Film Review: Blade Runner 2049 (USA, 2017) is an instant classic

When the original Blade Runner was first released in cinemas in 1982, it made waves for its stunning cinematography and special effects, moody and now iconic soundtrack from Vangelis, and its truly innovative adaptation of a short story from sci-fi writer Philip K Dick; the rare instance where a film has outdone its source material.

But it other respects, it kind of sucked.

I only saw the original cut of the film recently – now hidden away on the collectable home releases, alongside the superior Director’s Cut and the definitive Final Cut, released in 1991 and 2007 respectively. Weirdly, I accidentally started watching it on a plane, who only offered the original theatrical cut on their entertainment devices. As Ford’s awkward, (deliberately) poorly performed and unnecessary voice over came in, curiosity took the better of me and I watched a cut that I never had the guts to sit through before. It’s… the inferior product. A recut by a studio who wanted another Star Wars for the masses, another cowboys and Indians in space, but got a crawling, intelligent, often breathtaking piece of neo-noir cinema instead. And didn’t quite know what to do with it.

By any respect, it was a commercial disappointment, and critics stayed on the fence about it for a long time. It took the 1991 release of the Director’s Cut, which was based on what’s known as the film’s “Workprint”, for the film to achieve the critical reception it ultimately deserved. But it wasn’t until 2007’s Final Cut that Scott was to have full creative control over the product, 25 years after the release of the original; it really is the best version, and was breathtaking to watch on the big screen in 4K. Jump another 10 years in the future, and the film which is now considered, deservingly, one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, is receiving a similarly well deserved follow up, Blade Runner 2049, with Scott’s Production Company on board, but a new director taking Ridley’s place.

Director Denis Villeneuve had big shoes to fill, but with a critically acclaimed run of films behind him, including last year’s wonderful Arrival, he seemed like a solid choice on paper. And I’m happy to report he lived up to expectation in droves. He had a great supporting team to ensure this; a perfectly cast and brilliant performance from Ryan Gosling, a brooding, powerful Harrison Ford, a maniacal Jared Leto at his best – and a stellar supporting cast, including Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis, who seems designed to remind us of Darryl Hannah’s Pris and takes part in the what may be the most memorable love scene ever placed on the big screen. The original film’s screenwriter Hampton Fancher returns, in a story that is his own and with a script developed with Michael Green (Logan). And its in this story, with its script and excellent cast, the film finds its immediate strength.

Unlike the continuation of other sci-fi franchises that relied almost entirely on nostalgia rather than original or distinct storytelling to get people into cinemas, the story of 2049 is a wholly original one – unpredictable, compelling and often outputted at a snails pace, ensuring it fits tonally into the universe Scott developed, while its extra 40+ minutes duration allow him to do so much more with it all. There’s a slew of surprises along the way, too. Try as you might to predict where it’s going to end up, but you’re probably going to be way off.

The dark, atmospheric world is all there. Those long, expansive shots of the world we saw all those years ago returns and is welcomed with open arms. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic. But he takes us so much further than this. As has already been shown in the trailers, the film takes us to other areas of post-Nuclear Californian devastation, allowing the universe to more closely resemble the dystopian world Philip K Dick details in Do Androids Dream… than even the original.

The shots of this world are stunning, amplified by the mastery of cinematographer Roger “no one films shadows like I do” Deakins. Beautifully framed, every shot feels like a work of art; Gosling walking down a freeway, the air soaked in an orange dust, almost a silhouette, harks memory’s to Deakins’ unforgettable work in Jarhead. The score, by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (who also worked with Zimmer on Hidden Figures), gives us bite-sized tastes of Vangelis’ original, while offering something totally new, epic and powerful in its own right. I definitely recommend staying in the cinema until the credits finish rolling though, as one of Vangelis’ most iconic cuts from the original does play us out.

2049 has not been made for the masses. Main characters emerge in the final third. Shots are long, the pacing is slow, the action is minimal. In this respect, the film maintains the spirit of the original, without allowing history to repeat itself; there doesn’t seem to have been much influence from the studio, otherwise I think we would have seen a leaner product, and been worse off for it. This is a film made for the endless fans of the original, with an added citation – we won’t fuck around with you this time. The later cuts are the best versions of the film for a reason. The result is a modern sci-fi masterpiece that will go down as one of the greatest sequels of all time, up there with The Godfather Part II and yes, The Empire Strikes Back, and in time may even outshine the original – certainly already the 1982 cut.

Rewatching the original is essential ahead of seeing this, too; not just because the film references a lot from it, but also because they sit so perfectly side-by-side. Walking out of The Final Cut and into 2049 feels about as natural as a film that was made at the same time and cut in half. At the respect of the director I’m not going to tell you anything else about the film. But if you’re a fan of the original, this film is everything you want it to be and more. In fact, it’s perfect.

Film Review: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas tomorrow, 5th October. There’s a short film “prequel” trilogy online now.