Film review – Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

The announcement of a new Blade Runner film after a 35 year gap was always bound to be met with trepidation from the loyal fans of the original. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic, first released in 1982, has undergone something of a cult status transformation and is now generally viewed as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, holding a 91% audience rating on results aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and serving as a touch point for films of all genres for generations. Surely bringing back the film for a rather needless sequel, re-treading old ground that fans didn’t want to revisit, would only result in failure.

Actually, the countless versions of the original film available to view indicate just how willing Scott was to wring the masterpiece for every drop of life, managing to go unnoticed as he George Lucased every scene and finally settled on 2007’s The Final Cut. The main reason he got away with it? Two-fold. Firstly, Blade Runner has fewer fans than Star Wars. Secondly, Scott was actually improving on the original.

So, thinking about it Blade Runner 2049 makes perfect sense. It can build on the existing fanbase, re-ignite interest in the original film and give a new and ambitious director a crack at creating something truly original and perhaps turn the cult film into a blockbuster franchise.

The man tasked with doing this is Denis Villeneuve, a director who crafted two excellent films in recent years in the form of drug crime-thriller Sicario and futuristic sci-fi Arrival.

Did he achieve everything the fans and studio had wanted prior to seeing the film? Not really. But the final result is absolutely astonishing and perhaps better than anyone could have possibly hoped for.

Set in 2049, the plot focuses on Ryan Gosling’s “K”, an agent working for the LAPD as a “Blade Runner”. It is his job to hunt down and eliminate rogue replicants – bioengineered humans who have been integrated into society to serve specific jobs, essentially working as slaves. K lives with a holographic girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas), a product of the replicant manufacturing company The Wallace Corporation, a company building on the work started by the Tyrell Corporation and headed up by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). After K finds some potentially revelatory evidence that a replicant may have been a female replicant that gave birth to a child, his superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to destroy the evidence to prevent an unpreventable conflict between humans and replicants should the knowledge reach the public. Going against his boss’s orders, K chooses to investigate a mysterious replicant named Rachael, with all routes pointing towards a former blade runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Villeneuve’s vision, created alongside cinematographer Roger Deakins, has turned out to be one of the most visually stunning spectacles of the year. A shoo-in for a Visual Effects nomination at the Academy Awards, the dull, desolate misery of the original film are replaced with brilliant orange hues, polarised colour palettes and sensory overloads. That it still feels part of the same universe seems unlikely, but it definitely does.

Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as K, a replicant battling with questions about his own mortality. The pacing to some may feel slow, but in reality it is a deliberate choice. As K discovers more pieces about the puzzle, we as the viewer are given space to breathe and think about the very same questions. It an overpoweringly intelligent way to deliver a film and puts a lot of faith into the viewers that they are intelligent enough to process what is going on.

Questions remained about the character Joi throughout its cinematic release, and beyond. Criticism focused on the fact that Joi exists only to serve the needs of Ryan Gosling, and is totally dependant on him. My take on her was entirely different – indeed her inclusion felt like a genuine triumph. As a character, she has been created to show huge developments in replicants since the original film, but also poses further questions to the viewer. If a product could be bought straight off the shelf to stimulate every human emotion just as required, would that be a good thing or a bad thing for the human race? Does removing real emotion through human interaction make us any “less human than human”?

Director Villeneuve responded to the criticism, stating:

“Cinema is a mirror on society. Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it’s about today. And I’m sorry, but the world is not kind on women. There’s a sense in American cinema: you want to portray an ideal world. You want to portray a utopia. That’s good—dreams for a better world, to advocate for something better, yes. But if you look at my movies, they are exploring today’s shadows. The first Blade Runner is the biggest dystopian statement of the last half century. I did the follow-up to that, so yes, it’s a dystopian vision of today. Which magnifies all the faults. That’s what I’ll say about that.” [full article here]

Incidentally, Julia Alexander wrote a superb and balanced article on the matter on the website Polygon, which is well worth checking out.

Box office

Blade Runner 2049’s performance at the global box office may well have done it out of further sequels, no doubt to the disappointment of Warner Bros. It made money – $258m based on a $150m budget (as of 24th December 2017) – but not enough money. It feels like a risky prospect to pump more money into the franchise when the likely drop-off in profit would potentially lead to a loss-maker.

This is a double-edged sword. 2049 feels like a fitting end to the original film, complimenting it whilst not ruining its mystery and intrigue. It would be difficult to achieve a third great film in the saga, so a studio unwilling to make any more instalments is a positive. However, it felt refreshing to see a genuinely thought-provoking blockbuster that left me contemplating the contents for weeks. It’s sad to think there will be fewer of these in the future.

Verdict

Blade Runner 2049 is a breath of fresh air for cinema in 2017. Villeneuve should get substantial credit for pulling off the near-impossible. He’s created a visually-stunning masterpiece that builds on the original without ruining any of it. Whether it will be talked about as much as Ridley Scott’s original in 35 years’ time remains to be seen, but for now it feels like a more-than-worthy addition to the story. Simply brilliant.

Short films

There were three short films created to bridge the gap between the original film and the new instalment, which can be viewed in chronological order below.

They don’t ruin anything about the film, but they do compliment it quite well. Very much worth watching.

Black Out 2022

2036: Nexus Dawn

2048: Nowhere to Run

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

“Alright Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

What a line. It sums up perfectly the fragile mindset of one of the most brilliantly realised characters in cinematic history – Norma Desmond, portrayed by Gloria Swanson. It’s also memorable, quotable (and mis-quotable) and ironically very well delivered considering it is done so by a silent-era star playing a silent era star.

I’d been putting off seeing Sunset Boulevard for such a long time for two reasons. Firstly, I was sure I was going to love it so I wanted to savour the moment. Secondly, there is always a niggling feeling that I might not enjoy it as much as the hype suggested I would, so I was fearful I would be left disappointed. My experience was certainly very much in the former category.

The film opens with a classic film noir feel, a whodunnit of sorts. We are shown the ending at the start, with a convoy of police and news reporters converging on a mysterious man lying dead in the swimming pool of an unknown rich homeowner on Sunset Blvd. (as it is famously written in the film). We don’t know who this is or who owns the pool, but just as we start to ask ourselves that question, the narration continues and we rewind to six months earlier. From here we pick up the main thread of the film – a struggling screenwriter (Joe Gillis, portrayed by William Holden) is trying to write his breakthrough piece whilst avoiding the bailiffs threatening to take his car as payment for his debts. It is a standard but perfectly pitched opening gambit and it really pulled me in as a viewer. You can view this opening scene below:

As the film progresses into the central act, a series of coincidental events leads Gillis into the path of Desmond, a faded silent-era star who takes him under employment as the screenwriter of her comeback film. It is here that the film starts packing its biggest punches and thus I will stop commenting on the plot.

I found the way Wilder and Swanson dealt with the character of Norma Desmond absolutely mind-blowing. There is no detail lacking attention. She is filmed like a silent star. She is simply one of the greatest literary characters ever created. It’s a picture made for Gloria Swanson, with the role so ominously mirroring her real life. It is generally known that she was a hard-working and studious actress and she threw herself into this surprise return to leading actress status. She clearly knew the importance of this role and it shows in her detailed portrayal. It’s a performance that really deserves to be studied frame-by-frame. That is was completely shut out in the acting categories at the 23rd Academy Awards, is one of the greatest tragedies of the awards ceremony, though it faced tough competition from All About Eve and surprising competition from Born Yesterday,

That’s not to say it’s a one-person show. Eric von Stroheim, here playing Desmond’s butler, is also playing a character ominously similar to his real life scenario. A director in his own right, it was actually a film he directed that starred Gloria Swanson that ruined his career (1929’s Queen Kelly which, if you’re really keen, is shown briefly during Sunset Boulevard). Elsewhere, Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille also have memorable appearances, as well as many other huge stars often mirroring their real life selves in one way or another.

The film has also been turned into a hugely successful musical at the hands of Don Black, Christopher Hampton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Whilst this version really is a completely different take on an unlikely source for a musical, it has many merits and does it justice, though the popularity of Wilder’s film makes it a hard task to topple it as the ultimate telling of such an important story. You have to treat them as separate entities and I’m sure the aim of turning it into a musical wasn’t to attempt to overshadow the original.

I was blown away by this film and it’s one I will enjoy watching again in the near future, along with as many of Wilder’s films I can get my hands on.

Sunset Boulevard is available on Blu-ray now.

Black Coal, Thin Ice / 白日焰火 (Diao Yinan, 2014)

Black Coal, Thin Ice was screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, eventually winning the prestigious Golden Bear award. Whilst it wasn’t in competition at the London Film Festival, its proceeding reputation still created a degree of interest amongst the cinema goers at this year’s LFF. So did it live up to the hype?

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The thriller centres around a police investigation into mysterious murders, where people’s body parts are found scattered across a large area of China in, amongst other places, coal transportation centres. Quickly the deaths are linked to one woman: Wu Zhizhen (as portrayed by Gwei Lun-Mei). It is up to the film’s eventual main protagonist – Liao Fan’s Zhang Zili -to get close to her and solve the riddle.

It is a gripping police thriller with some highly memorable and shocking scenes. The pacing is fantastic, and left me on the edge of my seat throughout. Stylistically the cinematographer Dong Jinsong has worked well with director Yinan, and between them they’ve done fantastic job with some great framing that made use of the surplus of snow on offer on the shoot.

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With strong performances from the two lead actors, it was clearly a justified winner of the Golden Bear. I highly recommend seeking it out if you get the chance.

白日焰火 is released in cinemas in the UK in 2015.