TV has become a bit of a Dick-fest: Philip K having proven an irresistible authorial source for adaptations, Channel 4 has been trumpeting its transatlantic series Electric Dreams, while Amazon's faithful The Man in the High Castle returns for its third season later this year. The one to beat, though, is undoubtedly Blade Runner, in which Ridley Scott captured the dark, degraded ecosystem and fecund, garish imagination characteristic of the writer's work. Returning as executive producer, Scott hands the directorial reins to Denis Villeneuve - and if you're hoping he brings Arrival's patient majesty and Sicario's unsettling thrills to the screenplay, you'll be pleased to know he does that and much more.
Perhaps you, like I, have studiously avoided spoilers but been harassed by telltale headlines nonetheless. So if you go to see BR2049 aware only of objections that it tests audiences' attention spans and depicts women woefully, that's going to cast a pall. We'll get to those concerns. But for now, the reassurances - as in 1982, across the Phoenix Picturehouse's curved, expansive Screen One flashes a quick précis in curt, electronic sans serif. It's 2049, and new models of replicants have been created as humankind flees a failing earth, to do grunt work and execute ("retire") earlier generations of their own kind who've gone rogue. Ryan Gosling is the new blade runner, his lens-charming presence and handsome straightness of face proving him a worthy lead successor to Harrison Ford. Ford is also an irascible joy - his charisma has ossified to great effect. Their performances, to be honest, are better than they need to be because as a whole, this is a study on identity, a dystopian fantasy, and a cinematographic masterpiece bigger than any one of its characters, much like Blade Runner: The Final Cut. In other words this is entirely cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, which, 35 years later, is a coup and a half.
The action has moved on 30 years, so technology has moved on, and a new bioengineering mastermind has arisen. Cue Jared Leto, personifying sheer evil with added delusions of deity. We're again looking at what happens when humans get tech-equipped enough to play god convincingly, and his unchecked malevolence and echoey lair paint a grim picture of the results. Forgive my evasiveness re. plot, but without spoilers - Gosling's K, dispatcher of rogue replicants, notices something on a mission that makes him irresistibly seek out Deckard (Ford), who may hold a unique position in human-replicant relations. That's the spine. The production, use, commodification and mistreatment of replicants is aligned with slavery - fortunately the narrative has enough strength to bear this theme. Replicants built as sex workers are present in force, as are digitally projected, AI partners for the lonely. Ana de Armas as Joi, K's digital girlfriend, is heartbreakingly on the edge of sentience. A literal projection of his desires, watching their 'relationship' unfold makes you take a long, hard look at VR, at the limits of tech's connections, at life-via-avatar. This is meant to be a degraded place, a misogynistic society in which the best of humanity has left the planet, with vintage Coke ads adorning billboards and vintage attitudes being catered to. The BBFC report of "sexualised nudity" is well phrased.
So the internal logic of this world, Greater Los Angeles, is consistent - but is internal logic enough? It allows Villeneuve to show where repressive politics and tech could lead us and our gender relations; it allowed Kathryn Bigelow to recreate an horrendous moment in black history in
BR2049 is not wanting for powerful women - Robin Wright's formidable and wearied Lt. Joshi, builder of artificial memories Carla Juri, and Sylvia Hoeks' unrelenting Luv, deadlier than the name implies. And it doesn't settle for a simple rain-soaked palette - Roger Deakins' cinematography is just plain breathtaking, again (14th Oscar nomination, please), with vistas of deep orange and crumbling statues in a radiation zone, fragments of pop culture in abandoned buildings, fluorescent neons falling on gritty urbanscapes and everywhere steam, glass and the marbled glow of irises. Whereas The Force Awakens excellently rebooted a franchise drawn from an inferior imagination, this disturbingly elaborates on an equally influential film, and needs its hefty runtime to do so. Props to returning writer Hampton Fancher, and Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer whose score builds on Vangelis' twinkling synth original with added foghorn. No-one was dreaming of sheep in our audience - a round of applause greeted the dénoument of this dark, deep, divisive piece of drama, and it'll hopefully provoke discussions for years to come.