While Ridley Scott continues to revisit his back catalogue with further prequels threatened to follow Prometheus and Alien Covenant before he finally links up with his science fiction horror masterpiece Alien, the equally surprising and late arriving sequel to his other science fiction classic Blade Runner has been passed to other hands, those of Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve.
The script for Blade Runner 2049 credited to Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, the latter most recently responsible for Logan, the former the writer who originally adapted Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for the screen, certainly there is a more coherent path between that film and this than Alien and either of its most recent siblings, taking that original as a template but then telling a story which flips the allegiances and dilemmas of the original.
The opening scroll chronicling the key events of the three decades between, the Tyrell Corporation’s replicants are acknowledged as having been a slave labour force, the violent uprisings which ended that organisation and the collapse of the ecosystem having given rise to a more muted world where Niander Wallace (Suicide Squad‘s Jared Leto) has developed the Nexus-8 replicants with open-ended lifespans and without troublesome inclination to disobey their human masters.
Yet living off-grid there are still some earlier model replicants considered dangerous and illegal; those who hunt and “retire” them are called “blade runners,” among them LAPD Officer KD 6-3:7 (Lost River‘s Ryan Gosling) who on a routine assignment to track down one such replicant uncovers an anomaly, the loose ends of which concern both his superior Lieutenant Joshi (The Congress‘ Robin Wright) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), liaison to Niander Wallace.
Wallace’s empire built on the replicant labour which supports the nine off-world colonies, his interest in the secrets buried beneath the vat farm where grubs are grown for protein is that it might unlock the final secrets of the late Eldon Tyrell, while Joshi fears for the future should that truth become known, that the line between replicants and humans is not so defined as the manufacturer would claim.
Echoing the original film in scope, Villeneuve, Fancher, Green and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created an inversion where the buildings of Los Angeles still stand but are now largely darkened, where the perpetual rain has been replaced by occasional snow, where the endless night has broken into a pale dawn where dust muffles and diffuses the weak sunlight.
The architecture of the film is astonishing, overwhelming and oppressive, beached cargo ships torn open to the elements, the labyrinth of Wallace’s complex with its bold and dynamic lighting shifting and rippling across the walls, but from animated fingernail tattoos to wasteland scavenger orphanage sweatshops there is a feeling that Villeneuve is trying to outdo Scott at every turn, more concerned with impressing the eye than the mind.
Running to two and three quarter hours there is a question of whether many scenes, particularly those of K and his virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) are advancing the plot or if they are an indulgence which is forgiven on the grace of being back in a world which is iconic, influential and unforgettable. Like K, the viewer wants to believe and the recreation is convincing, more so than the hundreds of imitations down the decades, but is that sufficient?
The plot is slight and the characters are underdeveloped, particularly Wallace and Luv, the restrained psychopath and the unbound psychopath, two halves which add up to an incomplete whole, and by definition K’s primary relationship is with someone insubstantial and ephemeral, though interestingly his conversations with Joi – effectively conversations with himself – in many ways serve the same purpose as the voiceover added to the theatrical cut of Blade Runner in 1982 at the behest of the studio, its subsequent excision the most significant change in the later revisions.
A thirty year old cold case whose digital records were conveniently lost in the great blackout, the trail of breadcrumbs through multiple and varied archives is ludicrously simple and eschewing the ambiguity of the original one scene in particular would have had considerably more emotional impact had it not been signposted by the character incongruously recounting stories of their childhood moments before.
If a man is the sum of his memories and recollections, does a person lose meaning or identity if no record of them exists, the information lost, destroyed or overwritten as Scott has done with his multiple versions of the film, something more akin to a replicant for whom those memories were synthetic in the first place? “To be born is to have a soul,” K suggests, but Wallace is perfectly comfortable trading slaves if it will buy him the stars even if the cost is precipitating the bloody replicant revolution which Joshi is desperate to avoid.
Inevitably and surprisingly easily given his desire to remain hidden and anonymous, the clues lead to Rick Deckard (The Force Awakens‘ Harrison Ford), a former blade runner retired in the more conventional sense, but conspicuously avoiding the frequently debated question of his own identity his presence instead serves to take the film in another direction, less an answer to the original than a new set of questions as yet unanswered but hopefully to be addressed before either 2049 or the uprising actually arrive.
Blade Runner 2049 is now on general release and also screening in IMAX 3 D