Thursday, 5 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

If further proof were required of the need for Ridley Scott to step away from directing more entries in Ridley Scott-instigated franchises, the Denis Villeneuve-helmed Blade Runner 2049 is it. I mean Scott's Prometheus should have provided sufficient evidence for this argument but that didn't stop his Alien Covenant happening, and look at us now: adrift in a once-beloved series of films which is now 67% vomit.

Anyway I'm not here to shit on the Alien franchise or Ridley Scott. God knows Blade Runner 2049 reeks of him in all the best ways and few of the worst, enhancing and expanding upon the mud-thick mood and atmosphere he conjured up in Blade Runner 2019 (why Warner Home Video haven't renamed it that and re-released every available cut of it is a marketing mystery). Villeneuve's epic, almost comically grandiose vision reaches into every nook and cranny of the sequel but it couldn't exist without everything Scott - alongside cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, production designer Lawrence G Paull and "visual futurist" (sure) Syd Mead - achieved in the original.
The original Blade Runner. You've probably never heard of it.

While the Hovis-peddling Geordie came up with the idea for 2049 then graciously took a back seat, the 1982 vintage's splendidly-monikered writer Hampton Fancher is back after 35 years in semi-wilderness, and he's turned out a much more satisfying script this time despite being aided by Michael Green, whose past triumphs include, uh, Green Lantern and - yep - Alien Covenant. Example: the original Blade Runner is often criticised for Deckard's (Harrison Ford) rubbish detective skills (to be fair he isn't actually a detective, he just has a magic box that can see round corners in photographs), but the sequel features a thoroughly thought-out trail of breadcrumbs for new replicant-retirer K (Ryan Gosling) to follow, and it's a mystery you'll be unpacking for hours post-viewing.

Officer K's odyssey carries him through a panoply of cosmically stunning-looking interiors and exteriors, envisaged by Villeneuve and executed by Roger Deakins and Dennis Gassner (replacing Cronenweth and Paull respectively) with alternately nightmarish and divine genius. The Neo-Tokyo look of Ridley Scott's 2019 version of LA has been amplified and compounded into an oceanic sprawl of densely-packed tower blocks that just about allow room for the crass neon advertising (Pan Am are doing surprisingly well in 2049) and little else, while calmer spaces offer an incongruous serenity offset only by the bristly, unpredictable characters who inhabit them. Meanwhile the score - an imposing, unsettling combination of Vangelis' original themes fused with Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer's thundering chords - leaves you in no doubt that this is a colossal, earth-shattering journey we're on.

Except... it isn't. I've spent this long wanging on about how technically wondrous Blade Runner 2049 is (and forgive me, I haven't even mentioned Renée April's eyeball-strokingly fit costume design) mainly because I don't want to give away any of the plot, but also because what there is of that plot is kind of, well... low-key. Not so much as the original, but given how big Villeneuve goes with everything else here, the core mystery feels microscopic in comparison. Bigger consequences are threatened in the event that Officer K fails to successfully run his blades, but never to a point where you really, really need him to win. It's a bit like having a Bond film where the villain's plan is, say, to restrict access to clean water: clearly undesirable, but not particularly cinematic.
"Please don't make this about Bond"

And so we're left with those themes of artificial intelligence, identity and slavery that coldly mooch about in the original Blade Runner without ever threatening to stir the emotions, and which do much the same here. The existential angst Officer K endures is welcome, given that it was mainly left to Rutger Hauer's pretentious prick replicant to pontificate on the (in)human condition in 1982, but Gosling - as much as I love him - has trouble expressing that angst; the one scene in which he displays anything other than cool detachment hovers a little too close to unintentionally amusing. Sure, he's essentially a stoic noir gumshoe archetype, used to keeping his head down and his mouth shut for reasons I won't go into, but K goes through some serious headfuckery that requires a little more than the trademark blank stare Gosling favours here. At some point Villeneuve should have reminded him that this wasn't a Nicolas Winding Refn film.

In place of genuine emotion, there is at least genuine entertainment, not least from the appearance of one H. Ford, whose cheese-based first line is dangerously daft to the ears of the non-literary-minded among us (hi). Ford pulls off his return to a much-loved role as successfully here as he did in The Force Awakens, and Deckard's first meeting with Officer K is a literal and visual bruiser. But further joy is to be found in the performances of Robin Wright (as K's boss), whose face and hair I could gawp at for hours; Ana de Armas (as K's hologrammatic housewife Joi), who comes closest to evoking sympathy for what is basically an app; and Sylvia Hoek's high-kicking henchbitch Luv. Jared Leto is fine but ineffectual and talks in clichéd ponderous villainese, and Dave Bautista is fucking massive.
Henchbitches gonna hench

Plot holes are inevitable in something so ambitious, and these minor irritations undermine the project's overwhelming pomp to remind you that it was made by humans after all, despite the bafflingly reverential raves you may have read. And needless to say, at 163 minutes it's in dire need of a haircut here and there. If Blade Runner 2049 fails at all it's because where it should be emotionally devastating it's only mildly thought-provoking, but then it is a sequel to Blade Runner: hardly cinema's most overwhelmingly sentimental experience. 2049 is still essential for fans of the original and nigh-unmissable for the rest of us, and whatever its flaws, it's crucial to remember just how bad it could have been. Ridley Scott could have directed it.

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