Despite the drooling critical acclaim lavished on Denis Villeneuve’s much belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, based on one viewing at least, I’d say this isn’t in the pantheon of genuinely great sequels (ie The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back). However Blade Runner 2049 is still a very good film, and one that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system.
Quite honestly, its best to know nothing about the plot going in (the film does assume you’ve seen the first one). Suffice to say, the themes of the original are explored again and at times expanded upon. Loneliness, cyber-slavery, the nature of memory… What does it mean to be human? To have a soul? One character is amusingly told he is getting on fine without one, but then Villeneuve (and screenwriters Hampton Fincher and Michael Green) expand the story into territory previously covered in films like Her and TV series such as the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. There is at least one very neat unexpected turn, and other bigger questions that arise – Can a civilisation be great without slavery of some kind? Is a transhumanist evolution inevitable? – are at least touched upon, though not necessarily fully explored. Nor do they need to be. Blade Runner has always been about ambiguity, and those looking for answers to the big questions raised by the original – including the true nature of Deckard (Harrison Ford) – are likely to end up with more questions. That’s as it should be.
Speaking of Harrison Ford, though he arrives late in the story, his performance here is terrific. Ryan Gosling is equally terrific as the main protagonist, and there is fine support from Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoeks and various others, including a few cameos from characters in the original film. Musically, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer provide a good stab at imitation Vangelis, with some effective quotations from the original score in key places.
Villeneuve directs with considerable flair; echoing the original with big close up shots of eyeballs and vast, smoggy dystopian cityscapes. The opening, which includes huge wide shots of solar farms, is genuinely breathtaking. Equally breathtaking moments follow, including the orange haze of a post-nuclear contamination Las Vegas, and an extraordinary fight sequence that takes place amid damaged holographic projections of performers like Elvis Presley. Oppressive yet oddly beautiful noir gloom hangs heavy on every frame, and for this man-of-the-match cinematographer Roger Deakins deserves every award going, especially that long overdue Oscar.
There are certainly nits to pick. For one thing the film is probably too long, and at least one of the afore-mentioned cameos feels unwarranted. There are certain plot beats from the first film that are recreated, and whilst that is sometimes effective, at least one key scene felt like an exceptionally expensive piece of fan fiction. As with the original film, I should add warnings to the sensitive for violence, swearing and nudity, though as with the original film, I think the context justifies it.
One more thing worth mentioning: the religious imagery and overtones subtly woven into the climax of the original appear again here, in a manner of speaking. This is a film that begins with one character being told he has “never seen a miracle”, only for it to end with a Christ metaphor that brings hope and redemption in an otherwise unremittingly bleak world. The metaphor isn’t as subtle or poignant as it is in the original, but it is effective.
All things considered, Blade Runner 2049 is far from the disaster it could have been. Indeed it is an unusually good film. However I suspect (and again, I stress this is based on one viewing), that it is not a great one.