It’s been an awfully long time since I’ve sat down to write about a film, not because I haven’t been seeing any, but rather I’ve found generally that quality seems to have diminished somewhat and I find it more difficult to be enthused about the state of modern film. However, Bladerunner 2049 isn’t a normal film for me, in some ways this is a bigger film event than the Star Wars prequels / sequels, the stakes are higher and the spate of attempts to follow classic films being littered with well intentioned failures. Bladerunner was the first film I can remember getting a grip on me, I couldn’t quite understand its strange other worldliness. Subsequent revisions have only deepened its mystery, its allure. Bladerunner always felt different for me.
Bladerunner 2049 doesn’t fail; this is perhaps one of the strongest late arriving sequels made, not a love-letter to the original or something tacked on as an attempt to make money off an established film, but a proper self-contained film in its own right. I’ve seen films as good as it this year, but it’s hard to think of one that attempts to tackle so many themes as this and succeeds. This doesn’t feel like an attempt to start a franchise, but rather a chance to update the story to reflect current issues. Environmentalism, modern slavery and racism are all touched on and discussed.
This is a thoroughly modern film that feels like something from another period of film history, technically superb, cutting edge, yet harking back to days when films didn’t need a break neck pace to hold the audience’s attention but instead allowed for the fact that they are willing to give time to the exploration of a world and story. It feels different from the first film, things have moved on both inside and outside of the narrative, yet follows familiar paths, delving into questions that it never fully answers but instead leave for the viewer to interpret – something rarely seen in large scale studio productions like this.
Things have moved on – the cities feel more claustrophobic yet more sparsely populated, the clutter that dominated the original film is gone, wiped away (mirrored by the discussions of an event that has erased much of modern history from the records) and replaced with either snow or ash (the film is unclear which, but the ambiguity of this raises more questions). As the camera speeds across the city, it now looks more like a favela or walled city as shanty towns sit atop each tower block. Overpopulation is no longer the issue, liveable space has been taken over by vast areas dedicated to low yield farming, humanity struggling to hold onto the planet. Extinction in one way or another is no longer a possibility but more a question of time.
The most oppressive scenes are no longer within the cities, but outside in the damaged wilderness. Here the film departs visually from its predecessor, oranges and reds become the dominant colour and the landscape potentially vast but always shrouded in fog or dust is far more foreboding than the sanctuary the cities offer. More than anything this presents the image of a world increasingly left behind as those can afford it move on, of some event between the two films that have further damaged the Earth. As much as anything this has become a parable about man’s destruction of the environment. Like the latter scenes of AI, the oceans waters are rising and we are losing the fight against them.
Aurally the film feels different, Vangelis’ lush, romantic score replaced with something that calls back to it whilst being harsher, more abrasive and more in-keeping with the end of the world atmosphere. When the odd snippets of Vangelis’ theme are heard they never feel out of place, tying back thematically to the first film. The hum of machinery has been replaced by the moaning of the wind as it passes over the shattered landscape. When the film lurches into unexpected violence (which it does without fanfare) it’s always to the shattering crack of bodies that are far louder than the landscape. The sound design is some of the best in recent memory, not showy but instead subtlety emphasising the story.
These technical aspects aren’t the films only strengths. Gosling performs the neat trick of being almost a blank character that we still root for, the robot that seeks humanity. The film requires his natural charisma to attract you, he’s not the unpleasant character that Deckard was, instead he’s the decent man (?) being asked to do the wrong thing. His progression throughout mirrors that of Deckard’s in the original, but he learns to become more human due to being led to believe he may be one. It feels like an extension of his character in Drive, although one not given to psychopathic outbursts. More interesting is Ana de Armas as Joi, the artificial intelligence that knows it isn’t real, but has more empathy than any of the other characters and is closer to being human than many of them – or is that just part of her programming rather than learned behaviour? The actress plays the role in such a way as to allow for either possibility, and the director has been wise enough to retain the ambiguity of her performance.
The (genuine) surprise is how good Ford is as Deckard. He always felt like the weak link of the first film (perhaps deliberately so, given the ambiguity surrounding his character), but here is different. Older, more cautious and wallowing in regret at what he’s had to give up. Whilst it has often felt of late that Ford has been phoning in his performances, here there is a real depth and weariness to his work. One critical moment stands out when Deckard turns his back on the possibility of a different life and we see the almost instant regret in his eyes.
This is big filmmaking on a scale usually reserved for crowd pleasing blockbusters rather than thought provoking art films. It would have been all too easy to cash in on the name and create a simple thriller remake of the original; instead we get an intelligent companion piece that expands upon the mythos of the original, deepening the exploration of the themes of humanity, what it is to be real. Like the original it seems doomed to fail (box office receipts are nowhere near the levels expected), unable to find an audience beyond those that adore the original. Hopefully, like the original it will find its audience later amongst those willing to give it the time and attention it deserves.