Blade Runner 2049

Note: There will be spoiler elements to this. So if you’ve not yet seen Blade Runner 2049, and you plan on doing so, you may want to skip this piece.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for weeks now, having been both dreading and eagerly anticipating this film since I heard it was being made.

You should probably know from the outset, that the original Blade Runner is one of my favourite films of all time. Even though I first fell in love with it when it still came with the awful Harrison Ford voiceover, and an ending that used B-roll footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it was this film more than anything that

You do need to place the original Blade Runner in perspective. It came in the years following the massive success of the original Star Wars trilogy, and at the time, that set the tone for what life in a science fiction world would be like. Basically clean and lovely. You could also look to Star Trek or even Forbidden Planet for examples of this. Director Ridley Scott had added a lot of grunge to science fiction when he’d made Alien. No longer were spaceships brightly lit white corridors. Instead, we had an industrial setting, with dimly lit nights, steam, and echoing metallic clanging. It was more like a power station, and less like a hospital.

Then along came Blade Runner, and in a few opening shots, we had a fully featured world. Yes, there are flying cars, but everyone on earth who is able to, has already gone to one of the “off-world colonies.” Behind are left just those at the edges of society. This is inner-city science fiction. It’s also science fiction noir. Everything takes place at night – a heavy smog and near constant rain meaning that daylight really never shows its face. Androids and artificiality has taken over from nature. It’s a remarkable piece of world building, conjured up from Philip K Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

And Blade Runner is just beautiful. From the opening shot, as the camera reveals the Los Angeles 2019 skyline – a mix of skyscrapers and lights, with gas flares bursting high into the darkness, as a towering almost pyramidal Tyrell Corporation building is revealed.

When that scene was used in the recent V&A Postmodernism exhibition, it was perfectly placed.

Blade Runner changed how many film and television makers would envision the future. The dirty, grungy, neon-infused worlds that followed, all took their influence from Blade Runner. You could even argue that elements of the first part of the latest Star Wars trilogy takes influence from it. Think of those scenes depicting a crashed star destroyer on Jakku.

Blade Runner, then, made a massive impact on me. I didn’t see it in the cinema on release in 1982. Relatively few did, and in any case, I wasn’t old enough to see a AA film at that time. I think it was probably ITV’s first screening of the film in the mid eighties. It was a post News at Ten screening, and I recorded the broadcast – on cassette. I seem to remember that I knew I should be getting an early night because I had an exam the next day. But obviously I watched it all the way through to Rutger Hauer’s famous speech on the roof in the rain.

I quickly sought out the soundtrack; Vangelis’s music being a major part of the film. However, at the time, the only soundtrack available was a re-recorded version from a group called the New American Orchestra. This was an orchestral recording, eschewing the synthesisers actually used on the soundtrack. (It wouldn’t be until Themes, a Vangelis compilation album, that some actual cues from the film got released, followed by an official album in 1994 – 12 years after the film’s first release. A later 2007 release supplemented this with another 2 CDs’ worth of material).

By now the film had attained something of a cult status. I’d bought a VHS of the film shortly after I’d bought my first video cassette recorder. Later, I would re-buy the film on DVD, and then again on Blu-ray. Of course I’d read Philip K Dick’s novel, and I’d go on to read Paul M Sammon’s book, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. I went on to watch Mark Kermode’s Channel 4 documentary On the Edge of Blade Runner.

In 1992 we got the Director’s Cut. The different versions of Blade Runner get their own Wikipedia article, from original workprints through to The Final Cut in 2007. But the 1992 release was the first commercially available that removed the widely reviled voiceover that had been foisted on the film by the studio, as well as the excision of the so-called “happy ending.”

The Final Cut was more of a hands-on by Ridley Scott, and the five disc home release included both this, previous versions and a three and a half hour documentary called Dangerous Days.

I saw both the Director’s Cut and the Final Cut in cinemas – the latter at least twice. This was a long way from watching on a 15″ colour TV in my bedroom.

Blade Runner has been with me for much of my life then. And I was wary about the new film.

The good news was that Denis Villeneuve would be directing. He was on a great run of form turning out superb work including Sicario and then the near perfect Arrival. While Scott was to be an executive producer on the film, you worried how much attention he could really give it when he was at the same time working on his latest Alien film, while also being responsible for a wide range of other film and television projects.

For the most part I avoided anything about the film. I didn’t want to watch the trailer or even have any idea of what the story might be about. I did know that Harrison Ford was back for it, although it seemed to me that his wouldn’t be the largest role in the film.

And so it was that I eagerly headed out to see it on its opening weekend. Later, I would go back and see it again, this time at the BFI Imax (ie. “proper” Imax). I should also note that I certainly wasn’t bothering with 3D – on the basis that the film was not made in 3D with stereoscopic cameras.

It’s just fantastic.

I can’t easily convey how much I loved this film. It would have been so easy to have made an average or even bad sequel, but Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, Fancher having worked on the original film, have turned out something marvellous.

The film looks beautiful – a combination of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and some simply wonderful design and special effects. (It’s all beautifully captured in The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049.)

Years have passed since the original replicants were hunted down, and now K (Ryan Gosling), himself a next-generation replicant, is chasing down remaining escapees and retiring them. He finds Sapper Morton on a farm outside Los Angeles and after dealing with him realises that there are some bones buried under a dead tree. Thus we begin a story that opens a new chapter that is both independent of, and a sequel to the original film.

The beauty of the film is the way the story seamlessly dovetails into the original, while at the same time existing on its own terms. The Wallace Corporation has taken over from the Tyrell Corporation of the original film.

Although he’s a replicant, K is an interesting character. He’s despised wherever he goes – be it the LAPD or the people in his own apartment block. So he takes solace in an artificial intelligence holographic “bot” who can appear in projected form to him. This too is a product of the Wallace Corporation, with its eery Peter and the Wolf audio motif when it boots up.

The bones K has found lead others to believe that Tyrell may have made an incredible breakthrough before the company went bust. If the Wallace Corporation could get hold of it, they could build an army of slaves with even greater efficiency. They ruthlessly chase down the truth.

K meanwhile follows his nose, and in time, that eventually leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), holed up in an abandoned Las Vegas. The design work here is exceptionally stunning. However, others are on K and Deckard’s tail…

The film beautifully captures the ethos of the original. It’s languorous in places, and it is beautifully constructed with a carefully woven plot that holds together with repeat viewing – something many films don’t manage.

It’s good to see that miniatures as well as other kinds of effects were used, because pure digital doesn’t always work. The music is also to be admired. While Jóhann Jóhannsson was originally going to work with Villeneuve as he’d previously done on other films, it didn’t work out and Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch stepped in to work on a version that works well alongside Vangelis’ original score.

Do ignore all the nonsense about how intelligent science fiction can’t work, and the general glee there is in the press when this film didn’t make megabucks. It’s a delight. It may have cost a lot, but it was worth it, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it up again in the long run. While the place to see a film like this was always going to be the big screen, the home release should see the filmmakers get their money back, if not turn an enormous profit.

The other thing that many have talked about is the lack of female characters, and the depiction of some of those in the film. While there might seem to be merit in those criticisms, I think that some are missing the point of the [moral] decay of the society being depicted. In any case, some of the strongest characters are female, including Robin Wright’s police chief, and Sylvia Hoecks’ enforcer. And although the main characters are main, women are at the heart of the film.

I’ve now seen the film twice now, and I look forward to seeing it again.

A sidenote on the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. As soon as I’d seen the film on the opening weekend, I knew I wanted the soundtrack. Now I still buy music as well as having succumbed to a streaming subscription. But because I may still give up that subscription at some point, I knew that I wanted to own the CD. Yet the a soundtrack was not made available to buy. I hunted around, and only a digital version of it seemed to be available.

There was some kind of limited edition CD soundtrack only available in the US, and limited to just 2049 copies. I went online, but the edition had sold out. However, there was now a second edition of another 2049 copies and I ordered one of these from the US. It wouldn’t ship for another 6 weeks or so, but there was a decent quality mp3 download made available for me to be getting on with.

While I understand music sales have plummeted in recent years, there still seems to be enough demand to warrant the duplication of CD soundtracks surely?

As it turns out, there was. While I was awaiting my limited edition CD, a regular CD release came along, and the album was now available on Amazon or over the counter in places like Fopp. Meanwhile, my CD got a nice customs surcharge as well as an £8 handling fee, which sent the cost of my limited edition CD sky rocketing.

I should have just waited a bit longer…

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