TL;DR
  • Harrison Ford’s latest in his victory lap, reprising all his best roles – very welcome and still as awesome as he always has been
  • Noir-like, complex but absorbing plot; you have to pay constant attention to not get lost, but it’s a well-told story
  • Themes from first film explored in more depth
  • Excellent cast – Gosling excels as lead; Ford is a welcome return; more could have been done with Leto; de Armas, Hoeks and Davis all wonderful
  • It’s just a bit too long and the place occasionally slows down to the point where it veers close to being a bit boring
  • Phenomenally detailed, vibrant and immersive world – unbelievable
  • Beautifully shot – the whole film is a feast for the eyes and is worth the runtime just for the visuals

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Every year there are some films that are, as Ron Burgundy would say, “kind of a big deal” – people know them. Advertising is everywhere, people talk about them at work, talk-shows interview the stars, there are countless posts on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtags… you just can’t seem to escape these “event movies.” Blade Runner 2049 is one of these films. Despite the first being released way back in 1982 and only recently becoming well-known to younger audiences, there has definitely been a palpable excitement for this film. A sequel to a seminal sci-fi/noir film, a classic from the ‘80s updated and expanded for a modern audience… and of course returning with Harrison Ford, currently in the middle of his victory lap, replaying his best known characters – first came Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, then Han Solo in The Force Awakens and now we have  Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. And like the returns of Indy and Han, we’re excited to see him back – but is it a hit like Force Awakens or more of a flop like Crystal Skull? To the relief of everyone, it is absolutely a success, for many surpassing his return as Han Solo.

Set 30 years after the previous film in 2049 (hence the title), not much has changed – Blade Runners are still around, chasing after and “retiring” out-dated replicants. The central Blade Runner is brooding state-of-the-art replicant himself, K (Ryan Gosling), who starts the film finding and eliminating Sapper Morton (a wonderful Dave Bautista in a quieter, more moving role than Drax… but still with a fight scene). It’s after this that K finds a mysterious box underground, which turns out to contain a skeleton. Upon closer inspection it turns out it’s in fact the remains of a replicant who had given birth. Upon learning this huge news, K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, in another bad-ass female role to follow up her one in Wonder Woman) orders K to sort this mess out and keep it quiet, lest big bad guy Niander Wallace and CEO of his own replicant company (Jared Leto) discovers the secret and uses it for his own nefarious means. Of course word of this gets out and Wallace sends his replicant henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to sort things out. With AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) in tow, K follows lead after lead, eventually taking him to a character who’s long been in hiding – a certain Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford)…

This of course, is an over-simplified summary of the film’s premise without giving away any major spoilers. It’s a little tricky to talk about the film’s story so simply without spoiling it. Like many noirs, the plot is fairly complex – or rather, with the subtle way plot points are handled, the sophisticated way of story-telling can come across as complicated. Unlike many big budget films this one doesn’t hold your hand as it takes you through the vast, futuristic world. Some major plot points that shake the very foundations of the film’s world are quietly revealed. This results in a more interesting, reflective film that invites us to draw our own interpretation.

Another excellent aspect of the plot is that this isn’t a direct sequel, more an expansion of the original’s and its world, while still remaining a wonderfully flawless continuation. Watching the first doesn’t mean you have to see the second and, conversely, if you watch the second you don’t necessarily have to have seen the first – naturally it helps; you’ll feel more familiar with the surroundings as you’re plunged into this murky, unsettling, but utterly stunning, futuristic L.A.. There are plenty of references to the original to please returning fans. Still, the first film (masterpiece though it may be) has aged, meaning many younger audiences will be entering this film without having sat through its predecessor – fortunately it doesn’t isolate newcomers, but welcomes new and returning fans equally. Also this is certainly a new plot – no rehashing of an old tale like some continuation of classic sci-fis (ahem The Force Awakens ahem…).

Having said that, many old themes we saw in the original return in this one, yet writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green and director Denis Villeneuve explore these aspects much more deeply. As before, it questions the very essence of humanity and what it truly means to be human; a thought as to how far the integration of technology into society seems to be going; is technology going too far…? These are familiar themes we’ve seen before, but Blade Runner 2049 excels at questioning these much more thoroughly, resulting in a much more thematically rich movie, something Blade Runner certainly deserves, prompting audiences to think and discuss.

Other than the obvious Ford, there are a few returning characters. We do see Gaff (Edward James Olmos) once more, forever making his little paper figures, and briefly a reproduction replicant of Rachael (Sean Young/ Loren Peta). But for the most part this is a fresh roster of characters to pick up where the others left off. Ryan Gosling makes a fine lead (as if that was ever doubted!). His typical brooding style of acting suits his role perfectly – he’s utterly convincing as a human-like realistic robot (or replicant, I should really say), with dark eyes that bring all kinds of meanings depending on your own interpretation. A perfect answer to a modern day noir protagonist, Gosling’s lovable, hard-boiled replicant Blade Runner really is the heart and soul of the film. To match him, in terms of noir genre staples, there is Robin Wright’s Joshi, K’s snappy, but understanding boss who just wants the job to get done. Still, as tough as she and Gosling may be, no one can match the inimitable Harrison Ford, reprising a role that doesn’t stretch credibility. You can believe that a man like him at his age could do all that, in a similar way to his return in The Force Awakens – yes, he’s involved in the action, but he’s not doing numerous stunts beyond the abilities of a man in his 70’s (so the opposite to his reprisal as Indy in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Very much a similar Deckard to the one we saw all those years ago, Ford nevertheless adapts his performance and character well, hinting at the development of his character in the 30 year gap between 2019 and 2049. Grisly and grumpy, but with an element of fragility (both emotional as well as physical) and a feeling of being tired and fed up – after all, Deckard hasn’t had an easy time over the last 30 years. Rest assured, he’s still certainly Deckard, but an older, grumpier version which fits very well.

Jared Leto takes over villain duties from Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in 1982. A very different villain from the Joker, but, like with Suicide Squad, he’s one of my least favourite elements of the film. I’m yet to be really convinced by Leto, often feeling as though his villains are weird and dark for the sake of being so, not allowing a lot of backstory or reasoning to come through. Despite this, his performance is more than adequate as a sinister villain with creepy eyes – but perhaps it’s the fault of the writing to not give him enough; maybe with more of a chance his villain could have been developed to be quite a formidable one. Instead, most of the “bad guy moments” come from Hoek’s Luv. A deeply unsettling replicant who matched Gosling’s K both in looks, strength and cunning, it’s a shame she doesn’t have a quirk to make her more stand-out, otherwise she’d be well within a chance of being in “Movie History’s Henchmen Wall of Fame”, along with Bond favourites Oddjob and Jaws.

Luckily it’s not all male characters and there are quite a few stand-out female characters as well as Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks that really strengthen the film as a whole. Carla Juri’s Dr. Ana Stelline, whilst not in the film a great deal, is memorable and brings a real delicate quality that is very needed both by her character and the film. Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette and Ana de Armas’ Joi as the two “love interests” (for want of a better term) are also much more than just eye candy that exist solely for the man to save and for us to look at. Beautiful though they may be, these characters are strong and formidable in and of themselves. Ana de Armas’ AI girlfriend Joi brings a sadness and complexity to develop K but is wonderful and moving herself, de Armas delivering a very moving performance in showing Joi’s desire to be real and physical. It’s this desire for physicality where Mackenzie Davis’ replicant prostitute Mariette comes in, who’s scene with Joi is one of the more intriguing, moving scenes of the film, really questioning the relationship between sexuality and humanity. It would be so simple for her character to just be crass and shallow, but Davis brings a lot more to create an interesting character.

The only issue Blade Runner 2049 really suffers from is its long runtime of a whopping 164 minutes – nearing 3 hours. The plot isn’t complicated or packed enough to necessitate this runtime, rather it’s the pace that at times can be much slower than necessary. There are moments peppered throughout where very little happens, scenes that only seem to be included to build atmosphere and tone. Don’t get me wrong, these scenes are exquisite to behold, but there comes a point where it can sadly be a bit dull. Never dull enough to say the movie’s boring at all, but the runtime could certainly be shorter and the film would benefit from a slightly more rapid pace.

Having said that however, the movie’s so damn gorgeous you almost go into a dream-like trance, aware of the long runtime, but not really caring about it because you are absolutely immersed in the film and its world. Full credit goes to director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (both absolute masters and the best in the business) as well as production designer Dennis Gassner and all those involved in the artwork, costumes, CGI etc. necessary to create such a vivid, vibrant and realistic world that sucks us in and is filmed so beautifully. To have recreated, updated and stayed faithful to the vibe and feel of the original L.A. in the first Blade Runner and to make it even more detailed and absorbing is a phenomenal achievement. The cities are so detailed you’d swear they were real; and they’re filmed so stunningly this can’t fail to get at least an Oscar nomination for cinematography.

Director Denis Villeneuve delivers his third spectacular, near-flawless film in a row with Blade Runner 2049. Take him and mix in an excellent cast with top-notch performances, an intriguing, complex and thematically rich story and an immersive, gorgeously-shot and incredible futuristic world and combine it with a seminal, beloved sci-fi/noir classic – and you get the masterpiece that is Blade Runner 2049. It’s been a long wait, but it’s certainly worth it.

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