Blade Runner 2049 is a feast for the eyes and ears, a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic. The film has many echoes of the original but creates its own sombre style and atmosphere, one more in tune with our troubled times. The acid rain is still hammering down on the city skyscrapers, but the neon adverts have lost their lustre.
Thirty years on, the world of Blade Runner has changed. Before the action starts, onscreen paragraphs inform us that while bio-engineering has advanced, the world’s ecosystems ‘collapsed in the 2020s’, so the film’s predominant colour is grey. From the air, a patchwork quilt of grey and white factories might look like fields, but the ‘blackout’ has wiped out trees and flowers, so that wood is now a rare commodity.
Blade Runner 2049 taps into current anxieties about technological progress, about losing our jobs to robots and losing our souls to the digital screen. Its bio-engineered replicants sometimes speak of human feelings, experiencing a miracle, or having a real (rather than implanted) memory. As sci-fi author Philip K. Dick asked in the splendidly titled novel on which the world and characters of Blade Runner are based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) starts the film with a close-up of an eye, the window to the soul, and his main character spends much of the action puzzling over whether or not he is ‘special’. K (Ryan Gosling) is a newer model of replicant who seems more human than his colleagues in the LA Police Department. With his preternaturally cool manner, Gosling is magnetic. His eyes are not the glassy eyes of a synthetic human: they most definitely have soul.
K is a blade runner, whose job is hunting down and ‘retiring’ older model replicants who have gone rogue. After one such mission he finds a buried box with what appear to be human bones inside. Forensic analysis reveals they are of a female replicant who died during childbirth. How was this possible?
His police boss (Robin Wright) orders him to destroy all evidence and to find and ‘retire’ the child. She believes the knowledge that replicants are able to reproduce is dangerous – it could ‘break the world’. When K ponders ‘to be born means you have a soul’, he is told: ‘you’ve been getting on fine without one’.
K’s investigations take him to the headquarters of cloudy-eyed replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his kickass enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), and eventually to fellow blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) in radioactive Las Vegas.
Despite its running time of two and three-quarter hours, Blade Runner 2049 never sags. If the complicated plot is occasionally baffling, our senses are always diverted and often overwhelmed. Fans of the original will have fun comparing and contrasting what has changed in the last 30 years. The urban hologram adverts have got bigger and more naked, but this is recognisably the same world, albeit less dayglo and fun.
The streets now boast ‘instant fix’ touch screens and you can buy a virtual wife. K comes home to Joi (Ana de Armas), who cooks for him, calls him ‘baby sweet’ and lights his cigarette by pointing at it.
But amidst all the techno wizardry and future thrills it is perhaps the simple, natural and reassuring images that delight us most: snowflakes melting on the palm of a hand, burning red embers dancing into the sky; raindrops chasing one another on a windscreen.