A labyrinth of grimy steel and ghostly neon expands endlessly in every direction. Asymmetrical monoliths cut a silhouette in a murky gray sky. An industrialist nightmare joined with commercialism and cultural diffusion. This is the world of Blade Runner, a dystopian vision of the future which has captivated film-goers for the last 35 years. While Ridley Scott’s 82’ masterpiece originally opened to a dismal box office performance and lukewarm critical reception, its cyberpunk vision of the future has proved to be a visual touchstone for creators ever since. Much how the look of George Miller’s specific Australian motorhead post-apocalypstic vision Mad Max has become synonymous with those depicting the end times, Scott and his production team created an influential aesthetic which has permeated into countless other stories over the previous decades. The film’s visual style helped present a neo-noir plot concerning one of the biggest questions of all, what makes us human? Although this question has been tackled ad-naseum, the otherworldly set design, morally ambiguous plot, moody soundtrack, and tight direction made Blade Runner a classic.
Luckily, after many years of rumors and development we finally have a sequel, and one that lives up to the lofty reputation of its predecessor. Villinueve’s Blade Runner is every bit as morally hazy, and mystifying as its predecessor. Its nightmarish take on a vision of LA is bristling with detail, a landscape of hallucinatory visions of commercialism, futurism, and crippling poverty.
Taking place 30 years after the original film, the world has further slid into the clutches of an all-consuming corporation, as Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a blind magnate who has taken the helm at the previously defunct Tyrell Corporation, has solidified his control over the future of humanity. K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner and replicant, begins an investigation into the possibility of replicant pregnancy, with the ultimate goal of destroying a being that would spark war between the replicants and humans. Wallace also desperately seeks to uncover the result of this replicant pregnancy, with the goal of producing a legion of replicants to pioneer the stars.
2049 is every bit as dour as its predecessor. The opening scenes feature K grimly hunting down his own race, seeking transient moments of solace in his barren apartment couched within a seedy part of town that is thoroughly hateful of his kind. His relationship with his holographic AI girlfriend rings bittersweet, her preprogrammed responses being juxtaposed with her seemingly genuine nature. If the replicants aren’t consider human, how can K reconcile his feelings for a being that is even farther removed from humanity than him? As fitting with noir protagonists, he is initially consumed with feelings of nihilism and disquiet which drives him on his quest for answers and purpose. Gosling is well cast here; his trademark wistful and quiet acting complements a film that is largely driven by long sequences of sparse dialogue and reliance on visual storytelling. Similarly Hans Zimmer’s emulation of Vangelis is near-perfect, the haunting synth soundscape perfectly accompanying the overall aesthetic and mood.
While the structure of the film could be reductively assessed as standard detective scavenger hunt faire, it is largely the outstanding visual execution that helps deliver on the loneliness and demented majesty of K’s journey. The Deakins, Villenueve pairing has unsurprisingly once again led to a picture that manages to evoke more emotion is many still frames than many other films can conjure in an entire run time. Shots like when an aging replicant steps into his kitchen to see the silhouette of K, bathed in shadow, a look of distinct regret and displeasure coming into focus in his melancholy eyes, instantly characterizes K with the use of the camera. The frequent compositions featuring that distinctly miserable LA skyline, with buzzing invasive ads encircling from all directions are evocative of a world that sorely needs to change. The set design and sense of futuristic fashion is similarly engrossing, extending a world that is similar in broad strokes, but ultimately alien to our own.
Although the plot undeniably falls into a series of narrative “and-thens”, K’s quest for purpose in a barren and meaningless world is enrapturing. His plight is amply defined as the constant prejudice and general rottenness of the world are well explored. From blatant references to slavery in the grandiose form of the pyramid-esque Tyrell buildings, to the frequent epithets flung his way, K is given more than enough motivation for his actions.
Blade Runner 2049 is a wonderfully realized sequel that makes its own mark on the cinematic landscape with its evocative imagery and emotionally resonant story. It’s not perfect. The middle feels somewhat overlong, and Wallace is relatively underdeveloped and overacted. That said, it works both as a continuation and expansion of one of the most singularly distinct worlds ever captured on camera. A vision of our society’s most undesirable elements; prejudice, self-destructive capitalism, and police overstep, rendered with striking clarity.
Rating 5 Stars (*****)