The thing I remember most about seeing Blade Runner at the cinema, aged 17, on its release in 1982, is that I had almost no foreknowledge of what to expect. This was possible in those far-off days before the Internet. All I knew I’d gleaned from a single poster: it looked futuristic and had Han Solo in it. That was enough for me.
Thirty-five years later – 30 in the meticulous fiction of the film (the original was set in the then-unimaginable 2019) – it is almost impossible not to have been caught up in the anticipation for this often jaw-dropping, always respectful sequel. The now standard-issue buzz surrounded the first trailer, the second trailer, two official shorts directed by Ridley’s son Luke Scott that fill in some of the history and a 15-minute anime, but none of these scrupulous marginalia really prepares you for what an artistic as well as a philosophical triumph the IMAX-ready sequel turns out to be.
Under the direction of Denis Villeneuve (officially the right man for the job after the cerebral, atmospheric and awe-inspiring Arrival) with cinematographer Roger Deakins, the first film’s helmsman Ridley Scott takes an executive backseat. But continuity is provided by credits for one of the original producers the late Bud Yorkin (he died in 2015), co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher (here writing with Logan’s Michael Green), and futurist Syd Mead, who helped visualise the world for Scott. The synthetic score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (parachuted in after Johann Johannsson was mysteriously fired) echoes and quotes the original by Vangelis, with added discordant bass notes and a bit of pounding: another nice link with the past in a film about the future.
The other vital bridge is Harrison Ford, whose grizzled ex-LAPD cop Rick Deckard was the “blade runner” of the title, tasked with “retiring” lifelike – and sentient – androids known as “replicants.” In 2049, Deckard is off-grid and the old Nexus-6 model has been superseded by an apparently more pliant Nexus-8, under new, Frankenstein-like CEO Jared Leto, the only weak link in the cast.
Ryan Gosling’s more beatific but similarly laconic cop, known only as “K” (a nod to original author Philip K Dick) is explicitly identified as a replicant with implanted memories – unlike Deckard, whose status lingered as the first film’s main mystery – working for Robin Wright’s terse, whisky-slugging chief. His job is to track down a fabled replicant child – an outcome so fundamentally wrong it has the ability to “break the world.” His Chandleresque investigation (no narration this time) is the film’s simple dramatic thread, a picaresque across a ravaged California and post-dustbowl Nevada.
The sequel is again as much about place as people; its original, dystopian urban vision, usually credited to Scott, literally changed the face of sci-fi. Here, we still recognise the gaudy, neon-lit, always-raining (now with the added possibility of snow) Greater Los Angeles, whose holographic hoardings have improved but is otherwise the same congested hell, branded by Coca-Cola and Peugeot. Once Gosling leaves the city limits in his beaten-up hover-car, we gasp at the ugly-beautiful sights of vast GM farms (the food in 2049 is so disgusting it comes with its own holograph), a never-ending junkyard where even container ships go to rust, a Dickensian recycling centre staffed by orphans under a Fagin-like Lennie James, and a decommissioned Las Vegas where K homes in on his quarry.
There is tense, well-staged action in Blade Runner 2049, but the combat is more about hand-to-hand tactile than gunplay (a brilliant prologue involving Gosling and ex-wrestler Dave Bautista illustrates Villeneuve’s command of blocking) but the overall feeling you come away with after a rather inflated 163 minutes is one of space. K interviews a scientist (Swiss actress Carla Juri) whose job it is create memories for replicants, locked for medical reasons in a vast, antiseptic, dome-like cell; when he finally tracks down Deckard (an outcome specified in the film’s publicity) it is in a sprawling, deserted Vegas hotel, recalling the monolithic Bradley Building in the original film; despite all the dust and garbage, one sequence takes place in the ocean. This is a film that’s slow, and precise, and quiet. When a replicant wolfhound walks through a room across a tiled floor, every one of his footsteps resonates. This eye and ear for detail runs through the whole film; the replicant-identifying “Voight-Kampff test” from the first film has been replaced by a much more punishing psychological workout.
There’s an inevitability to one revelation that takes the air out of the first half, but the pan-generational meeting of minds guaranteed by the trailer has its nostalgic, almost camp value; when Gosling meets Ford (played more like the senior, world-weary Indiana Jones than Deckard and a lot more fun than we expected) it’s like Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, except with added Elvis Presley.
You could watch 2049 without having seen Blade Runner and admire the fight-choreography and glorious production design by Dennis Gassner, but you’d miss so much without the full backstory; for instance, the cameo by Edward James Olmos, reprising the key role of Gaff from the first film, would be meaningless. Blade Runner is a science-fiction epic of scale and intellect, an altogether more thoughtful antidote to the wham-bang-punchline industrialisation of the blockbuster by Marvel and DC. It’s not as good as the original as it can’t be, but it’s better than anybody could have expected.