Blade Runner 2049 asks: Are we all going to Hell?
There aren't many darker visions of the future than the one offered by Blade Runner. Aside from those movies that imagined we'd have completely obliterated ourselves by now, Ridley Scott's 1982 classic provides one of cinema's most nightmarish perspectives on the 21st century. Its iconic opening images, of a Los Angeles dominated by neon, darkness and fire, all underlined by that unsettling Vangelis soundtrack, are a bleak contrast to the world we know and love. And that was only meant to be 2019.
Roll forward 30 years (or 35 in real life), and if anything the world has got even bleaker. Denis Villeneuve's long-awaited sequel may differ from its predecessor by being mainly set in the murky light of the Californian day, but darkness is hiding around every corner. The environment is shot, population is out of control, capitalism is creaking... Blade Runner 2049 wants to suggest that we're only a few years away from a future that's hardly worth living in at all.
Ryan Gosling plays LAPD Agent 'K', a new-model replicant (or human-looking android) who is tasked with hunting down rogue early models of his own kind. It's the same job held three decades earlier by Harrison Ford's Deckard, a character who looms in the background until finally making a reappearance later on in the film (but don't believe the poster, this is no buddy movie). K's life is simple, procedural and depressing: by day he hunts and kills, by night he talks with his only friend – a holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas). Then, when a chance discovery launches him on an investigation which draws him into the world of genius capitalist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), it becomes apparent that his life will never be simple again.
The film is packed with complex themes. One writer has already made the link between the film's oppressed legion of android servants and the biblical Exodus story, with K cast as a potential Moses figure. While they lack a 'soul' (which, K is told at one point, is the difference between humans and replicants), the robot characters tend to act with more kindness, more empathy and almost without anger, violence or malice, and we find ourselves rooting for them even against humankind. They are much more like a 'people of God' than the masters who oppress them. Yet they are seen as dispensable – proved in one harrowing scene where Wallace hatches and then dispatches a female replicant as if to make that point – even though they are sentient and, as proved by a moving subplot involving K and Joi, capable of love. By the end of the film, the question of what it is that makes us human is entirely unresolved.
There are lots of other ideas in there too. One dark moment, where a character instructs a deadly drone to rain death on an underclass while having her nails done, is a vivid illustration of where the film thinks our value system is headed. Meanwhile, environmentalists and nuclear disarmament campaigners alike will point to the film and ask: is that really what we want to become? In a strange way the first film's dark future felt distant and unlikely back in 1982, but in 2017, as Artificial Intelligence continues to make strides and the Doomsday clock moves closer to midnight, this one feels darkly tangible, like much more of a warning.
The original Blade Runner is one of my all-time favourite films, and so the prospect of a sequel always felt like a mixed blessing. Here's the extraordinary, trend-bucking news however: Blade Runner 2049 is an astonishing piece of work. Gosling is superb in the lead role with a complex, sympathetic and heart-breaking performance, and Ford does a good job of reimagining an iconic character 30 years on. Make no mistake though, the real star of the show is its visionary Canadian director.
Villeneuve has captured the spirit and feel of Scott's original yet brilliantly taken the story and its universe off in bold new directions. His Blade Runner looks utterly stunning – no surprise to fans of the director's previous movies – and includes some of the most visually-arresting images in sci-fi history. The sheer imagination behind the look and feel of the film is a wonder to behold and a masterclass in attention to detail. That's backed by Hans Zimmer's Vangelis-referencing (but not too much) soundtrack, which again evokes a dystopian nightmare, occasionally punctuated with the strangely-comforting tones of Frank Sinatra. It looks and sounds like no other film, and the wonder of it is that Villeneuve and his crew manage to make an utterly broken world beautiful.
This is a story set in an apparently Godless universe, and it's one that's almost – but not quite – bereft of hope. That glimmer remains in the possibility of rebellion, liberation and redemption... but not for humanity. And perhaps the whole film, like the dystopian genre as a whole, offers a loud warning not to let this story unfold in reality. After watching it, you're thankful to be able to step outside into a world where trees, birds and relatively clean air still exist. At this point, the Blade Runner universe is still a nightmare that we can wake up from.
Early figures suggest that Blade Runner 2049 is going to underperform at the cinema, and that would be – in film terms at least – a tragedy. Yes it's long (at 163 minutes) and Villeneuve refuses to be rushed, but it's a rare spectacle that deserves to be seen on the largest available screen, and one that will leave you asking big questions long after the credits roll.