Set 30 years after the events of its dystopian predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 finds that things have only gotten much worse for everyone in the interim. Pollution is more pronounced, a 10-day electronic blackout has left a gaping wound in humanity’s digital history, mass-starvation was only averted through the development of bug farms and the new breed of Nexus replicants developed by the Wallace Corporation (which has taken over from the defunct Tyrell Corp) are treated little better than slaves by society.
While most of the older Tyrell replicants have been ‘retired’, some rogue skin-jobs are still on the run and hunted by compliant Nexus models that are now used as Blade Runners. It’s during the completion of one such assignment that Blade Runner 'K' (Ryan Gosling) discovers a box containing a female skeleton buried near the base of a tree. Closer examination reveals it to be the skeleton of a female replicant who seemingly died during childbirth – despite the fact that they aren’t supposed to be able to reproduce this way. Believing that this shocking turn of events could lead to a war between humans and replicants, K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to track down and kill the child to prevent the truth from ever getting out.
A visit to the Wallace Corporation to try and identify the deceased female replicant sets K on a dangerous path towards an encounter with a familiar face who has been lying low for the last three decades. It also sparks the interest of company boss Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who has plans of his own for child…
Blade Runner 2049 is one of those rarest of things: a sequel that actually expands and builds upon the themes laid down by its predecessor, rather than just running through the same old setups. The future that director Denis Villeneuve presents us with here is one that feels like the logical continuation of what Ridley Scott introduced back in 1982, only we’re able to move beyond the confines of the neon-lit, perpetual darkness of Los Angeles into wastelands of junk and the sunburnt ruins of Las Vegas. All of which not only adds new visual palettes for the filmmakers to play with, but also provides a textbook example of compelling and coherent cinematic world-building – something that makes the 163-minute running time that much more palatable (heck, we could have happily spent several more hours exploring the world the film presents us with).
Of course, none of this would count for anything if we didn’t care about the characters – and this is where Villeneuve’s flick really comes into its own. When you think about Scott’s original Blade Runner (in any of its many cuts) what really sticks in the mind is the production design; outside of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, the characters are thinly-sketched film noir archetypes whose emotional connections are pushed down in the mix below the central plot and the overall aesthetics. By contrast, the beating heart of Blade Runner 2049 is the genuinely touching love story involving K and his holographic AI personal assistant Joi (Ana de Armas).
Compared to the original, Blade Runner 2049 feels like a far more ambitious, profound and affecting piece of cinema. Naturally, it will never have anything like the same sort of lasting impact on pop culture as Blade Runner did, but that doesn’t mean Villeneuve’s spectacular sci-fi sequel isn’t a masterpiece in its own right – no matter how poorly it may have performed at the box office.
Picture: Shot primarily using Arri Alexa XT Studio cameras and finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate, Blade Runner 2049 made for a jaw-droppingly gorgeous cinematic experience (there really is no justice if cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t win an Oscar for his work here), and thankfully Sony’s Blu-ray release is up to the task of recreating it in 1080p in your home.
The 2.40:1-framed AVC encode regularly breaks free from its bleak neo-noir setting with bursts of bright, intense primary colours that really pop out of the gloom (check out all of the neon signs in and around Bibi’s Bar in Chapter 5). The changes in setting bring their own specific palettes to the film, with the brightly-lit junk-strewn wastelands giving you a chance to wallow in the incredible detailing on show, while the visit to Vegas washes over everything with a vivid burnt-orange aesthetic. Accurate contrast and brightness levels result in perfectly-judged black levels that are deep and inky, while also bringing plenty of shadow detail to the fore.
If we’re going to pick faults then we did spot a couple of instances of banding in areas of bright light (the most obvious being in the glare of the spinners’ headlights as they fly through the dark clouds in Chapter 15), but this is an incredibly minor flaw in what is otherwise an entirely demo-worthy Blu-ray showcase.
Picture rating: 5/5
Audio: Right from the off, as you hear the precision of a piece of breathing apparatus followed by the sound of K’s spinner flying over a protein farm, it becomes clear that Blade Runner 2049’s sound design is incredibly refined, complex and potent.
The sense of space conjured up by the Blu-ray DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is nothing less than breathtaking, surrounding you at all times with subtle ambient effects. What really impresses, however, is the precision of the imaging and FX placement in the mix. To take one example, the sequence with K and Joi on the rooftop in the rain (Chapter 2) doesn’t just surround you with the sound of rain falling, but during shots from Joi’s perspective there’s also the metallic sound of water dripping down a drainpipe that can clearly be located over your shoulder.
The handful of action scenes are also extremely well-served by the mix, which throws around high-impact surround effects with aplomb and backs them up with some wonderfully deep bass (Chapter 12’s Vegas attack being a prime example). We’ve also no complaints with the dialogue presentation, which sounds entirely natural while being cleanly prioritised in the mix, or the handling of composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s Vangelis-styled electronic soundtrack. Make no mistake about it, this is a five-star 5.1 soundtrack…
…The trouble is, we know that the audio could be even better. The film was mixed for Dolby Atmos and the Warner Bros. US Blu-ray release actually includes the Atmos soundtrack. However, here in the UK Sony Pictures has ring-fenced object-based audio as something that it will only offer on 4K discs, which means that those UK Blu-ray buyers aren’t being given the opportunity to experience the film’s full aural majesty. It’s a shame, because it’s bound to drive people to import the US Blu-ray instead (particularly as Warner Bros. doesn’t have a history of region-locking its discs). Still, it could have been worse: a rep for Sony Pictures UK confirmed to us that its 3D Blu-ray only features a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
Audio rating: 4/5
Extras: The standard single-disc UK Blu-ray release of Blade Runner 2049 sees the film accompanied by a modest collection of video extras…
Designing the World of Blade Runner 2049 (22 minutes) offers your most detailed look at the making of the film as it explores the cinematography, production design and practical sets, with input from director Denis Villeneuve and other members of the film’s production team.
Prologues collects together a trio of short films that fill in some of the gaps between Blade Runner and its sequel. Shinchiro Watanabe’s animation 2022: Blackout (16 minutes) focuses on the cause of the massive EMP ‘black out’ that led to the shuttering of the Tyrell Corp; Luke Scott’s 2036: Nexus Dawn (seven minutes) finds Niander Wallace attending a hearing concerning his desire to start producing replicants; Scott's 2048: Nowhere to Run (six minutes) reveals the event that led to K tracking down Sapper Morton at the start of Blade Runner 2049.
Finally, Blade Runner 101 collects together six two-minute EPK featurettes looking at a specific aspect of the film: The Replicant Evolution, Blade Runners, The Rise of the Wallace Corp, Welcome to 2049, Jois and Within the Skies: Spinners, Pilotfish and Barracudas.
Present on the single-disc US Blu-ray but missing on the UK incarnation is the additional 17-minute featurette about the film’s cast called, appropriately enough, To Be Human: Casting Blade Runner 2049. To get that on this side of the Atlantic you’ll have to pick up the Limited Edition Blu-ray which adds a bonus Blu-ray containing a smattering of additional bonus bits.
In addition to that casting featurette this second disc also contains Fights of the Future: The Action of Blade Runner 2049 (six minutes), an all too quick look at the film’s three key fight scenes, Two Become One (five minutes) is a look at the technical challenges involved in bringing Blade Runner 2049’s unsettling love scene to the screen, while Dressing the Skin: The Fashion of Blade Runner 2049 (six minutes) deals with the film’s wonderful costumes.
The Limited Edition Blu-ray also comes packaged with five art cards inspired by scenes from the film.
Extras rating: 3.5/5
We say: Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious sci-fi masterpiece looks sensational on Blu-ray – but the lack of Atmos audio is a real kick in the teeth.
Blade Runner 2049: Limited Edition Blu-ray, Sony Pictures, All-region BD, £30
HCC VERDICT: 4/5
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