolution to realising that he is nothing but someone doing grunt work for a bigger cause. Gosling has to make that journey as the character and he does it brilliantly. Subtle little twitches in his face as he tries to control his emotions, or eyes that flood full of how he really feels and give away his true feelings. It’s not a performance that catches the eye (he’s not doing a Leonardo DiCaprio where every action is exaggerated) he is playing a replicant who has to keep control, but is struggling too. It’s a subtle, deliberate performance from Gosling. One that I think really captures the character of K and who he is. So much time was put into the character and for me, the handling of his story is so satisfying to watch. Especially when watching it a second-time round and catching the little nuances of the performance that you didn’t see the first time.
With this film, I am still left thinking about it; questions still float around in my head and I’m enjoying trying to discover the answers and decipher the meanings behind certain scenes – which is exactly what I wanted after seeing a sequel to Blade Runner: a film that compels you to think about it.
The story is a smaller part of a bigger world and so that means that when the credits roll, everything it not wrapped up into a neat little bow. The world is not saved. Niander Wallace – played by Jared Leto – isn’t stopped and his evil(?) intentions revealed to everyone. This isn’t your usual Hollywood story where the good guys win and all is made better, so that you then go home fully fulfilled and left with nothing to think about… worry about… contemplate. The world in Blade Runner 2049 goes on. Some characters find a level of closure, while others do not. People go on existing. For me, there is something more satisfying – truer, in that kind of storytelling. K and his story is told and he makes a significant impact for some, but he isn’t a world saving hero who fights only for good. His story has its beginning and its end, and now (if there is another Blade Runner film) it will fall to someone else to pick up from where he left off. It’s not your conventional way of storytelling in film and that’s why I think it stands out.
But I still think that this is the primary element of the film that a general audience can find some common ground with. Even if they haven’t seen the original or didn’t care for it, there is still a driving element that peaks your interest and then fuels you to want to see it through to its conclusion. With all that it explores, the central story still does deliver something that feels complete and fulfilling.
But what I think some people may struggle with: is the length of the film and how it’s paced. When it comes to telling its story, and exploring its characters and their surroundings, Blade Runner 2049 takes as much time as it wants. Clocking in at 2 hours and 43 minutes (though it never felt that long to me), the film is still going to be a difficult journey for some people (despite all the wonderful elements it has). For me, I lavished in all that the film had, and that included how the film saw fit to approach its narrative. I love when a film slows to a speed that feels fitting for the moment, and then takes the time to explore as many of its great qualities, for as long as it wants to, and how it wants to (if those qualities are good enough to warrant it, that is). Denis Villeneuve is not a storyteller who likes to rush or skimp on the details, and when it came to this film, he had a lot that he wanted to tackle, and so he did, which in turn resulted in a film that takes its time; never betrays its direction or its desires and luxuriated in the deep, morality driven, introspective contemplation that sci-fi fans crave.
It’s all there for those who are looking for it. 2049 balances out a compelling plot that grabs the interest of anyone who’s watching, while also having the questions and imagery and subtext that catches the attention of people who look at films (films like Blade Runner) with a more detailed eye. I can only imagine the amount of video essays, top 10 breakdowns and other types of explorative work that will come out over the next few months/years, breaking down and shining a light on the subjects that this film tackles; the theological questions, looking at what it means to be human and what 2049 says/theorises about those topics and more.
This is a deeply rich film (much like the first) and one viewing is not enough. I have already seen the films twice so far. It accomplishes so much and I’ve barely scratched the surface of exploring it all. But let’s try and explore at least a little bit more in this review.
I’ve already taken some time to touch upon the films protagonist, K. But 2049 boasts a great cast; many of whom are given some richly giving individuals to play. The one who caught my attention, the moment he appeared on-screen was, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). His character could be an entire film in itself. There is an unwavering belief that runs through him… that forms who he is and how he operates. I was fascinated by him. The film seems to position him as the antagonist, but I personally didn’t see him as a villain, I saw him more as a person with a strict outlook and who was unwilling to allow it to be hindered.
The scene if his that of course captured my every ounce of attention was when he sat with Deckard and toyed with his past. For fans of the original, it is a deeply rewarding scene that pulls on the nostalgia strings and also breaks your heart in the process. I could happily spend the time writing a whole piece about this scene alone (and I might just do that). It left me withered, overwhelmed by goose-bumps, and as always, engrossed by what it did. But there is still more to this film that I want to touch upon.
Like Sylvia Hoeks performance, as Luv. I can’t get past just how much there is to take in, with 2049. There is a wealth of characters and sub-plots and theological musings. Luv is a character who could have easily existed in the background and had very little substance to her. She could have simply been the evil muscle hench-women for Wallace. But Sylvia Hoeks brings something more to the character. On the surface there seems to be a fight to keep her rage at bay. At any moment she could lose control and lash out. But then there also seems to be a deeply vulnerable person who is consumed with emotion that is betraying her. She wants to be more than just a replicant who serves her master but at the same time she serves him so well that he thinks of her as his favourite. I saw someone who was trapped and wanting to get out but was also scared to do so.
This is what I love about this film: there is at all times, no matter where you look, something to explore… to think about and to theorise as to what the intentions may be. I could keep going and touch upon every little aspect of the film but then this review would become comically long. But I feel the character of Luv helps to highlight something for me. Even the secondary characters or the other elements that exist within the background are still made to be someone/something that is rich in offerings.
I can’t think if a single performance or character in the film that I wasn’t in some way engaged by. There was time put into giving them something that made them more than just a single defining quality. The time that I could easily spend, dissecting and exploring the many facets, of many of the characters would see this review going on for much longer than I think either you or I want it to go. I’ll summarise this aspect of the film by saying that 2049 does not skimp on its characters and, Villeneuve, the writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, and the actors, all clearly took the time to build them out into more than just set dressing. The film is simply bursting with content to gorge on.
But the person who I have to take a little time to talk about is of course, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). I am pleased to say that Ford delivers. Though he is only in the film for a short time – he more than makes his impact on it. In particular his scenes with K and with Niander Wallace. There is a lot of complexity to both these scenes and Ford subtly exists within them. It’s not showy; it won’t grab the immediate attention of people, but if you look closely at what he is doing – what little nuances are making up his performance – you can see that he is really trying to bring something more to the scene.
Which (finally) brings me to my final point (I know, at last I’m getting to the end of this review). Blade Runner 2049 does something that I think makes it a worthy sequel. What is that exactly? It’s that the film doesn’t allow itself to be shackled by Blade Runner; it doesn’t ever feel like it’s trying desperately to force in references or nods to the first film. It sprinkles in little things but doesn’t allow them to hinder the flow of the film, rather, it exists as its own entity; telling a new story that is supported by elements of the first film. This helps it to standout as its own thing. You could have not seen the original and still be able to enjoy 2049 without feeling like you’re an outsider who doesn’t understand the call-backs. Unlike other sci-fi franchises that go out of their way to put in references to the older films (I’m looking at you specifically, Star Wars) to such a desperate extent that it cripples the tone and impedes upon the pacing, 2049 puts them in and shows its love for its predecessor, but never lets it dominate or overshadow what it’s trying to do with its sequel.
Like I said at the beginning of this LONG review: I was not initially a fan of them doing a sequel to Blade Runner, but now having seen the film twice, before even having the first draft of this review complete, I can say without a doubt that I absolutely loved every second of what I got to experience.
There’s still so much more to this film that I didn’t touch on; the visual effects that boggle the mind, the sound design, the character of Joi – played by Ana de Armas – (most of that stuff sadly lies on the editing room floor). This definitely isn’t the last time I talk about this film, so maybe I’ll talk about those elements, and more, at some point. So once again, Denis Villeneuve has delivered an astounding piece of cinema; one that deserves to be talked about and praised.
I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that I recommend Blade Runner 2049. Please go see this film! Please watch the original! They are both brilliant films and both are highly deserving of your time. You won’t regret it.
I would absolutely love to know what you thought of the film and my review. So please, leave any feedback, opinions thoughts etc. in the comments section down below. I’d also appreciate it if you could give both my blog a follow and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But I’ll stop the ramblings now and leave you by saying thank you and have a great day!