Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney
If director Denis Villeneuve was daunted by creating a sequel to the 1982 cult noir Blade Runner, it doesn’t show. The themes running through his Blade Runner 2049 feel more poignant than ever, the Los Angeles rain falls even harder, and it packs as much of a cinematic punch.
Villeneuve – fresh from his sci-fi success with Arrival in 2016 – has reimagined a world first brought to life by Ridley Scott. Thirty years on, the LA of Blade Runner 2049 is still grimy, bleak and sodden. Neon lights continue to flash and splutter, but now building-high advertisement holograms also shimmer alluringly. Replicants, as the bioengineered humanoids are known, remain enslaved.
The story centres on Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner — a cop tasked with ‘retiring’ replicants. In the original, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a jaded predecessor of K, whose mission is to hunt down replicants escaped from off-world colonies. His interaction with them eventually prompts questions about the very premise of his job and his very identity. In 2049, replicants are now the bread and butter of the Earth-bound workforce, a new breed engineered by a new corporation. Under orders from his superior Lieutenant Joshi (a condescending but not entirely unsympathetic character, played by the excellent Robin Wright), K must find and terminate the older rogue models still hiding out.
Where Deckard was burnt-out and moody, K is a stoic and obedient, if lonely, worker – until an investigation brings about a discovery that leads him off course. Gosling does understated very well, shimmering with emotion that only begrudgingly breaks the surface. Ana de Armas is heart-breaking as his unconventional live-in companion; and Sylvia Hoeks makes for a terrifying foe. The dystopian world in which the film is based is rich with remarkable attention to detail. Fans will be thrilled to see Ford pop up for the finale as a grizzled, ageing Deckard.
The original Blade Runner brought to life Dick’s Voight-Kampf test, a form of Turing test designed to catch out androids by probing their biological response to questions that should trigger empathy, an idea that went on to inspire the wider sci-fi genre. In the wake of recent sci-fi successes such as Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina (2014; reviewed here), HBO’s Westworld and the British series Humans, today’s viewers could be forgiven for becoming inured to shows that ask where artificial intelligence ends and humans begin. But Blade Runner 2049 manages to tread fresh ground. K’s modus operandi is a simple iris scan of replicants, but the film finds new ways to probe the question, through themes of morality and identity, and the roles of memory and soul.
Blade Runner 2049 also burns with an environmental message far more glaring than in the 1982 film. The sequel takes the audience beyond LA to sneak a glimpse at a hellish wreck of a planet. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, the symptoms of a species sliding into oblivion are everywhere, with a haywire climate, city-sized rubbish dumps and a sea wall of epic proportions. As noted by Gosling in an interview with Wired: “The power of science fiction, and what’s positive about it, is that you’re able to experience the worst-case scenario without actually having to live it.” Villeneuve has brought us a terrifyingly realistic version of civilisation’s possible future.
The film has garnered wide-spread acclaim, and deservedly so. Almost every scene is a visual masterpiece, teasing the viewers with shadows and tricks of the light, as well as breath-taking landscapes. Its haunting score pounds like an irregular heartbeat, reminiscent of the equally powerful soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. These go a long way to making the film as nail-biting as it is contemplative and spare. But Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a work of art, and at a whopping 2 hours 43 minute run time, made for people who love cinema, not those after a cheap thrill.
Elizabeth Gibney is a senior reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @lizziegibney.
Blade Runner 2049 is on general release.
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