Blade Runner 2049 movie may have shaped the future, but it’s easy to forget its past. Now widely accepted as a classic, Ridley Scott’s future-noir fantasy (from an android-hunting book by Philip K Dick) established in 1982, largely dismissed as an exercise in ravishing emptiness, as charmingly hollow as Rachael, the gorgeous “replicant” portrayed by Sean Young.
Late-in-the-day recuts didn’t help, adding an explanatory narration and dopey happy ending following negative test screenings. True, it was only when Blade Runner was reconfigured through a 1992 Director’s Cut, and later Scott’s definitive Final Cut, that its work of art status was save, joining with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Kubrick’s 2001 in the pantheon of world-building sci-fi.
No such tribulations await Blade Runner 2049, which has opened to the kind of critical adoration that sorely evaded Scott’s original. Still, Arrival director Denis Villeneuve’s bold sequel, co-written by first screenwriter Hampton Fancher, actually is as good as the hype shows, wonderful enough to win over new generations of audiences, yet deep enough to reassure diehard fans that their cherished memories haven’t been cut down to tradable synthetic implants.
The action takes place 30 years after “blade runner” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) gave up chasing androids and fell in love with one instead. In the interim there’s been a “blackout” – 10 days of darkness that wiped digitally stored replicant-production records, creating a blank space in humanity’s database memory. Promos for the off-world nations still burble across the acid rain, featuring corporation logos for Sony, Atari, Coca-Cola and Pan Am.
Through this dystopian swamp, Ryan Gosling’s “K” walks in Deckard’s footsteps, tracking down wayward androids and “retiring” them. “How does it feel?” Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) asks, taunting this deadpan hunter that he can only do his job as he’s “never seen a miracle” – a bold phrase that will haunt K (and us) as he tries to unravel its meaning.
K lives in a poky apartment with his virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic artificial intelligence who seems to exist in the same world as Samantha from Spike Jonze’s Her. In his post-mission interrogation, K must rely on a Pinteresque form of interrogative word association that surreally flips the replicant-detecting Voight-Kampff tests formerly administered by Deckard. After years of being an unflappable killer, the “Constant K” is experiencing doubts about his job, his memories and his nature. “I never retired something that was born,” he says to Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), indicating that “to be born is to have a soul”. Joshi is unimpressed, insisting that in this line of work, you can get along fine without one.
Such existential anxieties are at the core of Villeneuve’s film, which has the confidence to proceed at a sedately edited pace completely at odds with today’s rapid-fire blockbusters. Mirroring and inverting the key themes of its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 swaps unicorns for wooden horses while retaining the visual grandeur that fired Scott’s film. From multiple landscapes of grey rooftops and reflectors, across the rusted shells of post-industrial shelters, to the burned-ochre glow of radioactive wastelands, cinematographer Roger Deakins brings out a twilight world that appears to go on for ever. Bright candy colours are restricted to the artificial lights of advertising and entertainment. In terms of architecture, the production designs awaken Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, all angular lines and expressionist shadows. Elsewhere, we encounter statuesque nods to Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, along with a self-referential homage to Kubrick’s The Shining, outtake footage from which was incorporated into the original release of Blade Runner.
The sights are shocking, still the real victors of Blade Runner 2049 are wonderfully low-key. Carla Juri injects real magic into a heart-breaking, dream-weaving scene; Sylvia Hoeks rivals Rutger Hauer as Luv, the ass-kicker with terrifying tears; and Ana de Armas brings three-dimensional warmth to a character who is essentially a digital projection.
Narratively, Fancher and co-writer Michael Green pull off a remarkable narrative sleight of hand that leaves the audience as devastatingly wrongfooted as Gosling’s cosmic detective. As for Villeneuve, he teases away at the enigmatic identity riddle at the centre of Scott’s movie, brilliantly sustaining the mystery of a blade runner’s true nature (“It’s OK to dream a little, isn’t it?”) while chasing the spirit of Philip K Dick’s electric sheep.
Composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer play with memories of Vangelis’s themes, delivering a groaning, howling soundscape that often rises in terrifying Ligeti-like ecstasy. The first time I saw Blade Runner 2049, I was overwhelmed by its visuals and astonished by its achievements. On second viewing, a sense of mournful sadness cut through the spectacle, adding altogether more gloomy memories. Both times, I was reminded that Blade Runner editor Terry Rawlings had described Scott’s original as “a grandiose art movie” and marvelled at how perfectly that phrase fitted Villeneuve’s new dreamy vision. How’s that for a miracle?