The Blade Runner phenomenon is becoming a wonder of cinema. Like the poet Marvell’s “vegetable love”, it grows “vaster than empires, and more slow”. It encompasses the planet in its audience appeal, the planet and beyond in its story. (“Los Angeles” is as much Shanghai, New York and London as California’s smoggy Babylon. The film’s narrative confines are the cosmos.) Yet the sequel has taken 35 years — count them — to arrive.
Watching it is like going to a movie theatre and being told, “No, this is actually a space station, and we’re about to take you out of your earthly mind and senses.”
Blade Runner 2049 isn’t better than Blade Runner, pace some reviewers, since nothing in the science fiction domain could be. But it still astounds. It’s still gloriously, epically mad. Mad with ambition, hubris and defiance of the decent limits of drama and spectacle. Mad because the human race wants movies but so seldom gets them — good ones at least — that ask, “What is the human race?”
Humanity is defined in most sci-fi stories by what isn’t humanity. Robots, extraterrestrials, monsters . . . Identification by elimination. But in the Blade Runner cycle, ripped from the womb of Philip K Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) by director Ridley Scott (now producing) and screenwriter Hampton Fancher (back for the sequel), some of the non-humans seem as human as the humans.
They feel, fret, dream, love, quest, question. Ryan Gosling now; Harrison Ford before, who returns for this movie’s third act. The android helots who hailed from an off-world heaven or hell in the first film’s pre-story found the perfect acoustic for their inner and outer turmoils, and those of their android descendants, in the Blade Runner visual world. There’s a Biblical heft to the settings, for which Scott, who first brainstormed them with his designers, must take kudos.
You could call the films Exodus stories: “Let my people go.” This Los Angeles, with its pyramid megaliths and moving “statues” — holograms, toweringly tall in the new film and as colossal and enigmatic as the Sphinx — is ancient Egypt gone supra-modern. (Art Deco is back and this time it’s apocalyptic.) The subject people, seeking their freedom and identity, are the slaves we have made like ignorant gods and exploit like pharaohs.
In Blade Runner a dying Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) mused on his valete in the weeping rain. “Time to die.” Blade Runner 2049 begins with a replicant being “retired” by the gun of Gosling’s Officer K, but not before saying runically, even dreamily, “You’ve never seen a miracle . . .”
Canada’s Denis Villeneuve, the new film’s director, made Arrival, a space visitation story with an elixir drop of Blade Runner’s transcendental magic. Working on a larger scale, he proves a Ridley Scott for the Digital Rapture. We may have reached the moment in movie history when a hand reaches down and scoops us up, in a transport of happy terror, to show that brute technology has at last found and made a home in the cosmos of our hearts.
On an Imax screen, where I saw it, BR2049 blows your specs off. I doubt it will do less on other screens. At the beginning the inside of a vast, tessellated future-dome revolves like a giant egg and we are inside it. Perhaps we are being born. Later the giant cityscapes hum, throb and teem with the outlandish: streets blitzed by neon, strafed by drizzle, monstered by those holographic geishas. (Jared Leto as another holo-being lives in a mansion whose Babylon walls ripple with water-light and where real and unreal beings rise at command like Venus from the deep. The marvels never stop.)
Two and half hours is a long time, but the movie needs it. The individual micro-dramas are allowed to live as vividly as the macro-spectacle. Ryan Gosling as Officer K, the replicant cop tasked with exterminating the old-breed androids, is a meta-human Hamlet with a precision trigger finger and a bunch of inner torments. He is worried about who he is. He wants to know who made him. He may very well find out.
The film’s women are sensational. Robin Wright as the police chief, Replicant Retirement Division, is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen, glassy and brittle. Chief baddie Sylvia Hoeks, a female android, weeps without emotion — the tears are as meaningless yet as lyrical as the LA rain — as she kills, maims, punishes.
Then there’s Harrison Ford. After “home again” Han Solo, meet Rick Deckard redivivus. Ford looks a little creaky-jointed, but he’s probably meant to be. He arrives when we need his twinkle, the subtle kidding skills inside his serioso. He earths the movie and grounds it, before it lifts off one last time. As prelude to the finale there’s an interlude in a semi-celestial scrap yard, vast as a desert and gaunt with the rust of yesterday’s overreachings (you can’t help seeing 9/11), that’s like Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky on a Hollywood budget.
Praise gets no higher than that, though this second Blade Runner instalment will no doubt raise the cry for a third, by which time all bets on superlatives are off.
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