The Wylde Review: Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve’s sequel is a visual feast but lacks the mysterious allure of the original.
Review by Alex Griffin
When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner first played at a test screening in 1982, the overwhelming reaction was one of confusion. Subsequently the film was not commercially successful upon theatrical release. Audiences were unsure of what to make of this strange vision of the future, a hazy neo-noir landscape drenched in perpetual rain.
Over the years, however, Blade Runner evolved through cinematic consciousness (and several incarnations) to full recognition of the masterpiece it is – curious, melancholy, sublime.
Scott’s interpretation of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Android’s Dream Of Electric Sheep?, along with Hampton Fancher’s exquisite screenplay, transported us to another world, the intricate mysteries of which have continued to endure. Indeed Blade Runner has stood the test of time so well it has been periodically re-released so that new audiences could be captivated at its visual mastery on the big screen.
Here we find ourselves, 35 years on, back in that universe. Blade Runner 2049 opens and we learn that not much since Harrison’s Ford’s Rick Deckard was commissioned to hunt down replicants gone rogue – androids so lifelike they could only be distinguished from their human counterparts through a pupil dilation test. Neon billboards still loom against the dystopian Los Angeles night, torrents of rain still effecting that impenetrable otherworldliness.
Things have moved on insofar that there is a now a new line of Nexus cyborgs which do not embody the dissident ways of the their predecessors. “My kind don’t run,” assures Ryan Gosling’s K, one of the new hunters that still go by the name of Blade Runners. K performs his duties with clinical indifference, until he comes across something that causes him to question his own reality. From this point, unable to shift the notation that things are not as they seem, K embarks on ajourney through expanding self consciousness. It will mirror Deckard's in its profound unraveling of the philosophical coils that lay behind the surface of the first film.
These concepts have re-emerged over and over. What does it mean to be human? To empathise? To be conscious? Where does self identity come from? It is their illusive quality that make these questions so seductive – that we cannot ever truly know (and perhaps we’re not meant to.) Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi speaks about upholding the "wall" that separates human from android. The irony is that in this universe the lines are always blurred – the synthetics capable of sophisticated emotional responses, whilst the humans are often devoid of compassion. Its never really possible to determine where one thing ends and the other begins.
Villeneuve understands this and Blade Runner 2049 still intentionally leaves the most tantalising question unanswered. “Is it real?” K asks of Deckard’s K9 companion when he finally comes face to face. “I don’t know,” is the response.
There are places where Blade Runner 2049 succeeds. It is visually stunning: eerie landscapes, mysterious rooms, the glamorous detachment that was so magnetic 35 years ago. Ryan Gosling is undoubtably the perfect choice as an android for the present day. His clear blue eyes starring always into the middle distance, able to convey a sense of melancholic yearning, whilst simultaneously seeming far away and despondent. Villeneuve ensures there is enough warmth supplied by K’s holographic application girlfriend (Ana De Armas – think Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha in Her) to draw out K’s human side.
As a film in its own right Blade Runner 2049 holds up. It is both accomplished and intriguing but, placed beside its predecessor, its hollowness becomes apparent. The brilliance of Blade Runner was that, embedded in the opulent aesthetic, was the engaging thriller narrative. The amalgamation of the two provided a strangely sensuous world, enticing as it was dangerous. At the heart of this puzzle is the human condition – the unsolvable existential crisis. Without the smoke and mirrors, Villeneuve relies on expansive shots and long silences to create the void. There is an overriding feeling of aching emptiness that is fundamentally cold and clinical without the visceral intensity of Scott’s original. As Ford raced through a Chandler-esque labyrinth, Gosling saunters through T.S Eliot’s Wasteland and its abstract traces of despair. The pace is frustratingly slow. There is an absence of momentum and tension that causes you to disengage. This is largely because, apart from Gosling’s K, there is little characterisation to be found.
There is a gaping hole where Rutger Hauers magnetic Roy kept us entranced all those years ago. There is no struggle for survival, no empathy to be found, and Ford arrives much too late in the game to sink his teeth in. Because of this, the inevitable dramatic conclusion, whilst done well (without giving too much away), lacks the dramatic gravitas of Deckard holding on for dear life to the steel girder of the Bradbury Building, fingers slipping, only to be saved at the last minute by Roy, his hand reaching out in the darkness. Its that heartbreaking moment, that realisation of how precious life is that made the first film so electrifying. Here, the direction should’ve been much tighter and less antiseptic. The overall effect is polished, but vacant. I found myself longing for the exotic aroma of Asian street food, the mysterious synths of Vangelis’ genius score and the magical intrigue of an origami unicorn. Perhaps this is where we have evolved too; the pensive sadness, the yearning for a different reality, the strangeness of the world we’re in.