Los Angeles, US (BBN) – Blade Runner 2049 was the sequel that dared to dream it might surpass its creator. It was the blockbuster that breathed, the film replicant made flesh.
In returning to the source material of the original Blade Runner (itself adapted from Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel), director Denis Villeneuve could by rights have got away with ticking the appropriate boxes and contentedly riding a wave of shared nostalgia, reports The Guardian.
Instead, he opted for full immersion, a deep dive into the subject matter, even at the risk of losing his bearings. I’ve rarely seen a film so dazzled and entranced by its own possibilities.
Scripted by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, Blade Runner 2049 alights in dystopian LA three decades after the end of the Ridley Scott classic. Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant cop on a four-year time clock, charged with hunting down the last of the more durable early models. In the dust-blown grounds of a protein farm, he finds a box of bones. The box, in turn, points the way towards a missing child and a vast existential mystery that could conceivably be a new creation myth.
His boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) is outraged by the discovery. If replicants can reproduce, does that not make them human? “This breaks the world, K,” she says. “Do you know what that means?” And K believes that he does, at least up to a point.
But after that he’s working blind because the implications of the bones strike close to home, calling into question his very self. It’s hard to dispassionately investigate a mystery when the mystery is you.
Scott’s 1982 original was a beguiling cyber-noir, perfectly realised and tightly wound, opening up in its final section to leave a trail of tantalising loose ends.
Villeneuve’s film duly resolves some of those outstanding questions, tracking down hard-boiled Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to a ghostly Las Vegas that appears to have been refashioned as a pop-culture dustbin. But, crucially, it also piles in with fresh questions of its own. The script’s reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire (“cells interlinked with cells interlinked”) made me think of the studies that claim the majority of body cells regenerate every seven years to the point where we become almost wholly different people. Blade Runner 2049, perhaps, is the cinema equivalent: a prog-rock extrapolation of the earlier film, rapturous, transformative and endlessly self-questioning.
Even during its fraught fights and chases, one has the sense that the picture (like its hero) is examining itself in the mirror, wondering what it is and just where it fits in.
Small wonder that some of the old elements sit awkwardly on its frame. When it was released in October, Villeneuve’s film drew criticism for cleaving to the original’s 80s-era gender politics, laying on a spread of soft-porn commercials and scantily clad sex-bots. And fair enough; these trappings could be jarring.
But the sequel was at least smart enough to acknowledge that such sexual shorthand may itself be a construct – or a crude algorithm by which the users are eventually able to form a genuine bond. Returning to his poky apartment, K (a replicant) is greeted by Joi (a hologram). K and Joi are false; their life is phoney – and yet this relationship is arguably the film’s warmest and most human interaction. Their love is a program, but that doesn’t mean it’s not love.
Is it redundant to note that a film about artificial life should itself be artificial? Do we need to be reminded that the world on screen is fake? Those rainswept urban canyons were concocted by technicians and beautifully framed by the cinematographer Roger Deakins.
So Villeneuve’s movie is a simulacrum, an artificial landscape staffed with paid performers, just like every other fiction film ever made. That’s the deal, it’s what cinema does. But it’s so layered and textured that it infects us, transports us.
And somewhere along the way we become like K and Joi, immersed in their drama, “more human than human”. This is surely the key test of every great movie. Audaciously, Blade Runner 2049 suggests it may be the key test of life. If we believe in the illusion, it means that, for us, it is real.