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Review: Blade Runner 2049

Warner Bros. / Sony Pictures

At the Leicester Square preview screening of Blade Runner 2049, a Sony employee read out a statement from director Denis Villeneuve imploring critics to keep any plot details of his work to the bare minimum and avoid spoilers wherever possible.

Ironically, I’ve already seen reviews that also stress this directorial plea, but have clearly done exactly the opposite. The information on the film’s posters has been fairly scarce. We see the two characters of Agent K. (Ryan Gosling) and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) contrasted against red and blue landscapes, and not much more. The trailers also don’t provide many details about the plot, a welcome relief from the overloaded detail that has infected the majority of the modern blockbuster trailer. Don’t look any further for a plot synopsis than the simple description listed on IMDB:

“A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former Blade Runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.”

You’re also probably wondering how I’m going to explore the depths of this film without going too far beyond this simple outline. Plainly enough, however, the above statement gives no detail of the film’s cinematic splendour, and 2049 follows one of the most influential visual works of all time. The author Scott Bukatman considers how Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk landscape of a grime and poverty-stricken Los Angeles represents “a dark city of mean streets, moral ambiguities and an air of irresolution”. Villeneuve was intimidated at the very prospect of taking up the job and continuing such a powerful legacy. Yet, from his recent filmography, his concerns are entirely without reason. The bleak, neo-noir worlds of Prisoners and Sicario combined with the more ethereal scenes of beauty and huge scale in Arrival are blended perfectly into 2049’s dystopian world. These environments are largely crafted from the artistic genius that is Roger Deakins (who worked as cinematographer for the first two mentioned films). Villeneuve’s character’s are full of intense, brooding pain, yet these human traumas are unnervingly offset and separated by the outstanding environments of peace and quiet majesty surrounding them. Villeneuve’s camera lingers pervasively on moments of the sublime; thick, rolling clouds move beside Arrival’s alien ship, in a similar fashion to the cascade of water that tumbles down into unknown depths as Agent K. flies past into the distance. 2049’s aesthetic, as in its original, dominates the screen, and just like its predecessor, will no doubt require multiple viewings just to appreciate the awe and symbolism in every diverse landscape and shot.

2049’s aesthetic, as in its original, dominates the screen

One particularly powerful environment, is a desolate desert area that we have already seen in the trailers. The area is a dump of lost civilisation; most of production designer Dennis Gassner’s gargantuan statues lie tarnished and broken in an empty screen of polluted orange. No sky or background are distinguishable, just a bleak image of colour and Agent K’s blurred figure. He views a collection of bees as he walks further, and absently watches one move on his hand before it flies off in a second, a creature now alien to K and his broken and diminished society, and absent-mindedly inserts his hand into one of the beehives. After their incessant buzzing, he moves into a building and the music switches to Brahms’ Opus 39, no. 15 waltz. The tension diminishes for a moment in this silence, then slowly increases as we hear this eerie tune in a world that has supposedly lost these ancient sounds and chords. Just like the landscapes, music and sound are intricately weaved into every individual scene, each song representing the change in narrative and tone. 2049 is certainly a louder film than its predecessor, but one which reflects the continued disintegration and corruption of society thirty years on. I could go on about the genius of Deakin’s cinematography for hours, but if you want to get the full, unspoiled experience, you have to see the film yourself to appreciate his expertise.

In terms of the film’s brooding hero, there surely couldn’t have been a more appropriate choice for the role than Ryan Gosling. Having already cultivated an intense persona in Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines, Only God Forgives and many others, he carries a wistful, earnest determination, which is only enhanced by Villeneuve’s various close shots of his bloodied, pained expressions. In the hands of a lesser actor, such a character could come across as unsympathetic and brutish, yet with Gosling, just a single look of apparent boredom or consideration articulates a plethora of deeper, passionate concern. Harrison Ford comes across as slightly diminished in comparison, as befits the age of his character, but nonetheless delivers a solid performance. We all suspected Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace was never going to be as compelling as Roy Batty, but he’s far from the disaster his critics predicted. It would have been interesting if, as Villeneuve was planning, David Bowie had played the role, but alas, we never got to experience that because of the singer’s untimely death. It is the female roles, however, many of which could’ve been easily placed on male equivalents, which also deserve note. Robin Wright, as K’s commander, is, as usual, incredibly strong, balancing the didactic boss role with more believable and sympathetic reactions to her agent’s emotional turmoil. Ana de Armas’ Joi is also brilliant as K’s lover, and like Gosling, is able to express anguish and happiness in a mere glance. Sylvia Hoeks is the final highlight, as she articulates a calculating and determined loyalty in physical, violent movement alone.

If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes. But of course, you can. Get yourself down to a cinema (preferably in Impact format or IMAX) and witness the greatest visual spectacle in cinematic history.

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