• Ben Erickson

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is the first-ever sequel to the original 1982 Blade Runner, popular for its early depiction of the tech-noir genre and, of course, its score. The score, composed by Vangelis, is quite legendary, uniquely synthesized and evoking a genuinely futuristic sound to the time it was written. It is widely considered one of the most important electronic scores ever produced, following the 1956 score to Forbidden Planet by Louis and Bebe Barron, and since gaining cult status the demand for the score has resulted in multiple releases, though its initial release was delayed over a decade after the film's premiere. Jóhann Jóhannsson was announced to score Blade Runner 2049 (abbreviated hereafter as 2049), but was replaced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch late into the project. Jóhannsson had scored several films with director Denis Villeneuve, including Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, and it seemed appropriate that they should renew their partnership with 2049. Familiarity with his previous work suggests Jóhannsson would have composed a memorable score without fear of pushing the envelope, but the change was ostensibly due to a desire to return to the sound of the original. Per Jóhannsson's replacement, Villeneuve commented that "the movie[...] needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis." Evidently, the "something" was the return of the synthesizer. The renewal of the synthesizer captured the same expansive sound, like a vast wave of energy soaring over an ocean, and the electronic and industrial elements convincingly delivered us to a near-future dystopia once again. Sadly, little more than this can be said about the music. The score is a glorified soundscape. A deconstruction, or rather, a devolution of the original, lacking any real technical proficiency and finesse. Instead we are met by an abrasive wash of sound, albeit the same sound as the original, only without expression, mistaking emotion for sheer amplitude. The loss of culture, musically speaking, is also evidenced in the score for 2049. The original Blade Runner consisted of a melting pot society with "exotic" musical influences. Music traditions authentic to Arabic and Near Eastern societies were prevalent, alongside jazz and blues scale components to compliment the film-noir character of the film. Similarly, the music for 2049 reflected an up to date world, submersed in a state of decay and sterility, only now missing most of the styles that made the original diverse and significant to its culture. Should it have sounded like the original? Yes, they needed to bring the synthesizer back as we associate it musically with the world of Blade Runner. However, Vangelis did not stop with the synthesizer. The original score crossed over into the diegesis of the film several times, including vocal components that brought a distinct human quality to the music, and he introduced one of the most majestic melodies ever written for film. To be fair, Vangelis' score was inspired by the innovation of the original film. Ridley Scott's vision was unattainable by most standards, and the score had to rise to meet the precedent it set. 2049 was not trying to set a new standard so much as it was trying to improve on an existing one, and the music likewise adhered. From this point of view it is entirely understandable that the score fell short of any innovation. If this was really the approach taken by the production team than the best we could have hoped for were updated recordings of our favourite cues. To that end we can say we were given some of what we asked for. The original theme by Vangelis, set in a brass-like synthesizer, provoked a yearning endlessness in its listeners, elegantly climbing and erupting amidst the explosive wreckage of the future until, when reaching its zenith, a synthesized, falling glissando entered to make us feel as if the sky was falling. It is powerful, majestic, and reverential in how it has gripped viewers in the suspended reality of that world. Themes of every design are wonderful not only for their memorability, but for their adaptability. Suffice to say, the theme from Blade Runner was not adapted well to 2049. It was chopped up and thrown in with notes out of sequence and pitches often overshooting their mark, constantly teasing us without ever delivering. By this standard, the trailer music gave off more goosebumps in three notes than the actual film. There were several brilliant opportunities to invite us back to the world we knew, flying above a wasted Los Angeles and listening to that broad, brassy melody in its original orchestration, and each one was squandered.

Blade Runner theme composer by Vangelis
Blade Runner Theme

Conversely, the cue "Tears in the Rain", a variation on the original theme, returned to communicate the fate of Officer K. I regard this appearance (with some apprehension) as a misuse, because though its effect on fans of the original was undeniable, it was never written for this film. "Tears in Rain", as titled on the original Vangelis album, was first heard during the deliverance of one of the most famous and intensely intimate soliloquies in film history. Set high in a synthesized glockenspiel the theme practically drips nostalgia. Not only nostalgia for a sentimental future, but nostalgia for a life unlived, as expressed by Roy Batty in the original Blade Runner. The cue was specific to a particular, beautiful moment in a different film, making its appearance in 2049 more symbolic than practical. Situationally, it was an interesting choice, especially because it is the only element of the film signalling Officer K's retirement. However, with regard to character motivation, this cue belongs to Roy Batty. Something less specific would have been more appropriate for 2049. Perhaps a different orchestration, or as discussed beforehand, bringing back the original theme. Regardless of this point of contention, the new recording of "Tears in the Rain" is perfectly stunning. There were few cues of comparable grace, such as when Joi walked through "Rain" or Officer K's admission that "All the Best Memories Were Hers". The male sample chorus featured in "Wallace" and "Her Eyes Were Green" revealed a sinister depth undeserved by the character, more befitting of a Star Wars villain. There was also a B theme of sorts that appeared in a few cues, including "Flight to LAPD" and "Mesa". Wallfisch describes it as the 'soul theme', appearing at various moments along Officer K's search for answers. It begins with a minor third descent from G to E, returning to G, leaping once more down a seventh to the A, and finally resolving down to the lower octave G. It was relieving to hear a clearly defined sense of tonality, particularly one related to the main theme via the descending major second at the end of the initial phrase, but it did little to improve the viewer's narrative understanding of the film. "Furnace" was another interesting cue, too close to the sound of a horror score than what was required of it, and correspondingly anticlimactic. I had hoped Wallfisch would temper Zimmer's dense approach to sound manipulation, but that was not the case. The score is quite obnoxious, often getting in the way and adding little to the film. It is sufficient, nothing more. Perhaps I expect too much of film scores these days, and the time-honoured scores of the past have been put on too lofty a pedestal for new scores to reach. I am inclined to think film scores have become immersed in formula, losing sight of their potential or giving in to the pressures of industry. In the words of Lawrence Morton, "criticism must be alert, quick to notice and encourage every evidence that cultured and adventurous film composers, no matter how few, are straining every creative nerve to lift their heads above mediocrity and mere habit. What they are working toward is an artistically guided industry that will one day replace an industry-ridden art." Morton, Lawrence. "Film Music: Art or Industry?" ed. National Film Music Council. Film Music Notes 11,

no. 1 (1951): 6