Successfully capitalising on audience nostalgia is a process which Hollywood hasn’t quite perfected yet. Though recent years have seen reboots and remakes of films such as The Magnificent Seven and Robocop, seldom do these attempts at revitalising a past success recapture the hearts of those enraptured by the original. In part, this is due to the commercial spirit of the remake; these films are rarely labours of love, but instead tools for box office success: surely a bigger, flashier reboot of an old favourite will appeal to old fans and new alike? However, there is a sense of violation implicit in the process of retrofitting a fan favourite in such a way. Too often the complexities and idiosyncrasies that made the original interesting in the first place are ironed out in the name of polish. They become soulless, devoid of charm, and it doesn’t take a voitght-kampff machine to see it.
How relieved I am, then, to be able to describe Blade Runner 2049 as the latest in a rogue strain of living exceptions to this pattern. It’s a film that acknowledges both the aesthetics and themes of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi milestone without simply wallowing in its reputation. It’s a worthy sequel, but most importantly, it has autonomy. The story, while hearkening back to Blade Runner (1982), exists on its own. Characters and devices from the original, like Harrison Ford’s Deckard, aren’t simply there for the fan-service and ticket sales – they’re an important and necessary part of the plotting and themes. 2049 expands on the central question posed by the original – “what does it mean to be human?” – by also asking the audience, “what do you value most about being human?” It might seem like a small distinction, but within Denis Villeneuve’s vision, the results of such a small alteration can be game-changing.
These slight mutations can be seen, as well they should, visually. The setting of Blade Runner was always hypermodern, desolate, and yet packed with life. In 2049, cinematographer Roger Deakins takes this forward a step, including imagery that sees forlorn echoes of a lost natural world in the machinery that surrounds the characters. In one shot, what at first seems to be a waterfall is revealed to be some kind of sluice-gate for a gigantic water tank. Animals and plants are hardly seen at all; the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief. The costume and interior design is muddled intentionally, the poorer denizens of 2049′s Los Angeles living in a confused heap of broken cultural modes and images. Echoes of the Victorian workhouse can be seen in a scene where orphans are forced to disassemble old circuit boards, but the ethnicity of the slavers and their charges recalls the plight of sweat-shop workers today. By taking these commonplace issues and joining them across time and region, we’re shown the timelessness of evils that we might have thought ourselves beyond.
The headquarters of Wallace Corp, the birthplace of the Replicants, fittingly evokes the point of origin for Blade Runner’s film-noir aesthetic – German expressionism. Through stark, striking lighting, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is invoked in 2049 like a slumbering urban god. Hans Zimmer’s score, which weaves softer choral and string elements through the abrasive humming of electronic brass, often sounds like the growl of an unappeased deity, or a wronged earth.
There are points where the humanity test fails here and there – the reliance on audio-flashbacks as the mystery is pieced together feels a little condescending to an audience member who is more than familiar with the original, and Jared Leto’s performance as the villainous Niander Wallace is overdone and moustache-twirling. Yet, these are tiny blips on the meter. Blade Runner 2049 is thoroughly and convincingly human, a promising specimen that may well herald a new step in the evolution of sci-fi cinema.