I went into the cinema with a lot of apprehension. Was I even going to enjoy myself? The original Blade Runner was my favourite movie. I’d probably watched it half a dozen times, discussed it for hours, dissected its imitators and defended it against nay-sayers…and now there was a sequel to deal with. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to ignore all my prejudices when the lights turned off, whether I could appreciate it as a standalone movie, without judging it by the standards of the original. Or was I going to be that bearded hipster hanging onto a pint, explaining to a pack of wide-eyed undergrads why the Final Cut was far superior.
The result, I’m afraid, is far from clear-cut. Blade Runner 2049 is heavily indebted to its predecessor, laced with references to the original film. But this is more of an institutional problem rather than one limited to 2049. The Star Wars reboots and Star Trek remakes overflow with an awkward hunger to remind the fans they’re part of a greater continuity, and Ridley Scott seems determined to bleed Alien of the raw simplicity that made the original so incredible. It’s just a shame that Denis Villeneuve, directing 2049, falls into the same trap: he’s clearly a better director than this, but he’s pandering to the fans. Maybe if he’d been bolder, less respectful to the source material, it would have been a better film. Something that could stand on its own.
Nevertheless, 2049 is clearly a Villeneuve film, with his regular collaborators Roger Deakins and Joe Walker embossing the film with the visual style of Villeneuve’s other work. And as Villeneuve collaborates with Deakins for the third time it’s thrilling to see a director put so much trust in the vision of his cinematographer. The film is at its most beautiful when Deakins is given the freedom to experiment in the temple-like space of WallaceCorp’s headquarters, or the ruins of Las Vegas. This is the work of a brilliant artist who has honed his craft over decades, but it’s frustrating to see how few times he’s able to really sink his teeth into the material, stifled by the CGI-heavy scenes in Los Angeles.
These graphics have a bizarre effect on the city; while the intention was the represent a state of even deeper decay than the previous film, the smooth, computer-designed images lack the texture and grittiness of Blade Runner. This is a fake filth, without any of the real dirt that gave the original its bad taste, and therein lies the pervading issue with 2049: the intention is there, but something about the execution is wrong.
The story suffers from this same problem: a blade runner (Ryan Gosling) makes a discovery that threatens to blur the line between replicant and human. While his police chief (Robin Wright) tasks him with finding and destroying the evidence, a megalomaniac who holds the monopoly on replicant production (Jared Leto, in a performance so burnt out it makes his portrayal of the Joker look Oscar-worthy) pursues it in his own capacity, believing it to be the key to humanity’s success in colonising the galaxy. Along the way we’re treated to cameos from Blade Runner’s cast, while further developing themes from the original, exploring how memories not only give us identity but purpose as well, asking what happens when we’re stripped of those memories.
It has the recipe for an amazing movie, but the story is too straight, and when it asks questions it lacks the ambiguity that made the original so brilliant. This is in no way a bad movie, and very likely is a good movie, but it suffers purely for bearing the weight of its predecessor. But then it’s easy to forget the original Blade Runner was received poorly upon its release, too. It seems to already be repeating the poor box office returns of the original, perhaps it, too, needs time to be properly appreciated.