Why, in a crazy world of mixed realities and electric dreams, Blade Runner 2049 is magnificent

Back in my university years, one afternoon during media studies class, the tutor relayed a story about a friend of his who had recently been dumped by his long-term girlfriend. Emotionally devastated, the man walked to the shops in the throes of despair, bought a bottle of booze then lumbered across to the local park.

Sitting on a bench next to a pond, he slugged straight from the bottle – still in a brown paper bag – while he gazed at ducks. What a cliché I’ve become, he thought. Then he wondered: am I acting this way because I feel like it, or because I’ve watched this scene unfold so many times before, in films and TV programs?

The new Blade Runner, like the old, is dark, soulful and biblical in a ghost-in-the-machine kind of way.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s atmospherically stunning, belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s rain-clogged, neo-noir chef d’oeuvre, initially under-rated when it first arrived in cinemas in 1982, caused me to ponder a question of my own. Would the tale about the broken-hearted man in the park be more or less interesting if he was a robot?

Just as we saw Joaquin Phoenix, a human, dating his operating system in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, we see Ryan Gosling, a robot (or ‘replicant’) going steady with his home entertainment system in 2049. Gosling plays Officer K, a member of the LAPD whose robo-girlfriend is projected as a semi-transparent hologram of a person (Ana de Armas). If she/it broke up with him, he could be that guy in the park.

The question of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) was human or replicant was at the core of the original film. Villeneuve does not waste time repeating questions already answered, ascertaining in the sequel – early and without ambiguity – that K is a robot.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins conjures visuals that find eye-watering ways to look grand and impersonal.

An initial assignment sees him ‘retire’ fellow replicant Snapper (Dave Bautista), a worm farmer who, like Roy Batty before him, waxes philosophical as he is forced to contemplate leaving the mortal coil.

The farmer condemns K for killing his own kind. But the ‘blade runner’ (a term to describe an assassin of replicants) either misunderstands this criticism, or deliberately reframes it – with a comment about how he is a newer model, and he has never killed newer models because they don’t run.

K reports to the surly Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) who, in crisis management mode, due to a first act revelation that will remain unrevealed here, maintains a steely gaze and clenched first. Titan-sized holographic advertisements perform on loop in the dark, dank, neon-lit streets. They stomp around like electric gods, as in Ghost in the Shell.

Thirteen time Oscar nominee (!) Roger Deakins is in seventh heaven. The cinematographer conjures visuals that find eye-watering ways to look grand and impersonal – from buildings that connote ancient, Egyptian appearance to aerial shots of a sunless, climate-ravaged city, that from high above resembles sheets of ice or metal.

Harrison Ford is wheeled out for a high impact supporting performance, sans the nostalgia-mongering that defined his return as Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Audiences probably won’t be whooping and cheering when the grizzled veteran reappears in 2049 (they didn’t at the screening I attended). Not because they won’t be grateful to see him, but because it’s not that kind of movie.

My favourite scene in Blade Runner 2049 contains a cameo, of sorts, from Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

The new Blade Runner, like the old, is dark, soulful and biblical in a ghost-in-the-machine kind of way. Villeneuve’s penchant for deathly serious, sweltering largesse makes his style obviously comparable to Christopher Nolan – and vice versa. This year both directors, Nolan with Dunkirk, are playing their A game.

My favourite scene in Blade Runner 2049 contains a cameo, of sorts, from Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It is a moment that says something about where the zeitgeist is currently at, technologically and artistically, or where it will be soon: ghosts of the past re-imagined as light shows for alternate realities – dispensable or divine, depending on your point-of-view.

In real life, the long-gestating medium of virtual reality is now available to consumers on the mass market. Advanced augmented reality and holograms are in the mail; whales are currently flopping around on basketball courts. The robot revolution is coming. The simulation theory is considered a credible scientific theory to explain the creation of the universe.

All this is another way of saying: now is a good time for a big-thinking blockbuster movie to explore, with real philosophical backbone, just like the first Blade Runner, questions such as how a robot with implanted memories can know the difference between real memories and fake ones. On this subject, by turn, Villeneuve and his screenwriters ask, without directly phrasing it as such: what are human beings, if not the sum of our recollections?

Blade Runner 2049 commands to be seen on as big a screen as possible.

Blade Runner 2049 also arrives at an opportune time for cinema itself. As speculation increases about the scale and impact of streaming service providers, and fewer people seem to appreciate or value the word “cinematic”, along comes a production that commands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. The idea of watching 2049 on any surface less than several metres wide feels like sacrilege.

Film was widely considered to be the art form of the 20th century. Not even the most devoted cinephile with half a mind would suggest, however, that the same will apply going into the new millennium, unless we are talking about film in terms of its oldest definition: as motion pictures.

How will we absorb them in the future? A lens over our eyes? A chip inserted into our bodies? A conversation, perhaps, for another time; one for the media studies class of the future.

9 responses to “Why, in a crazy world of mixed realities and electric dreams, Blade Runner 2049 is magnificent

  1. I thought it was visually beautiful & bleak & agree with Jo regarding the snow .
    Yeah Ryan g could definitely get some acting tips from Harrison Ford but it still held me enthralled for most of it . It could have done with some editing though.
    Really worth seeing on the big screen & I have been thinking about it for the three days since I saw it .

  2. I went and saw it before I read this review.

    It is epic and was visually and aurally stunning. Do yourself a favour and see it on the big screen.

    A very worthy follow up to the original. I saw the original in 1982 on the big screen as a 12 year old, and didn’t appreciate it at the time, but seeing the directors cut years later made me a fan again. It may help to watch it again before seeing this if it has been a while, as some things will be missed without the reference point.

    Yes, it is slightly too long and there are some overlong scenes, but small price to pay. A standout among the usual dross.

  3. Really, really slow movie, interesting in small patches but dwarfed by the old film. Strangely flat-looking too. Gosling good eye candy for women I guess.

  4. A dreadful film. Pretentious and annoying. Never has great photography done so much for so little. Of all the beautiful films made in Hollywood, that have nothing in them, this is definitely a new level of wasted cash. Its gorgeous. Its boring. Gosling and Ford earn their money, but they can’t save it.

  5. Harrison Ford delivered one of his best performances ever.

    The film was an incredible experience and as my friends noted, the cinema audience was hushed for the entire long running time, except for a moment when I thought applause was going to break out as the credits rolled.

    PS The leaping whale is an advertisement for future technology. The experience shown doesn’t exist

  6. There is a unresolved chunk of the story that irritated me the whole way through the film. It’s visually appealing, but 20 minutrs editing ( some sequences are very overdrawn) would not hurt. Ryan Gosling can take some cues any day from Harrison Ford, grizzled certainly but he makes his relatively limited character role matter while I still find it hard to work out if Gosling prefers to underplay or is just naturally wooden. Interesting but not great.

  7. I take it that you liked this film. How many stars do you give it? I am about to go looking to see if I can find the original to show my boys before we go off to see this, but I just wonder how well the original will translate with today’s youth.

  8. It is magnificent, thoughtful, referential and breathtakingly beautiful with what appear to be a series of homages to James Turrell accompanied by a soundtrack that is at once familiar but not. I loved that the rain of the original has turned to snow in the dying world of 2049. Worth waiting for.

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