Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Edward James Olmos, Robin Wright
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Available on: Amazon Prime
Upon its release in 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was unloved and misunderstood, a strangely sedate sci-fi actioner that felt too subtle, too angular and too unwilling to reveal its inner workings to multiplex audiences.
In the years since, of course, that perception has changed. Significant revisionism and a number of newly cropped versions, including Scott's definitive 'Final Cut', would establish Blade Runner as one of the finest films ever created, a seminal and profoundly important piece of work. Thus, it took 35 years to conjure a sequel deserving of the name.
And Blade Runner 2049, courtesy of visionary Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners; Sicario; Arrival), is just that: a glowering dystopian epic of quite breathtaking scale and ambition. A broader opus than its predecessor — more accessible yet no less profound or wondrous — 2049 is, nevertheless, as worthy a new chapter as it is a singular masterpiece in its own right.
Ryan Gosling takes the lead as the titular bounty hunter, Officer K. Like Scott's protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), K works for the LAPD, locating and eliminating rogue replicants — sophisticated androids once designed to provide off-world slave labour. Their endless lifespans and capacity for free thought ultimately rendered them undesirable, however, and the grim irony of Deckard's journey, finally established by subsequent interpretations of film one, is that he, too, was a replicant. And so it is with K, whose provenance is obvious from the beginning.
While tracking a suspect, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K stumbles upon a relic of the past — in this case, a direct link to Blade Runner — and the implications of that discovery represent an existential crisis for humanity. Acting on orders from his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), K seeks answers, a quest that sees him probing the limits of mankind's evolved existence and eventually entering the orbit of the fugitive Deckard.
An impressive mystery plays out against this backdrop and, as K's pursuit of the truth eats at the core of his sense of self, questions around his own origins come into focus. Are the memories implanted in his manufactured brain as synthetic as he imagines? What of the recollections of a childhood he believes to be little more than constructs crafted to mimic the synapses of the human mind?
These weighty themes drive K forward and, in Gosling, the picture possesses a lead at the peak of his powers. Villeneueve's compatriot boasts a reserved inscrutability that seldom cracks. In spite of his placid exterior, Gosling's famously benign expression is underlaid with curiosity and even a sense of humour. When called to act with extreme prejudice, K is a lethal weapon, his economy of movement almost mechanical in its composition.
Ford, meanwhile, hits the emotional beats denied Deckard's younger, cockier self. While the veteran is grizzled and aching, the sharpness of his mind is undimmed and whatever beats beneath his chest is scarred with the torment of a future once surrendered. Ford's real-life persona may now be one of a particularly ornery septuagenarian but he leans on his famous harassed charisma here, turning in a layered and often beautiful reboot of one of his most famous characters.
A varied supporting cast also delivers. Wright is steely yet kind as Joshi, someone who grasps the dangers around her in short order. Ana de Armas's sensitive Joi is the holographic girlfriend who heralds K's return home each night, her wistful expression surely tailored to the latter's stunted desire for something approximating a deeper connection.
Elsewhere, Jared Leto is suitably magnetic — if somewhat ancillary — as Niander Wallace, a blind mega-industrialist with a God complex and a penchant for delivering rich monologues in a voice of molten gold. Edward James Olmos even makes a brief return as the dandy, origami-obsessed Gaff, one of a number of pronounced nods to the original movie.
Aesthetically, 2049 is a peerless accomplishment, every inch of the screen exploding with cinematographer Roger Deakins's searing visuals. Los Angeles remains a nightmarish canvas, buffeted by rain and snow, clothed in murk; its outer edges are more abstract than real, its cracked shell revealing, here and there, the sickly neon glow of the urban hell beneath. Deckard's sanctuary — a deserted and irradiated facsimile of Las Vegas — is peaceful by comparison, populated by faint husks of mighty statues and grand palaces, and painted in a vivid burnt sepia.
The soaring (and iconic) score, too, appears like an old friend, its Vangelis-inspired, synth-infused glory calling forth the ghosts of days past. Remarkably, even the soundscapes of Scott's masterful progenitor have returned, from the delicate echoes rippling through Wallace's shimmering edifice-like headquarters (the successor to the Tyrell Corporation, Blade Runner's now defunct replicant manufacturer) to the booming, hissing, groaning hubbub that swirls up and down the avenues of the looming megatropolis.
A hefty running time and dense, though not impenetrable, plot will challenge the casual viewer. That said, this is certainly worth the effort. Villeneuve's endeavours are exquisite and astounding, at once operatic, elegiac and steeped in the essence of all that has gone before.