REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049, a stunning dystopia

(Photo Courtesy Warner Bros)

In 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner arrived in theatres to a largely indifferent audience. While the film is considered something of a cult classic today, it was far from a commercial success during its initial release. Now, some 35 years later, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 has hit theatres, and the results are shockingly similar. Despite a $155-million budget, Blade Runner 2049 has only made back $81.9 million so far, which raises the question: Was the film worth it?


Blade Runner 2049 picks up, as in reality, some three decades after the events of the original film. Officer K, played by Ryan Gosling, is a Blade Runner: a police officer tasked with hunting down and “retiring” rogue, artificial humans known as replicants. Early in the film, it is established that K himself is no more human than those he is being sent to kill. The film centres on K’s quest to find purpose in a crowded, dystopian world. Beyond the first few minutes, the film quickly takes a series of twists and turns that make describing it a treacherous task. In short, the film presents the viewer with a mystery, and unravels its reveals with equal parts noire detective work, and sci-fi intrigue.
In relation to the original, Blade Runner 2049 handles itself with a surprising level of grace when dealing with the questions and themes raised by the first film. Questions asked in 1982 remain intentionally ambiguous, and both films benefit as a result.
At times the tone of the film leans a little too heavily into the realm of sci-fi dystopias, with evil businessmen and noble rebellions clogging up much of the films’ third act. But Blade Runner 2049 keeps to a focused, personal story for the most part, and never allows the more clichéd tropes to dilute its message.


Gosling does a surprising amount with his role here: being about as expressive as one can be while playing an artificial human. Likewise, K’s holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) and murderous replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) both deliver exceptional performances as the films female leads. Also of note are Harrison Ford (reprising his role from the original film) and Jared Leto who, while used sparingly, add some additional depth to the already talented cast.


Blade Runner 2049 is in no hurry to tell its story. Scenes stretch on for far longer than is normal for a typical blockbuster, and action set pieces serve as punctuation marks to a largely emotional plotline. Of course, the prolonged shots and brooding silence come at a cost. The film’s 163-minute runtime is daunting, and will leave those who aren’t invested looking at their watches during the second and third acts. This is, however, one of the hidden joys in the film, as the choice to stray from sci-fi blockbuster conventions is a brave one, and speaks to the confidence of its director.


It is impossible to discuss Blade Runner 2049 without bringing up the art gallery that is its setting. The original Blade Runner rewarded multiple viewings with a surprising amount of visual imagery present in almost every scene. Despite a more minimalistic approach to some of the more desolate environments, Villeneuve’s take on the world aspires to meet a similar level of quality. In the spirit of its predecessor, Atari and Pan Am logos light the crowded, futuristic streets. This is truly a sci-fi world ripped straight from the 1980s. The visual depth here equals and at times almost surpasses that of the original film.
A combination of practical and computer effects turn every other scene into a visual experience like no other. Los Angeles and its surrounding landscapes are reimagined as dense, rain-washed wastelands that are breathtaking to look upon. Villeneuve does not waste a single shot here, as every scene, from sprawling cityscape to extreme close-up on a characters’ eye, has a level of depth that is more than worthy of comparison to the first film.


The soundtrack in Blade Runner 2049 is also a sensory delight, although it does leave something to be desired in the wake of the original film. Notably absent is Greek composer Vangelis, who worked on the original score for Blade Runner. His contributions to the film came in the form of an iconic, jazz-inspired soundtrack, and a sense of soul that is unfortunately lacking in the new film.
Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch were brought on to score this film, in what Villeneuve says was an attempt “to go back to something closer to Vangelis.”
As a result, Wallfisch and Zimmers’ score brings a far louder, and often less melodic, experience to the world of Blade Runner. While some of Vangelis’ signature sounds are recreated here, the film still seems to opt for something new in terms of tone and overall volume. Nevertheless, what is offered by the film does serve its purpose. Synths roar and threaten to overwhelm the senses in a way that mirrors the oppressive world shown in 2049.
Multiple viewings of Ridley Scott’s classic are always rewarded by the layered details and thematic depth that are present in the film. The original film is remembered for the care and attention that went into each scene and line of dialogue. Blade Runner 2049 is no different. Villeneuve has crafted something truly remarkable by creating a film that, despite a few shortcomings, is sure to be remembered in a similar way to its 1982 counterpart.

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