Jim Hilton reviews Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049
With movies like Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016), director Denis Villeneuve has made himself synonymous with the thinking-person’s thriller. He was surely the perfect candidate to take on Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner (1982) and bust out an epic sci-fi sequel. The trailers for Blade Runner 2049 promised everything: mind-altering landscapes, visionary compositions of light and shade, good old-fashioned fisticuffs, and Ryan Gosling in a big coat. Well, it has all these things, and yet somehow still(!) it lacks style. Gone are the glorious cyberpunk get-ups, the cabaret-cum-noir sensibility, and gone is the feel for Los Angeles as a city. 2049’s locations feel drained of human context—more like exercises in CGI than expressions of a substantive world. Meanwhile its drama plays out by rote, falling back on the formulaic family saga, and shifting focus from that tragic, lonesome experience of hyper-modernity which Blade Runner rendered so powerfully.
That said, 2049’s opening sequence is mesmerising. We’re cruising over the vast spaces of post-rural California, keeping pace with Agent K (Gosling), who’s peacefully asleep at the wheel of his self-driving skycar. Far below us, millions of white vats assume the bric-a-brac formations of intensive agriculture, where bio-forms are grown in artificial beds. Now awake, K descends, parks his craft, and enters a farmhouse. The ‘Future’ is suddenly nowhere to be seen; we find the rudiments of a puritan, old-world domesticity: a dark-wood interior with a crumbling upright piano and breakfast bubbling away on the hob. K’s target (a finely brooding Dave Bautista) enters, and a brief line of questioning escalates quickly into a mammoth punch-up—complete with wall-smashing—before he drops an obscure riddle that will start the story rolling, and leaves K free to blast him. This upping of the dramatic stakes (perhaps for the benefit of Marvel fans) feels jarringly pre-emptive, and is especially frustrating after such careful and creative scene-setting. Over the next 160 or so minutes, pacing will remain a problem, with some sequences lagging insufferably (while critics herald 2049 the new slow-food blockbuster).
K is a blade runner: a member of an elite LAPD unit charged with the task of ‘retiring’ renegade replicants (humanity’s humanlike slave labour force). K is a replicant himself (explicitly, unlike Blade Runner’s mysterious Deckard. Is he? Isn’t he?), and so a violent enforcer against his own kind. His human neighbours and colleagues mutter skinjob when he walks by, while his Lieutenant Joshi (the superlative Robin Wright) vaguely fetishizes his Otherness. Questions of race simmer beneath the surface and awkwardly effervesce into nothing; all the principle characters are white. In its downtown sequences the techno-orientalism of Scott’s film isn’t eschewed, exactly—there’s just less of it—and titbits of world languages are served up like hearty bowls of street-food. But downtown’s main attractions are the oversize femzillas, nakedly advertising their virtual companionship (courtesy of your local tech conglomerate). These candied hallucinations form one side of an uncomfortable dichotomy, with female fertility at the opposing end—sanctified, pure, untouchable.
Villeneuve all but abandons the neo-noir tropes and atmospherics of Blade Runner, which was, before all else, a Los Angeles movie. Its interiors were played by classic L.A. landmarks; the Ennis House, Union Station, and the legendary Bradbury Building all made appearances. Blade Runner 2049 (filmed mainly in Budapest, says Wikipedia) casts its net wider, taking in San Diego and Las Vegas, but the result is a sense of rootlessness. There’s none of that deep, tragic geography pulling us onwards, downwards. The infinitude of possibilities opened-up by special effects seems more a blight than a blessing, and time and again, it feels like we’re experiencing conceptual images rather than places. After the farmstead, interiors become either over-abstract, like Niander Wallace’s ethereal healing spa, or hopelessly forgettable, like Lieutenant Joshi’s office (especially compared to Captain Bryant’s office in Blade Runner).
As a messenger of the narrative, K is inoffensive, though he’s hardly the noir hero. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and barely eats (what’s he running on?). When Harrison Ford finally turns up and brings out the whiskey it feels like too little too late. Gosling, having purged all the little tell-tale human ticks from his replicant character’s face, acts with self-conscious woodenness. Ana de Armas has little to work with as K’s A.I. girlfriend/secretary, in a subplot which really feels like a distraction from the main event. Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks, is the most convincing of the ensemble, kicking ass and leaking creepy phantom tears every now and then, though Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty remains a hard act to follow. On the other end of the scale, Jared Leto is unwatchable as tech-oligarch Niander Wallace, and drops bummers like: “You don’t know what pain is. But you will learn”.
Blade Runner 2049 is far more interesting as it approaches the past and our relationship to it, than in any of its speculations concerning the future. One of its finest set-pieces takes place in Vegas, in a dusty, deserted casino auditorium; a conveniently-placed switch is knocked, mid-brawl, and suddenly, there’s Elvis, projected on the stage. Dancers line behind him and kick to the music, while spotlights, go-go dancers on cocktail-tables, all flicker on and off, glitching and crackling, as the generator struggles with the effort of this grand revivification. The whole thing is eerie and playful—a moment of real carefree celebration in a film which elsewhere feels unwilling to fully commit to anything: to drama, landscape, genre, or social prophesising. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s soundtrack feels tentative—even as it pummels us with walls of meaty sound—unsure how far to rely on Vangelis’ original themes, and how far to depart from them. I can’t help feeling that in 2049, there’s a lack of imagination disguising itself as minimalism. The film’s central conceit—its attempt at conveying something mystical and hopeful—doesn’t feel earned, and in fact quite violently irons-out difficulties and nuances in Scott’s film. The original Blade Runner, in its own weird, nefarious way, is a hymn to the outsider—a zany pageant of strangeness and suffering in the city of nightmares. Blade Runner 2049 is a fully functional sci-fi blockbuster, and a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon—but in ten years’ time people won’t know what you’re talking about.