Some of the gags are a little too obvious – there’s a religious skit that’s a little too Life of Brian, a director whose alliterative name is mined for all it’s worth, and a well-executed climactic speech with a just-too predictable punchline. But those are nitpicks, anal nitpicks at that. The Coen Brothers are masters of comic craftsmanship, and though deconstructing it would be time-consuming, I can reduce how much pleasure you’ll get out of their approach to whether you find lines like “a mirthless chuckle” irrepressibly amusing, or a laughless non-starter. But they are lucid storytellers as well. On paper, a metaphor that likens the light of God – from which all that is righteous comes, to the light of the projection unit – from which all of cinema comes, looks unpalatable. On screen, the pair have a gift of craft that could convert the dead. The metaphor not only lands, it reconstitutes a thoroughly entertaining series of set-pieces into a moving whole. Rarely has “love of the movies” – so often used to give free passes to insufferable self-indulgence (Quentin, achem) – been used with such restraint to do the medium justice.
My initial disappointment at the mediocrity of the performances, and of the script, was tempered by attention to the camerawork and to occasional shifts in the marginal degrees of OK-ness – some parts slightly more than OK, some parts more than slightly less. That passable, impotent, rather underwhelming pattern held until the end of Act Two, which came with a literal bang. From the moment plucky messenger Lance Corporal Schofield got knocked out by a lone rifleman, the entire production collapsed into a succession of farces that left me deeply irritated. It started with director Sam Mendes staging a Skyfall-esque action sequence (which also included a blindsiding art shot and an off-brand Saving Private Ryan knife fight) that bore no relation to the war film he’d spent an hour trying to realize. “Respite” then arrived with an infuriating petite Mère interlude (which also included the most pointless Chekhov’s Gun I’ve ever seen; a ploy that will now be known as Samuel’s Milk). The entire scene, needless to say, should’ve been rejected out of hand. Now in full swing, Sam continued to build with a remarkably ungraceful river-petal piece of phony symbolism – a call-back that was somehow more hackneyed than the story it was alluding to. Could he deliver a fitting finale? The movie-manufactured race against time that anchors the climax isn’t its most cumbersome device, given the music choice that spins going ‘over the top’ as a triumphant moment – there’s a vaguely offensive notion if I ever saw one. Caps the day’s work with a two-dimensional walk-on from Benedict Cumberbatch, confused guff about last men standing, cliché bingo in the parting shot, and a nauseatingly pretentious coda. Impotence and mediocrity look a damn sight better when prospects take a turn for the worse. We should be grateful for what we’ve got.
Dense doesn’t even begin to describe this astonishing sci-fi sequel – a near three hour dystopian meditation on everything from Artificial Intelligence, love, existentialism, gender, slavery, whose greatest marvel is ever having been made in the first place. Getting into the meat of analysing it is a formidable prospect; there’s barely a scene that hasn’t been agonised over, a shot that isn’t drowning with detail.
From the opening shots of Ryan Gosling’s “K” flying across the brutalised wastelands of a future LA, 2049 frequently imparts on us such jawdropping vistas – interludes between storytelling that do as much for its world-building as the latter, whilst also representing a high watermark for photo-realism in visual effects. Combined with its cavernous, industrial score, these interludes completely overwhelm. Gosling’s performance is commendable, and his chemistry with Harrison Ford (reprising his role as Deckard) sparkles, but it is Sylvia Hoeks’ “Luv” who steals the show. Her every movement falls into an uncanny valley, human, yet somehow not. Every facial expression suggesting a multitude of barely contained emotions, lust, desire, rage.
Even for these strengths, there would have been many Blade Runner fans who were terrified at the prospect a sequel could trample over a cult film so beloved. So such is the delight that this not only avoids desecrating the original, but seamlessly weaves its threads into new shapes, provoking new questions and revealing concealed meaning in something born more than 30 years ago.
More than anything, it is the sheer wealth of detail that beguiles the most. This is a film rich in substance, as harsh as it is poetic. Nothing has been realised by accident – like the replicants with which it is concerned, everything is by design. Though its emphasis on tone over action will put some off, Blade Runner 2049 is a must see for fans of intelligent science fiction. This is an epic, deeply impressive work.