Dir: Denis Villeneuve, 163 mins, starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Lennie James, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Edward James Olmos, Barkhad Abdi, Hiam Abbass
Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve has called on anyone who has seen his film in advance of its release next week to follow the strict code of omertà and not to reveal any of its secrets. What can safely be said is that this is awe-inspiring filmmaking, beautiful but so enigmatic that you would be hard pressed to give away all its secrets even if you were minded to do so.
On a technical level, it is an absolute tour de force. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, this is a film you should try to see on the very biggest screen possible (the trailers on You Tube or on TV don’t even begin to do justice to its visual power or to the extraordinary electronic score).
Villeneuve is paying tribute to Ridley Scott’s original from which he has taken scenes, characters and many motifs, but Blade Runner 2049 has depths that you don’t find in its predecessor. Like the director’s previous sci-fi movie Arrival, it appeals to our intellect as well as to our sense of adventure. The film deals with memory, reality and identity in a probing and forensic fashion. It explores the nature of love in a way that can’t help but bring Spike Jonze’s Her to mind.
The film has highbrow and pop culture references littered throughout. Elvis Presley puts in an appearance. There are references to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and music from Frank Sinatra’s Reprise years. There are even Oliver Twist-like scenes from one of the character’s childhoods which are set in a huge workhouse. A toy horse plays the same role here that the sledge did in Citizen Kane.
Not everything works. Some moments could come from any conventional sci-fi movie. Scenes of characters in a life and death fight as the water comes up to their necks or zapping their enemies with guns have a touch of Flash Gordon about them. Harrison Ford makes a welcome return as Deckard but his reappearance is handled in a slightly cheesy and self-conscious fashion. He brings an element of camp that’s at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.
The basic plot involves LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling) on a mission which we know from the outset will eventually lead him to Deckard. The setting is California in 2049, 30 years after the first film. As in the original, amid the neon lights and holograms, it’s hard to tell between the real human beings and the Replicants, the synthetic but very life-like genetically engineered beings which/who have very rebellious tendencies. The ingenious screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green carries biblical undertones. There is a sense here of the Replicants as the chosen people.
Early on, we hear references to a huge data blackout that has taken place in the intervening years (only records preserved on paper survived). Sinister industrialist and replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto with a Fu Manchu-like beard) has thrived in the ensuing chaos.
Gosling gives a soulful and intelligent performance as a character who is both a Philip Marlowe-like investigator and the object of his own inquiries. The more we learn about him, the more the story seems like a feature film version of TV’s Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities trace their unlikely ancestries and discover they are descended from kings or washer women.
As in the original Blade Runner, which helped make Rutger Hauer a star, the film has a Dutch flavour. Sylvia Hoeks, a hitherto little known actress and model from the Netherlands, makes a startling impression as a character just as lethal and glamorous as Hauer in the first film. Cuban actress Ana de Armas is surprisingly affecting in a role which could have seemed tokenistic and artificial. As the LA police chief, Robin Wright shows the steely ruthlessness we know from House Of Cards.
What’s most impressive here is the way Villeneuve is always able to find a human dimension amid all the special effects and computer generated spectacle. The film is full of huge close-ups of faces and eyes. Villeneuve pays as much attention to the feelings and dreams of the characters as to their actions. He is exploring their joys, pain, nostalgia and regrets while asking again and again about how memory defines identity.
Every character here, however briefly seen, is allowed an inner life. Big, brawling Dave Bautista isn’t on screen for long and is involved in one of the most explosive fights in the film but his cameo here has a pathos that you won’t find in any of his action movies.
We’re in an era in which Hollywood mass produces superhero movies and every success is immediately turned into a franchise. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 doesn't feel opportunistic at all. Like The Godfather Part II, it’s a sequel to a very celebrated film which may actually be better than the original.
'Blade Runner 2049' is released on 6 October
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