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USA/United Kingdom/Canada 2017
Directed by
Denis Villeneuve
163 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Blade Runner 2049

Synopsis: Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department. While on a routine mission to terminate a renegade replicant he unearths a long-buried skeleton. His discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who's been missing for 30 years.

There will be two main audiences for Blade Runner 2049. The first will be made up of die-hard fans who will have seen, in most cases multiple times, every version of the original film between its initial 1982 theatrical release including the 1992 Director’s Cut and the 2007 “Final Cut” and long awaited a sequel.  The second group will be made up of more dispassionate film flaneurs who will have seen at least one version of the Ridley Scott film and been reasonably pleased but have been principally attracted to this sequel by the name of Denis Villeneuve who directed last year’s Arrival, a sci-fi film for people who don’t go to sci-fi films. I belong to the latter constituency.

Most sequels dutifully reiterate their predecessor, doing little more than inflating it with the blandishments of a bigger budget. Although Blade Runner 2049 has that (to the tune of $120m), director Villeneuve, whilst seamlessly tying it to the earlier film takes his contribution well beyond Scott’s genre classic. This is both the film’s strength and, sad to say, its downfall, for while Villeneuve with the vital input of his cinematographer Roger Deakins at once creates a forbidding dystopia, part post-apocalyptic wasteland, part hi-tech cyber-world he also moves the story away from the rain-swept seedy neo-noir, retro-futuristic setting that was such a important aspect of the success of Scott’s film. Similar remarks could be made of the music by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch which replaces Vangelis’s synthesizer score with a throbbing, percussive soundrack which recalls that of Jóhann Jóhannsson for Arrival. The result is a much more imposing film but one which no longer has the economy and slightly tacky, distinctively ‘80’s charms of the original.

If however there is one fumble in the passing of the baton which is the film’s undoing it is the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. It is simply too meagre to sustain Villeneuve’s grand visual style let alone the 160 minute run-time.  Indeed the plot of Blade Runner 2049 feels like small patches of fertile land sitting atop the huge floes of the director’s vision. No matter how impressive the latter is we eventually tire of it as there is not enough depth in the ideas to hold our attention.  Once again, amongst the charms of Scott’s film was its narrative economy which brought home the simple pathos of the replicants’ desperate fight for survival. Fancher and Green meander all over the shop but without achieving comparable story-telling clarity or empathy for its near-human subjects. The new main protagonist, Gosling’s K, aka “Joe” whose name presumably refers to Kafka’s Joseph K although there is really no resonance of the “Kafkaesque” in the plot, is a phlegmatic chap lacking in any of Deckard/Ford’s appealingly dry style and the plot, which beyond a conceit that has as much credibility as the Immaculate Conception, has nothing that was not in the original film other than a handful of new characters. 

These largely one-dimensional types include Robin Wright’s tough managerial ma’am, Jared Leto’s sightless evil tycoon, Niander Wallace, K’s holographic girlfriend (Ana de Armas) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) Wallace’s ruthless cyborg enforcer who in one of the film’s most striking scenes is drowned by K (apropos this the film contains a surprising amount of violence against women including two stabbings, a point blank execution and in the case of K’s virtual girlfriend, being terminated with the heel of a boot).  In all honesty none of this amounts to anything and by the time (and that is already two hours into the film) K and Deckard are duking it out to the accompaniment of a hologram of a Vegas-era Elvis singing “I Can’t Help Falling In Love” we feel like calling out “please do get on with it!”  

Talented a director as Villeneuve is, there is a mis-match between his refined and reflective vision and Scott’s more meretricious sensibility, one which shaped the original film and has made its director a master of high-end genre film-making.

Although in hindsight his Blade Runner was a striking opener to a stellar career, surprising as it now seems it was not a commercial success in its day. Less surprising, despite enthusiastic reviews Blade Runner 2049 has also belly flopped at the box office.  Unfortunately it is not, like Scott’s film was, some studio- bowdlerized version of Villeneuve’s vision which could be gradually rehabilitated over the next two decades, but rather the version the director wanted us to see. Villeneuve is on record as saying that he took the job because he figured he might as well be the guy who botched it.  He may now be regretting his cleverness.




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