Blade Runner 2049, the best film of 2017 that no-one saw…
It saddens to admit it, but I have to eat humble pie. I had quite a few reservations about the planned sequel to Blade Runner ever since I heard the news. The original is one those classic films which has had such a huge impact on popular culture, that it’s difficult to remember that when it came out, it was neither well received or commercially successful. I can understand; it’s a film that demands several viewings to really form a strong opinion, but it is a film that’s close to my heart. I felt protective, even defensive about the whole idea. But now that I have seen it I can confidently say that it one of the best films coming out this year, and probably for quite a few years. It’s a masterpiece of editing and directing, with some fantastic performances and bold story choices. Let’s look a little deeper.
The first thing that needs to be addressed are the visual elements. Denis Villeneuve does a stellar job recapturing the intense composition of the original film whilst still making it his own. The frequent use of wide shots to establish setting and linger on the huge buildings that dwarf the main characters is still there, but Denis puts the characters into new settings as often, meaning that the film doesn’t just feel like a copy paste job. And Villeneuve also takes care to not overuse this tribute, for example in the final climax. The scene takes place in a dark car slowly falling underwater. This claustrophobic setting creates a tense mood and the churning seawater effectively mirrors the extreme emotion of the scene. I’d go as far as to say that in some respects, Villeneuve has surpassed the cinematography of the original, although I still prefer the set and costume design from the first.
For instance, the way in which the hologram Joi, played by Ana de Armas, interacts with her surroundings is astounding. Most film holograms look normal for the most part and stand without touching anything so as not to spoil the illusion, such as Rimmer from Red Dwarf. Not so with Joi; she frequently walks through and inside the other characters, and her head can suddenly sprout through another character’s head without warning. The way in particular the rain hits her body and causes see-through patches is incredible to watch. It’s a laudable achievement of both cinematography and digital effects and all those who worked on it should be very proud.
As to story, Blade Runner 2049 has proven me very wrong. I was convinced that the film would suffer from sequel-itis and try to redo the same plot elements and themes from the first film. However, while there are shared themes and moments the story goes in a very different direction and has some genuine surprises that I didn’t see coming. My other big fear about the story was that the writers would place too much importance on Deckard and Officer K, the protagonist played by Ryan Gosling. I’m about to discuss spoilers now, so if you haven’t seen it, skip to the last paragraph for the summary! When K discovers the bones of a replicant that somehow gave birth to a child, I began to worry, thinking that they were making K into a chosen one archetype, a special snowflake. When he was revealed as the child, I almost groaned with disappointment, so imagine my surprise when the twist was untwisted in the last third of the film. The leader of the replicant resistance reveals that Deckard and Rachels child was in fact a girl, and that K is just a normal replicant. This revelation comes after K has lost Joi, and this revelation destroys him. The double twist took me completely by surprise and was a brilliant inversion the usual cliché, even if the dialogue was a little on the nose, “Oh…you thought it was you?”. Well done writers, you had me there.
So, the story is original and while paying homage to the first film, finds its own stride, and the visuals and cinematography are fantastic, but what about actors? Apart from a slightly wooden performance from the resistance leader Freysa, played by Hiam Abbass, most of the actors do a splendid job. Ryan Gosling was engaging as the desperate and downtrodden Officer K, and Jared Leto almost redeemed himself for Suicide Squad, proving that he can be good given a decent director. He plays Niander Wallace, an intense blind businessman desperate to expand his accomplishments by breeding replicants together. The highlight roles for me however, were Harrison Ford as Deckard and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv.
Ford returns to the role with a new feel. Whereas the Deckard of the first film was jaded and numb from his work as a Blade Runner, this Deckard has learned to treat replicants no differently. He doesn’t even care if his dog is real or not. Ford gives him a wealth of sadness and pain from years of isolation and longing for his long dead Rachel. In particular, the scene in which Wallace offers Deckard a newly made Rachel is incredible. Ford brings a nuanced and restrained performance, hinting at the depth of feeling Deckard is trying to push down. This Deckard even shows concern for an injured K, despite knowing he is a replicant. Clearly, he has been on a journey since the first film.
But for me the most stand out actor is Sylvia Hoeks. She plays Wallace’s right hand, a replicant called Luv who is a strange mixture of charm, vulnerability and brutal cruelty. As a servant to a callous businessman with no regard for replicant life, she’s clearly learned to be the strongest, most useful she can, desperate to survive, not be disposed of. She takes pride in being “the best” and as such is violent and domineering to replicant and human alike, right up until her savage fight in the water with K, which she nearly wins. And yet she can be civil and charming, almost insightful. When we first meet her, I assumed she would be the Rachel parallel, as she has similar costuming and is in the same type of job. She flirts with K, and is nothing but helpful. Even then, we get a hint of her vicious nature when she uses her brute strength to open a broken door, telling us that she’s not above getting her hands dirty. And when Wallace kills a newly born replicant in front of her, she cries. She’s not without empathy, but knows that in her position, she cannot show weakness; she must be the best. Her death then, is almost tragic.
Overall, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterfully made film, with many elements that improve upon the original, and from an objective point of view, it’s a more evenly paced and structured story, which would suggest it’s better. But for me, nothing is one hundred percent subjective, and the film doesn’t make me feel as strongly as Blade Runner. There is no scene in the new film which quite reaches the level of poetry of the tears in the rain speech, or the first meeting of Deckard and Rachel. There are many great moments, but I don’t think there are any iconic moments. People probably won’t be quoting this in thirty years. Which is fine, Denis Villeneuve doesn’t need that to make a great film, and I respect him more for not trying to replicate those moments. Scenes such as that are more happy flukes. So from a non-biased viewpoint, Blade Runner 2049 is a better made movie, but I personally still prefer the first film. And if you haven’t already, please go see it in the cinema, it is a crime that it hasn’t been a box office success. If we don’t buy films like these, then we won’t get them anymore. Or better yet, watch both!