30 years after the events of Blade Runner, the world has changed, but some things remain the same. There are still replicants – advanced biological androids designed as slave labour – but they are more integrated into society and are no longer handicapped by a four year lifespan. And there are still blade runners – police operatives who hunt down renegade replicants, mainly older models who rebelled against their masters in the distant past and are hiding on the fringes of society. When one of these hunters, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), stumbles across a decades-old skeleton while on a routine assignment, it puts him on the trail of a conspiracy that could shatter the existing social order forever.
You could be forgiven for thinking we didn’t need a sequel to Blade Runner, and back when it was released that was a safe bet – it didn’t do well at the box office and received some pretty damning notes from the critical fraternity to boot. However, rather than spawn a franchise, Blade Runner extended its tendrils throughout our culture, becoming an aesthetic and narrative touchstone for generations of SF thinkers, writers and filmmakers. No Blade Runner, no… well, no screen science fiction as we know it, really. Which poses the question: if everything already looks like Blade Runner, what’s the point of a Blade Runner 2?
To expand, is the answer. To recontextualise the iconography of the original, framing it against the fallen world we actually live in. To point out that we are much closer to this fictional dystopia than we might like to consider, and it certainly no longer feels as far-fetched as it did in 1982. And, arguably, to improve; the arguments over which Blade Runner is better will be long and hard fought, but the fact that there is an argument to be had speaks volumes. While there’s nothing in this iteration to match the sheer iconic power of BR ’82‘s rooftop climax, BR ’17‘s narrative is certainly a tighter, more layered, and more engaging affair.
Director Denis Villeneuve uses similarities to draw us in, then shocks and intrigues us with contrasts. Once again we open with a a written prologue over black, before cutting to a close up of an eye, then a sprawling science fiction landscape – but it’s not a vast city of lights, but acres and acres of solar farms leaching power from the dim sun. Once again we’re following a detective on the trail of runaway replicants – but our protagonist is an outcast himself, and caught between the conspiracy he is unraveling and one masterminded by Jared Leto’s blind, messianic industrialist, Niander Wallace.
Gosling’s K is a much more nuanced and conflicted character than Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in ’82, and one much more in line with the harried bounty hunter of Philip K. Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Humans in the novel’s crumbling setting draw solace by owning artificial animals they can care for; K has a holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas) that he dotes on, and who is programmed to respond to his desires. Tantalisingly, the script, by original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher and Logan writer Michael Green, keeps the truth about her personhood and agency obscure, at some points framing her as little more than an attractive OS, at other times imbuing her with at least a convincing illusion of empathy and emotional need. Could we be dealing with two different orders of artificial life here?
If Gosling’s K is a more human protagonist than Rick Deckard, it should be noted that Deckard himself is a more human character now than as first presented. Inevitably, K’s probing brings him to Deckard’s doorstep, and the ex-cop we meet is a much more rounded fellow – and a more broken one, wounded by his experiences in the intervening decades, self-exiled to a dust-strewn ghost town, haunted by loss and sacrifice. It’s interesting that Harrison Ford used to gripe about the lack of direction and concrete characterisation he had to work with on Blade Runner, while here he’s doing some of his absolute best late career work – there are a couple of crucial scenes late in the game that only work because Ford as an actor does some incredible emotional heavy lifting. It’s simply a great performance.
Indeed, Blade Runner 2049‘s best trick is the way it marries its high-falutin’ philosophical and SF concepts to a narrative that is grounded in the emotional experiences of its characters, particularly K, whose throughline is a classic PKD-ian mindscrew. Which doesn’t mean we as viewers are robbed of some spectacular future world-building, all framed by Roger Deakins’ mathematically clean, sumptuously shadowed cinematography.
The noir nostalgia of the original is still present, but faded back a little, and re-contextualised – in a world this monumentally crappy, pining for a simpler, cleaner past makes sense, and perhaps that’s an interesting reflection of our own times. While gigantic seawalls hold back risen oceans and farmers raise not cattle or corn but crops of grubs for protein, towering holographic signs pimp cures for loneliness, picking out individual pedestrians in the grey streets to pimp their wares to.
For all that it seems overblown, scaled up and visually overwhelming, there’s a straight line running from our own experiences in the throes of late capitalism and climate change to the universe presented. If the defining image of Blade Runner is its towering, light-studded urban monoliths, in Blade Runner 2049 it’s the miles and miles of bleak, grey tenement blocks that comprise Greater Los Angeles. Like the best science fiction, Blade Runner 2049 is a reflection of the time in which it is made – our time. This is still a world of weary anti-heroes in rain-drenched trench coats – but it’s also a world of private military forces and drone strikes.
The film is, when all is said and done, an extraordinary achievement, a work that pays homage to its forebear while simultaneously using that material to push us into new and confronting places, plucking at the strings of nostalgia while refusing us the comfort of the familiar. There’s going to be a backlash, of course – there always is when a work receives so much initial praise. And there are a few flat notes – 20 minutes could be excised from the film’s already onerous running time without losing anything, and Leto’s Wallace is a little too mannered and opaque to be the omnipotent threat he’s clearly meant to be. But right now, in the cold neon glow of a recent viewing, Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely one of the best films of the year.