Home > Reviews > BLADE RUNNER 2049 – Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer

BLADE RUNNER 2049 – Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer

October 10, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner is considered a landmark of the genre, a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the nature of humanity, dressed up with groundbreaking visual effects and a revolutionary neo-noir style. Now, 35 years later, the film’s long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 has finally arrived after what feels like an eternity in development, with a new director in the shape of Denis Villeneuve, and with original director Ridley Scott acting as executive producer. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the film stars Ryan Gosling as a ‘blade runner’ named K, a futuristic cop hunting down the last few old-model ‘replicants,’ incredibly lifelike synthetic humanoids who have been designed to work as slaves for real humans, and whose rebellion formed the plot of the first movie. Since then, newer-model replicants have become a stable part of society, but when K discovers a long-buried secret that has the potential to change the world, he finds himself trying to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the protagonist of the first film, who has been missing for decades.

Blade Runner 2049 co-stars Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Dave Bautista, and is an unqualified visual masterpiece. The look, style, and tone of the film is nothing short of breathtaking – an intoxicating combination of smoke, shadow, neon, metal, and snow – and if cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t finally win an Academy Award for his work here there will have been (another) significant miscarriage of justice. The film is also a rarity in that it is a sequel that’s actually better than the original. I had never been a huge fan of Blade Runner’s ponderous tone, and while 2049 is still much more measured than the predominant hyper-kinetic action blockbusters, and while it still leaves some long-standing questions and mysteries unanswered, it feels like a much more well-rounded and complete picture that asks some meaningful questions about what it means to be human, and combines them with some excellent and exciting action set pieces.

The soundtrack for the original Blade Runner, by Greek composer Vangelis, is almost as iconic as the film itself; it’s a classic piece of 1980s sci-fi synth scoring, moody and evocative, whose legendary status was increased by the frustrating unavailability of the recording for many years. The score for Blade Runner 2049 was originally supposed to be scored by director Villeneuve’s regular collaborator, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, but for reasons that have still not been satisfactorily explained he was replaced by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer just a few weeks prior to the film’s scheduled release date. Wallfisch has been having a tremendous year in 2017, having written outstanding scores for films such as A Cure for Wellness, Bitter Harvest, and It, as well as contributing to Dunkirk, Zimmer’s one major 2017 score.

Considering that Zimmer has spent most of 2017 traversing the world on tour with his concert, I am going to make the assumption that Benjamin Wallfisch is the predominant driving force of this score; as such, I am mostly going to mention just his name from now on. Wallfisch is a truly tremendous young composer, talented and intelligent and creative, and I have been a fan of his work for many years, ever since he was working as an orchestrator and conductor for Dario Marianelli. However, for me, Blade Runner 2049 feels like a massive missed opportunity to do something really special, to write music which reaches the same heights as the film’s screenplay and its visual component. But first, let me talk about the positives.

In terms of style and sound, Blade Runner 2049 is excellent. Wallfisch’s score is entirely electronic, and it emulates the sound of Vangelis’s original score expertly, most notably through the use of the Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer which Vangelis used so prominently throughout his work. Director Villeneuve clearly wanted his film to inhabit the same sonic world as the original did, which makes perfect sense, and in those terms Wallfisch succeeded perfectly. However, for me, that’s where the positives end, because once you get past the authenticity of the sound, everything else is a let down.

I have often said that 99% of all film scores work in their film, and the one thing a film composer should never do, under any circumstances, is make their film worse. With Blade Runner 2049, Benjamin Wallfisch comes perilously close to breaking that cardinal rule. The problems, for me, are threefold. Firstly, when experiencing the score in the context of the film, the music appears to simply have two settings: the first is to be so quiet and unobtrusive that it might as well not exist, and the second is to be so loud and overwhelming that it utterly dominates the film. Denis Villeneuve is a director who clearly prefers his films to have ambient soundscapes – Jóhannsson’s scores for Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival adopted this style – so it’s not surprising that Wallfisch was asked to write in a similar style, but there comes a point where you have to ask yourself what exactly Villeneuve wants his score to do. In numerous scenes the music is barely audible, little more than an ambient hum, which begs the question: why even have music there? What purpose is it serving? The scenes would be just as well served with silence, because the audience can hear nothing and, consequently, feel nothing from the music.

On the other hand, there are also several scenes where the music is so obnoxiously overpowering and loud that it makes watching the film a deeply unpleasant experience. I’ve been watching films and consciously evaluating music in those films for more than thirty years. I’ve heard and appreciated some of the most aggressive, challenging, dissonant music you can possibly imagine, and very rarely does that music make me wince and make me want to cover my ears in horror; Blade Runner 2049 made me do that. This is what I mean when I say that this score makes the film worse – if an audience is dragged out of the film-watching experience in such a way, then you’re undermining the story you’re trying to tell. Films are immersive experiences, and should draw an audience in, so that they can live the stories along with the characters they are watching, and can feel the same emotions. If you’re making your audience close their eyes and cover their ears because the music is actually physically painful, to me that’s a failure. Not only that, in terms of spotting, Blade Runner 2049 similarly fails because I noticed a couple of times when the music overwhelms the dialogue and causes the viewer to miss key plot points. If your music is so deafening and intolerable that it actually makes the viewer understand the film less, in my opinion, you’re doing it wrong.

Secondly, the score doesn’t seem to have any notable dramatic application. My personal philosophy about film music is that its reason for existing is to enhance the narrative of a film; to make an audience feel certain emotions at certain times, to subliminally plant seeds of dramatic structure through recurring elements, through themes, motifs, and textures that relate to different concepts, ideas, and characters. In other words, the music works with the story, and helps guide the viewer through the film. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t seem to do any of that. I’m not saying that the score needed to be overflowing with themes and motifs, because that would defeat the purpose of staying true to Vangelis’s original soundscape, especially as Vangelis’s score wasn’t particularly thematically strong either. However, you would think that there would need to be some sort of relationship between the film and its score, but for the most part there doesn’t appear to be one. They run in parallel, instead of being complementary. The film exists, the soundtrack exists, and they play simultaneously, but they don’t feel as though they have much to do with one another. Sometimes it’s quiet, and sometimes it’s loud, but there didn’t appear to be any real reason why it was one thing or the other at any given moment as it related to what was happening on screen. The only recurring instrumental/texture idea I was able to pick out was a deep, growling throat singing texture that appeared to relate to Jared Leto’s character, Niander Wallace, and which is heard on the album in the cues “Wallace” and “Her Eyes Were Green.” This, to me, is the antithesis of film music’s purpose for existing, and it’s becoming all too prevalent.

The third and final issue, once you get past its in-film application, is the fact that the music is simply not very interesting as actual music when you sit and listen to it. Blade Runner 2049 has the same problem that the soundtrack for the TV series Stranger Things had last year, in that authenticity of sound is really all it has going for it. You’ll notice that this review has very little actual description of the musical content as heard on the soundtrack CD, mainly because I’m finding it almost impossible to describe. The only words which spring to mind when I listen to Blade Runner 2049 are adjectives: rumbling, grumbling, thumping, whining, moaning, groaning. Beyond the iconic sound of the Yamaha CS-80, I’m not informed enough to know exactly what sort of electronic/synth instruments I’m listening to, while the actual live instruments appear to be limited to a cello, a bass, a guitar, and a few unidentified “exotic instruments’ courtesy of avant-garde instrument builder Chas Smith.

Once in a while a textural or rhythmic idea does briefly pique the interest. The aforementioned throat-singers in “Wallace” and “Her Eyes Were Green” are an unusual touch. The opening cue, “2049,” features some interesting piano chords that hint briefly at a deeper core of humanity, as well as what Wallfisch describes as the ‘soul theme,’ a four note motif which recurs throughout the score as K searches for answers. “Joi” has some more conventionally attractive harmonies that attempt to capture the unexpectedly tender relationship between K and his feisty holographic girlfriend. “That’s Why We Believe” features an electric cello, and a warmer sound. “Tears in the Rain” is the closest the score comes to capturing the emotion inherent in Vangelis’s original score, rather than just it’s sound. Beyond this, though, the rest of the score veers from being moodily anonymous and immediately forgettable, to being downright obnoxious. Cues like “Hijack” fit this mould, while the much lauded “Sea Wall” cue is perhaps the worst offender, an overbearing and sonically distorted assault on the senses which is grossly unpleasant without having a good reason for being so. It’s memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

The soundtrack album, which runs for 93 excruciating minutes, also features four songs: “Summer Wind” and “One For My Baby And One More For The Road” by Frank Sinatra, and “Suspicious Minds” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley, all of which are excellent, but are programmed oddly right in the middle of the album so that whatever mood Wallfisch and Zimmer were building is shattered by the crooning. There’s also an original song, “Almost Human,” performed by Christian artist Lauren Daigle, who clearly wants to be the next Sia.

I hate writing reviews like this. I especially hate writing reviews like this for scores that involve composers like Benjamin Wallfisch, who I believe is a genuinely outstanding artist, and whose previous work has impressed me on multiple levels. It seems to me that director Denis Villeneuve, like many of his contemporaries (Zack Snyder, for one), has a fundamental misunderstanding of what film music is, and what it can do. They are frightened to death of emotion, of melody, of harmony, of dramatic specificity, and of linear narrative flow, so we end up with these wishy-washy drones which do virtually nothing, say virtually nothing, and mean even less. On previous Villeneuve films Jóhann Jóhannsson somehow managed to take his director’s love of pointless ambiance and make something that at least has an intellectual undercurrent (as Arrival did), or has an interesting instrumental base (as Sicario did), but Blade Runner 2049 was so married to the tone of Vangelis that it left no wiggle room for Wallfisch and Zimmer to be innovative. Instead, we are left with a drab clone of a 35-year-old score that seems to go out of its way to be both dramatically inert and aurally offensive. This replicant needs to be retired.

Buy the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 2049 (3:37)
  • Sapper’s Tree (1:36)
  • Flight to LAPD (1:47)
  • Summer Wind (written by Heinz Meier and Johnny Mercer, performed by Frank Sinatra) (2:54)
  • Rain (2:26)
  • Wallace (5:23)
  • Memory (2:32)
  • Mesa (3:10)
  • Orphanage (1:13)
  • Furnace (3:41)
  • Someone Lived This (3:13)
  • Joi (3:51)
  • Pilot (2:17)
  • Suspicious Minds (written by Mark James, performed by Elvis Presley) (4:22)
  • Can’t Help Falling in Love (written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, and George David Weiss, performed by Elvis Presley and The Jordanaires) (3:02)
  • One for My Baby and One More for the Road (written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, performed by Frank Sinatra) (4:24)
  • Hijack (5:32)
  • That’s Why We Believe (3:36)
  • Her Eyes Were Green (6:17)
  • Sea Wall (9:53)
  • All the Best Memories Are Hers (3:22)
  • Tears in the Rain (2:10)
  • Blade Runner (10:05)
  • Almost Human (written and performed by Lauren Daigle) (3:22)

Running Time: 93 minutes 58 seconds

Epic Records (2017)

Music composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer. Featured musical soloists Chas Smith, Tristan Schultze, Simone Vitucci, Nico Abondolo and Owen Gurry. Special vocal performances by Avi Kaplan. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Clint Bennett and Ryan Rubin. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer.

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  1. October 10, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Well, that’s a shame. I listened to some of the score already (still have to watch the movie), and I am also not a big fan of the original. From what I have heard of this music, it sounds about how I expected, but I might like at least a track like “Blade Runner” a little better than you. But this is your review and I totally get your point. I always feel sorry for you when you are clearly frustrated by something you review. And I feel especially sorry for you because I expect at least like 10 comments on here who not only disagree with your opinion, but will also insult you for it and defend this score as the new masterpiece of the century. Prepare yourself, it’s gonna happen.
    I wish you all the best and a big amount of strength to deal with that. Anyways, great review as always. Love to read your stuff.

  2. October 10, 2017 at 10:53 am

    The score is barren. Does not say anything to the viewer. Some tracks like “Mesa” and “Joi” are pretty and have some substance, but the rest of the score is woefully lazy. I believe this was Villeneuve’s intended outcome as he mirrored the composers’ choice over their latest work, Dunkirk, which follows the same principles of keeping music away from what’s happening in the film. There is no memorable theme such as those built by Vangelis in the 80’s, not even the care with the details of the scene, the minimalism that immersed us in the world created by Scott so carefully. The music is very superficial. It’s just there to remind us that we’re watching a sequel to Blade Runner.

  3. October 10, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    This score is too boring. Hans Zimmer proves once again that he lost his skills as a good composer…

  4. October 10, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    Imagine how wonderful the score could have turned out if they tried to emulate the sonic world of Tron Legacy instead of the one already stablished by Vangelis.

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