In 1982, Ridley Scott wowed the world with his dystopian science-fiction opus “Blade Runner” and helped kickstart the popular cyberpunk genre. Alright, actually, the film bombed at first and critics weren’t really happy either, but after a bazillion new cuts for the home video market, the 2007 “Final Cut” of the film, finally managed to get the term “masterpiece”.
Set in Los Angeles in 2019, “Blade Runner” dealt with the problems of artificial intelligence in the form of nearly perfect recreations of the human body, called replicants. They tended to go rogue, however, so a special faction of the police, called “Blade Runners”, was assigned with finding and killing (–>retiring) bad replicants. It’s quite a simple plot, but the main appeal for cineasts is the questions raised about the human soul, what exactly makes us human, and similar philosophical excitement.
The other things that got praise were the mind-blowing cinematography, combined with cutting-edge special as well as practical effects (that still hold up surprisingly well today) – and Vangelis’ score. Said score focused on the synthetic elements of the film and thus, the music consists entirely of electronic soundscapes with just a few melodic identities. Opinions overall vary a bit, with movie fans lauding it for its sound and soundtrack fans (mostly) criticizing it for being more style than substance. I myself have to stand somewhere in the middle. Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” is certainly not devoid of any thematic material, but it’s not exactly “Star Wars” either… but it also doesn’t have to be. It’s a great experience and a fitting enough work for its film.
Listen to Vangelis’ Blade Runner score below:
Now we have the year 2017 and after years of trying, a sequel, helmed by “Arrival”- and “Enemy”-director Denis Villeneuve hit the big screen. This time it’s about Ryan Gosling’s Blade Runner “K”, who investigates a rather curious case and discovers astonishing things, harking back to Harrison Ford’s character from the first movie Rick Deckard.
Assigned for the music was Villeneuve’s usual collaborator Johann Johannsson, but, because Hollywood, he got replaced with Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer in the last minute.
First, we should make it clear, that Wallfisch is the main composer of this soundtrack. This is not one of the common jabs against Zimmer and his progress of working with additional composers, but simply an observation: Zimmer was on tour for most of the last two years and when he wasn’t touring around, he was Dunkirk-ing around, so it’s only logically, that Wallfisch (who also worked on “Dunkirk” as well as scoring this year’s smash hit “It” [review here]) did the bulk of “Blade Runner 2049”. This isn’t to say that Zimmer did nothing and simply got his name slapped onto the poster to sell CDs. He was still a driving force in composing some of the themes and spotting their applications, while also producing the score. Considering how vocal he has been of his admiration for Vangelis’ original score, this comes as no surprise to anybody.
So… is “Blade Runner 2049” any good? Surprisingly, yes.
Listen to the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack below:
BR 2049’s themes and motifs
I was really expecting to discard this work easily, considering how I think about electronic, ambient scores in general and how most of these scores turn out. I have stated multiple times in my reviews, that musical narrative, or better, thematic narrative is the most important thing for me in film music. The music itself could be the second coming of Christ, but if I get the feeling that the composer didn’t watch any single scene from beginning to end and wrote his music organically for this scene, I check out. If you can interchange various pieces in the film and they still work, because all they do is just “setting a mood”, I check out.
“Setting the mood”, “fitting the picture” is the barest of bare minimums a composer has to meet. If we start praising composers for finding the right tone of the film, we should also start handing out Oscars to cinematographers when they manage to point their camera at the set.
Having said that, it should be obvious, that a “Blade Runner” sequel is not really the kind of film where you tell your composer to go full-on Mickey-Mouseing and highlight every single movement on-screen with a note (though considering how few things actually move in this film, this equation might still work).
Like many directors, Villeneuve is not a huge fan of multi-thematic scores or using too many notes at the same time and if a director like this does a film like this, the composer naturally has to oblige. Ambient scores totally have their place in modern film music and mood-scoring can be totally effective. The challenge is to do a whole film like this and not have it sound like simply a concept album that happens to be in a movie.
However, despite not playing huge long melodies over Roger Deakin’s breathtaking shots, Wallfisch and Zimmer managed to still think about themes and motifs.
The Puzzle Theme
The album, presented in chronological order, opens with “2049”. Low, rumbling, tune-less sounds and drones slowly introduce the listener into the world of the future, while the studio logos appear. A digitally manipulated piano chimes in, playing high, slow chords, labeled the “Puzzle Theme” by the composers, while on-screen texts inform the viewer about what happened in between the films.
The Soul Theme
Then, after approximately two minutes, a heavy synth crescendo into the second important theme, the “Soul Theme”: four notes (representing the four acids in the DNA string), totally in the vein of Vangelis. It starts as soon as the movie cuts from the pre-text to an opened eye and then to the vista of dystopian Chicago.
According to Wallfisch, the Soul Theme connects to the story unfolding and “K” making significant discoveries while the Puzzle Theme is reserved for specific pieces of discoveries, that “propels K’s […] sense of personal crisis.” To be fair, the difference in their purpose is marginal and really, the focus is much more on the Soul Theme. It appears in almost every track in one form or another and it does so on the occasions Wallfisch describes. However, it seems to also embody the purpose of the Puzzle Theme. This is most obvious in the tracks “Furnace” and “Someone Lived This”. These two tracks cover two of the most important discoveries in the film, which also mark huge turning points for “K’s” character and the state of his psyche (especially the latter, featuring an actual heavy break down of “K”, who is very stoic for most of the film). Going off how Wallfisch described the themes, those two scenes would have called for the Puzzle Theme or a better combination of it with the Soul Theme, yet he settles simply on one of them.
Still, it is very effective and the appearance in “Furnace” is intentionally unpleasant which is underlined in the film’s mixing, where it’s used very prominently. So much, that many people found it off-putting and downright destructive of the film. I, however, loved it. It was a really gut-punching moment.
The Puzzle Theme also doesn’t disappear entirely. It’s just not used exactly the way Wallfisch says it is. It returns during the final act of the movie in “That’s Why We Believe” where, in a brilliant move by the film’s screenwriters Michael Green and Hampton Fancher (who also worked on the original “Blade Runner”), “K’s” entire world, including a reveal from earlier, is put on its head again. So, it’s not useless and serves as some kind of book-ending theme, which is nice in its own right.
The relationship theme
The next theme, debuting in “Rain” is for “K’s” relationship with his girlfriend, “Joi”. It’s an innocent, fragile glockenspiel motif that really stands out among the rest of the dreary music. It’s just so intimate and fits its character like a glove. The theme returns in “Joi” (surprising absolutely nobody).
Up until now everything really fits smoothly into the sonic world created by Vangelis. It may not be the exact same sound, but it’s an organic extension, a logical “30 years later” growth of the music.
Niander Wallace’s theme
Then we get to the most creative identity of the film: the music for Jared Leto’s character Niander Wallace, who is the new man behind the creation of replicants. Sampled throat singing (“Wallace” and “Her Eyes Were Green”) turn the creepy-factor up to eleven while perfectly highlighting Wallace’s god complex. Every scene set in his quarters feels like taking place in another realm, a feeling achieved through a unique design of his sets (standing out from the rest) and of course through the music.
Intertwined with the throat-singing is a little motif played by overdubbed double basses, as high as they can. Wallfisch described this as “something beautiful but at the same time totally unnatural”, which is what the theme, called the Creation Theme, needed.
Another gorgeous melody appears in “Mesa”, but it’s sadly more of a one-off with no significant further development in the score.
As mentioned before, those themes are not used overly excessively, with one following the other in a matter of seconds and usually, that would be a complaint, but in a film as meditative as this, it’s a perfectly fine approach, to use this set of acoustic identities to form a broad narrative skeleton. Usually, scores like this don’t have any themes at all, or maybe one, that gets just small quick cameos in the opening and closing credits while the middle portions are filled with aimless drones, but Wallfisch and Zimmer used the little time they had to really get immersed in the story and try to get the most out of this approach and if you want your film to have a more ambient and moody score while still telling a story, this is probably as good as it gets.
On soundscapes and Sea Wall
There are also some other cool ideas embedded in the soundscape. “Flight To LAPD” for example features a pulsating bass and some percussion as backing for the ethereal drones surrounding the listener before we get a loud noise, sounding like a giant truck driving past you. It may be a bit too unpleasant for some listeners, while others will love it. I am in that latter camp.
Funnily, it’s not a sampled engine at all, but a male choir, so heavily distorted and manipulated that it sounds like a growling machine. Reportedly it was Villeneuve’s idea but whoever was behind it, did a magnificent job. Just like the altered piano that engine groan plays wonderfully into the theme of the film regarding the borderline between artificial and organic humanity. “Pilot” and “Hijack” spend a bit more time on these more industrial, aggressive sounds.
The big behemoth and the greatest highlight of the score is “Sea Wall”, however. Underscoring the final confrontation of the film it’s an almost 10-minutes long piece, that was originally planned as a traditional action cue until Zimmer suggested to let the Soul Theme carry the whole thing. And now it does. The pulsating basses and brutal groans mentioned earlier coupled with “Dunkirk”-like sirens convey the needed sense of action while the Soul Theme goes through some cathartic, climactic movements. It’s loud, but it’s also very beautiful. Every second of this track just screams “Blade Runner”.
Obviously, all those things only work for you if you can accept this kind of soundscapes and scoring and you really should give it a chance.
Drawback source music
The only real drawbacks are found in the material not penned by Wallfisch and Zimmer.
The clearest offenders are the Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley songs. Of course, they are not bad, far from it and they do appear in the film. However, scattering them in between the score tracks is a bafflingly stupid decision as they don’t mesh at all with the instrumental music and destroy the flow of the album brutally. Then there is the really weird choice of the Lauren Daigle song “Almost Human”. It was written for the film and is also not really bad, but it’s a standard modern pop-song and has nothing to do with the film, as it doesn’t appear in it. Usually, songs like this are placed in the opening of the end credits but, it’s not there. Not even anywhere else in the end credits (which are instead filled with the excellent 10-minute suite “Blade Runner” found on the album). “Almost Human” connects with neither the score nor the source songs mentioned above.
About Tears In The Rain
Last but not least we have “Tears In The Rain”, which is, of course, the most popular track from Vangelis’ original 1982 score. And it’s a great piece, but it should not have been tracked in there since there was nothing leading up to it. If at least the Puzzle or Soul Theme were conceived like a broken version of that theme, so it would then climax in the full statement of the classic cue, it would have made sense, but nothing like this happens. Wallfisch and Zimmer never quote anything by Vangelis in the almost three hours of the film, then suddenly, for the very last scene, the resolution of “K’s” character, we get this cue tracked in, while his own theme just gets ignored. It’s just weird.
Also, as mentioned, the soundscape created by Wallfisch and Zimmer may be similar to Vangelis’, but it is not the same. So “Tears In The Rain” really sticks out. The least they could have done was take the thematic groundwork of that cue and adapt it into the more industrial, grungey sound created for this new film, but they don’t even do that.
BR 2049 sets the bar for ambient scores
Anyway, none of these bumps destroy the ride that is the soundtrack as a whole. If you generally tend to enjoy traditional, melodic scores more, “Blade Runner 2049” will not make you do a 180. I myself have a bias for melodic scores with a more complex thematic narrative, so scores like this will always have it harder for me, meaning that I am not sure whether this will make it into the front runners of the year, but I still have to give credit where it’s due and I am not sure ambient scores can get much better than this. For a film/director combo like this, the score doesn’t have any right to be as thematic as it is, especially considering the time frame it was written in since it’s a replacement score. Most composers (in fact, even Hans himself under different circumstances) would just have given the director a mixtape of drone-tracks he then could needle-drop into the film wherever he wants them to be, not giving a damn about the application of specific sonic ideas being linked to specific characters or notions.
But “Blade Runner 2049” did it.