Retro Review by George McGhee
A Blade Runner sequel?! That’s a terrible idea!
Like many, I was skeptical of a sequel to Blade Runner (1982). It’s a brilliant piece of intelligent sci-fi that didn’t require further storytelling. With original director Sir Ridley Scott involved, surely that a reason to be hopeful?… If you have read my thoughts on Prometheus and Alien Covenant, you will realise that they were actually reasons to be fearful!
However once Denis Villeneuve was announced in the director’s chair, with Scott making the sensible move to producer, I was intrigued. I had enjoyed his stylish, but little-seen thriller, Enemy (2013) and thought Sicario (2015) was a solid yet slightly over-rated effort. It was only stumbling across a very early press screening of Arrival (2016), that I was truly excited at the prospect of a Blade Runner sequel. Arrival was one of my favourite films of last year, up there with it’s smart sci-fi siblings, Gattaca (1998), Primer (2004), Moon (2009) and indeed Blade Runner.
I realise the original film is not everyone’s cup of tea – it took me several watches to fully appreciate it. I had put it off for years due to it’s slow pace, not to mention it always seemed to be shown on TV in the middle of the night. Unsurprisingly, Blade Runner 2049 is not a crowd pleaser either, it’s a slow meditative film, with long scenes with minimal dialogue and lots of characters. Plot aside there’s so much to take in, fantastic set design, costumes, cityscapes and a pounding score (especially loud in Imax) which make it a captivating piece of cinema. It’s an experience that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available.
The themes established in the first film – memory, humanity and our place in the world are all present here. In addition, the sequel deals with more current issues of identity, technology, possessions and even the tension between authority and the masses. The film plays with conventions; Ryan Goslings’ character K, is a brooding loner, much like Deckard (Harrison Ford), yet for different reasons. Deckard’s character is impressively developed and despite a late entrance to the film, Ford achieves a lot with limited screen time. The villains of the piece, Leto’s megalomaniac, Wallace and his cold-hearted henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) are also used sparingly, which stops them from becoming caricatures.
The original look and feel of the world Blade Runner is so iconic, yet Villeneuve and DOP Roger Deakins deliver a sequel that feels practically seamless – belying the 35 year gap between films. The special effects team have deliberately kept as much effects practical as possible, sometimes even using miniatures for the cityscapes like the 1982 original. In comparison, one thing that bugged me about Prometheus is that the tech on display felt light years ahead of Alien, despite being a prequel set decades earlier. Much like the more recent Star Wars films, the filmmakers have made the sensible decision to keep as much in-camera as possible, as it’s more immersive than CGI backdrops.
Blade Runner 2049 gives everything a fan could hope for. It’s a loving homage that doesn’t overstep the mark. It builds on themes, introduces new concepts, characters and can stand on it’s own (take note Superman Returns). There’s a lot of familiarity, the neon cityscapes, the endless rain and a soundtrack that veers on being a remix album of Vangelis’ sublime score. A lot has changed since the original 2019 setting, which creates an interesting dynamic between key characters and Villeneuve takes them to new places. A bigger budget and larger plot means escaping the confines of LA to explore almost alien landscapes – from the scrap yards of San Diego or the abandoned ruins of Las Vegas.
Villeneuve has defied expectations and delivered a belated sequel that stands proudly against the original. His next project is likely to be a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a challenge where others have failed in the past. With Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival under his belt, I think it’s safe to say it’s in safe hands. Intriguingly, Villeneuve is also on the director wish list for the next Bond film, which I would love to see. On balance, his style may not make commercial sense, considering how crowd-pleasing that franchise needs to be. Whatever project he approaches next, I’ll be there, waiting in line!