Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s iconic Blade Runner is visually dazzling with the ideas, plot and performances to match, while the travails of a touring rock group provide the perfect soundtrack for a sweet love story in On The Road
Blade Runner 2049 (15) ****
On The Road (15) ****
The Glass Castle (12A) **
Late on in Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) convenes a fight sequence in an abandoned Las Vegas hotel against a backdrop of stuttering holograms of 20th century entertainers performing their most iconic numbers. In a movie full of mindblowing visuals the scene barely counts as a showstopper (except in the literal sense). But seeing 3D projections of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and Liberace glitch and freeze while Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford trade punches feels like a sly comment on the way cutting edge technology is frequently used to create flawed simulacrums of the past instead of chasing after something new.
That’s a pretty bold thing to find in a belated sequel to one of the most iconic films ever made. The future imagined by Ridley Scott’s loose adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has penetrated pop culture so completely that even if you haven’t seen one of the many versions of the 1982 original, you probably feel as if you have. Nevertheless, it’s a testament to Villenueve’s vision for this real-time sequel – set 30 years on from Scott’s film – that while it’s part of the nostalgia-courting blockbuster machine currently dominating mainstream cinema, it isn’t interested in simply being a well-made rehash.
Which isn’t to say the two movies don’t share the same DNA in ways that go beyond even Ford’s much-publicised return as Rick Deckard. True to the spirit of the original, this is big, beautiful, meditative, if sometimes philosophically vague; a film full of abstract ideas about what constitutes a lived experience in a techno-dependent world. But Blade Runner 2049 also has its own mysteries, its own look and its own way of doing things, starting with Gosling’s character, the enigmatically named K. Like Deckard before him, he’s a so-called “blade runner” with the Los Angeles police department, charged with retiring rogue replicants who’ve thrown off their slave status in order to live lives their human creators never intended. Unlike Deckard, whose replicant status is still much debated, whether K is a man-made organic or not is revealed in the opening minutes, subverting expectations about his own existential quest as he’s assigned a case that, we’re told, threatens to blow the world apart if the world at large ever finds out about it.
High stakes duly established, Villeneuve, production designer Dennis Gassner and genius cinematographer Roger Deakins (if he doesn’t finally win an Oscar for this, the film industry is truly blind) take full advantage of the mega-budget that franchise filmmaking provides to craft some of the most striking visuals ever put on film, building on Scott’s ruined future in ways that – ironically given the themes of the movie – feel absolutely real and lived in, even as that world is occasionally revealed to be less than authentic.
It’s a future-scape recognisable from the original, but more brutal and desolate: various alluded-to catastrophes having rendered whole segments of California and beyond uninhabitable, as well as creating even more tension between the humans not wealthy enough to live off-world and the synthetic “skin jobs” doing the service work no one else will.
Gosling is perfectly cast here, his character moving through the environment with a zen-like calm. That enigmatic hangdog expression that served him so well in Drive and Only God Forgives echoes the smirking gruffness of Ford’s performance 35 years early earlier: they’re men’s men (so to speak), their respective characters in various stages of waking up to their status as faulty cogs in a machine that will do anything to keep them in line.
But when they’re finally brought together, the film becomes a sort of meditation on its own post-modern status. This is a movie in conversation with its predecessor, with the normally taciturn Ford called upon to do some of the most dramatically demanding work of his career. “Is it as good now as it was then?” a major character asks Deckard at one point. The scene relates to something that can’t be revealed here, but it’s a question that hangs over the entire film. Villeneuve’s willingness to ask it in a film that exploits Hollywood’s twin obsessions with its past and its future viability to attempt something different makes Blade Runner 2049 feel like the ultimate film for right now.
Following the likes of the The Trip and 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s latest experiment in fictional reality reinvents the tour film. Embedded with rising indie band Wolf Alice as they embark on a UK tour, On the Road gradually reveals itself to be a rather wonderful relationship drama as the social media manager for the band’s label forges a connection with their Glaswegian roadie. What follows is a subtly engaging look at the way a fast-forged relationship can sometimes be as brief, powerful and magical as the music that soundtracks it.
Anyone who makes it to the end of The Glass Castle will get a tantalising glimpse of what could have been had this based-on-true-life story about growing up destitute on the fringes of America hewn a little closer to the real people featured in the home movie footage that plays over the end credits. Unfortunately, the preceding two-and-a-bit hours has already transformed Jeanette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her turbulent upbringing into an egregiously quirky drama in the Captain Fantastic/The Book of Henry mould. Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts star.