It is jarring to consider that the gap between Blade Runner and today – 35 years – is about the same as that between Blade Runner and the high era of film noir. The gumshoe aesthetic celebrated in Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was still visible in the movie’s rear-view mirror. The future it predicted for 2019 was still plausible.
Denis Villeneuve’s largely successful, much-delayed sequel finds its influences more compromised and more self-entwined. We are now looking at a world that draws on the timeline conceived in the original 1982 film. There were flying cars in its version of 2019. So there are flying cars in its version of 2049. The variations on Chandler and Hammett now look as much like variations on Scott. It can be no accident that, early on, Ryan Gosling’s numb protagonist picks up a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The meta-convolutions in that novel find some echoes in Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s screenplay. This is some challenge.
Blade Runner 2049 is not without flaws the size of giant fog-bound skyscrapers. But it remains a marvel that the project works as well as it does. We begin with a mystery that echoes throughout the film’s windy alleyways.
Gosling plays a blade runner called K (his later acquisition of the forename “Joe” confirms that the reference is to Kafka as much as Dick) who has been sent to terminate a replicant living as a farmer in the soulless outlands of Los Angeles. Poking around after the kill, he finds a box that contains the bones of a dead woman. Analysis confirms that a previously unimaginable biological leap forward in replicant biology has taken place. This alarms and interests various sinister forces throughout society.
K's no-nonsense boss Lieut Joshi (Robin Wright) wants the aberration tidied away. The hammily sinister Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has taken over replicant manufacture from the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation, sees exciting new possibilities for his operations. After some investigation, K discovers inevitable connections with the story of the first film. Harrison Ford, back as an older Rick Deckard, sits grumpily in Las Vegas while the past contrives to catch up with him.
The plot starts from a strong place, but there are nowhere near enough complications to justify the enormous running time. Most viewers will, however, be sufficiently distracted by the visual invention to remain hooked throughout. Villeneuve and Roger Deakins, his regular cinematographer, have created an urban nightmare that honours Blade Runner's false future while slipping in sly nods to our current online intoxication. K can't finish an erotic chat to his virtual companion (Ana de Armas) without being interrupted by bleeding phone calls from his boss. The contemporary LA PI probably has the same problem with Tinder.
The weather has worsened, the exteriors have become more oppressive and the angst has become more pervasive. Rarely has any mainstream film been so conspicuously free of humour. Wealthy characters such as Wallace may live in unimaginably elaborate structures lit by gorgeous variations on the same shade, but their power seems to bring only irritation and impatience. Not for the first time, Villeneuve only just gets away with a pessimism that borders on the mannered. Familiar reversing-train noises from composer Hans Zimmer add to the off-the-peg nihilism.
Of course, the alienation is the message. Gosling has never been the cosiest of actors and his deadened quality suits a character who (we assume, anyway) is not a paid-up member of the human race. Ford, in contrast, is more animated than he has been in a decade. The excellent female supporting players – watch out for the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass – join in the beautiful misery with sombre enthusiasm.
We end up with an intoxicating, brain-melting yarn that, for all its pleasures, has ideas a little above its station. It’s not Kafka. Then again it doesn’t need to be.