By Scotty Daniels
Few films remind me more of high school than Blade Runner, in particular my senior year where it was part of the English syllabus. I had to study and describe everything, in minute detail, from the broadest of themes (dystopian futures) to the symbolic significance of a horse with a dodgy horn on its head, to the gloriously pretentious terminology of diagetic vs. non-diagetic sound. The 1982 sci-fi/noir/consistently inconsistent masterpiece is, has and will be endlessly examined, debated and deliberated, dismissed and derided, embraced and celebrated. Infamously a financial disaster (its resurgence on home media and midnight screenings years later would eventually earn back the budget), Blade Runner would later achieve massive cult status through home video, DVD and multiple director’s cuts, with the troubled production being explored and discussed in its full glory in the brilliant, 3 1/2 documentary “Dangerous Days” (an absolute must-watch for anyone even vaguely interested in film at all), further adding to the mystique.
Many were perplexed when a sequel was announced, with many claiming too little, too late. What story was there left to tell? Would Harrison Ford return? Why would Hollywood invest in a property that was a box office bomb upon initial release? Were we about to see a tasteless reboot into a franchised, Blade Runner cinematic universe? There was no more reassurance when production wrapped and the trailers started rolling in, with criticisms and parodies of Ryan Gosling’s apparent lack of ability to emote, the nature of Ford’s reprisal in yet another of his legendary roles decades after the previous instalment (no doubt after the slightly awkward and phoned-in performance in The Force Awakens, and the red-hot trash of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and the release several months after the similarly-themed and surefire hit Ghost in the Shell was anything but.
What an incredibly pleasant surprise that Blade Runner 2049, the sequel no one expected, asked for, or wanted, turned out to be. That it would be one of the most visceral cinematic experiences in years, with brain-meltingly stunning cinematography the legendary Roger Deacon reminding the world that forty years into his career, he is unbeatable. Extraordinary production design and visual effects, creating a world that not only genuinely feels that everything in front of your eye is real, but is a logical continuation of the world Blade Runner established, and feeling suitably bleak, marvellous, oppressive and unforgiving. Sound design that shakes you to the core, a stunning score that weaves in and out of the afformentioned soundscape so seamlessly that the boundaries between the two are both ambiguous yet completely complimentary. Stunning performances from Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Jared Leto NOT being an obnoxious twat, a breakout star in Ana de Armas, and a career best from Harrison Ford himself, embedding a much older Deckard with a real emotional weight and inner-turmoil, a passion so lacking from Ford’s performances throughout the last couple decades. The entire film is the definition of what a sequel should be, improving and expanding on the themes of the original, leaving out the bad, heightening the emotional stakes and furthering the lore. In every aspect, it succeeds.
Quite ironic also, that it should suffer a similar box office fate to the original. As of initially beginning this review, 2049 had just made its lofty $150 million production budget back, having recouped in foreign territories after an average domestic opening weekend and steep falloff, and now four weeks on from release eventually ending up with a $250 million worldwide gross. Hardly the figures the studio would have hoped for, in the age of Marvel flicks earning the same number on opening weekend.
Should we be surprised? An easy criticism to make is “well the original was a failure, why would the sequel be any different?” There is truth in this statement, as, even by today’s classic status, Blade Runner (1982) will always remain a cult film. It intentionally lacks the instant accessibility and appeal of a major blockbuster, which is obvious, and an actual improvement of 2049 is to successfully increase that accessibility without sacrificing artistic integrity.
Try saying that three times fast.
Point being; I’m predicting a turning point in the way high-concept films will be treated in the modern age. In the era of heightening disparity and success between low-mid tier indie films and comedies ($20-40 mil) and summer blockbusters ($100-250 mil), the high-budget, high-concept film will be relegated as nothing more than a privilege for established giants such as the Ridley Scott’s, James Cameron’s and Steven Spielberg’s of the world, regardless of quality. This concept is nothing new; Spielberg was obligated to direct Jurassic Park in exchange for being able to make Schindler’s List, and is a reflection on his absolute mastery of his profession that not only did he achieve both to the legendary quality these films achieved, he did it IN THE SAME YEAR.
Quality doesn’t ensure returns; and in the age where films need to make the equivalent of a third world nations GDP on opening weekend to have a shot of breaking even, fewer and fewer studios could even afford to take the risk. Not even that, mainstream cinema itself is getting further and further homogenised, yet is its own double-edged sword. With everything now needing to be a franchise, sequel, or cinematic universe, yet the audience clearly getting fatigued from the inundation of said properties (with the exception of Wonder Woman, DC has had more bombs than a game of Minesweeper), it is evident that there is no clear solution. It will clearly get worse before it gets better, if at all.
As for Blade Runner 2049 itself; it is a cinematic achievement to behold, and I sincerely hope in hindsight, much like the original, it gains the attention and respect from the mainstream that it deserves. Films of this magnitude and sheer brilliance are just so rare, they’re lightning in a bottle. It would be terrifying for art of this magnitude and emotional resonance to, in the now revered words of a dying Roy Batty, be lost like tears in the rain.