Blade Runner 2049 review – A $150 Million Art Film

Nikola Jokanovic reviews the brainiest blockbuster of the year.

Hollywood will be dishing out 47 movies in 2017 which are reboots, remakes, sequels or spinoffs in some way. For perspective, that’s just five away from one each week. The industry gets more and more risk-averse with each business year, as studios scramble to franchise anything with even a whiff of a pre-existing fanbase. It was odd enough seeing Blade Runner of all things being swept up for a sequel some five years back, and it’s only odder now seeing Blade Runner 2049 emerge as one of Hollywood’s strangest, most challenging and most memorable offerings in recent memory.

2049 kicks off 30 years after the original. Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant blade runner, hunts his own kind across the neon-lit sprawl of future Los Angeles, even murkier and more claustrophobic than since we saw it last. A stray case leads him to find something he wasn’t supposed to, a secret buried 30 years earlier by the long-missing Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford): the possibility of natural birth in replicants, a new life form.

It’s worth mentioning that we only find out as much almost halfway through – the film is deliberately steady in its pace, although there’s plenty happening on-screen as the threads of the story slowly weave together. The otherworldly LA shown in 2049 is one of the most fully realised science fiction settings ever, drawn vividly by production designer Dennis Gassner, captured beautifully by cinematographer Roger Deakins and navigated sharply by director Denis Villeneuve, who guides us through some of the most thrilling sequences of his career yet. This film is well worth your time if only for the images alone – from towering holographic projections to landscapes grey, white, orange, green, almost every scene has something totally strange and fascinating going on.

Usually cold and distant, it’s funny that some of Villeneuve’s most emotional work yet comes in a story about machines trying to be human. Sylvia Hoeck’s stand out performance as replicant enforcer Luv sees her swinging from steely composure to explosive rage, sometimes in seconds. Every character in the film is there for good reason, each with defining traits, goals and stakes in the action. The story makes good use of them too, particularly Gosling’s Officer K, who is covered in blood more often than not and run through a crushing emotional gauntlet we can’t help but get involved in.

Following on from the original, 2049 is an unsettling portrait of where things are headed for us if we keep them up. The only ‘natural’ life we see throughout the film is in a holographic dream; everything else is glass and steel. Officer K’s holographic AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is a perfectly sad reflection of today’s hyper-connected world of social media, where we sometimes get more company from a computer screen than from each other. We ourselves are fast approaching the blurred lines between real, not real, human and not human explored by the first film. In turn, 2049 asks: does it matter? In tomorrow’s fast-approaching world of escapism, objectification and hyperreality, why does it matter if it’s real or not? These lingering questions aren’t answered in the film, likely because it knows we’ll be seeing them play out for ourselves over the next few decades.

It’s a bit early to see whether 2049 will climb to the same classic status as the first film, but it’s not entirely perfect from the outset. It’s clear this one will lose some audience members with its drawn-out pace, the mostly bare-bones plot being stretched to almost three hours in runtime. Some moments can be alienating in their strangeness, and it’s easy enough to come out the other end of the whole thing unsure of what even happened or what the point was. But ultimately, Blade Runner 2049 is a welcome change of pace from the many other mile-a-minute blockbusters coming out this year, an incredibly polished piece of work, a worthy successor to the original, and one hell of a way to spend $150 million.

8.5 / 10

Feature image from trailer, no changes made.