It’s hard to think of a Blade Runner movie without Vangelis. Of course, until now, there’s only been one Blade Runner movie, but Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir sci-fi cult classic is all about aesthetic, and as such, the Greek composer’s work has always been as integral to the film as, say, Syd Mead’s neo-futuristic concepts or Harrison Ford’s stoic portrayal as titular hero, Rick Deckard. The very mention of the film can’t go by without hearing echoes of “Rachel’s Song” or “Blade Runner Blues” or any of the other dozen compositions that add to the dystopian feelings of isolation, uncertainty, or paranoia. So, when it was first announced that Scott and screenwriter Hampton Fancher were (finally) moving ahead with a followup, some 35 years after the original confused American audiences, fans consciously assumed that Vangelis would also be along for the ride. Not exactly.
Instead, it was Icelandic mastermind Jóhann Jóhannsson who was scooped up by a Spinner, leaving our trusty Academy Award-winning composer in the rain, only there were no tears to be shed — it was ostensibly by choice. “You can never repeat certain things,” Vangelis told NPR last year of his decision to recuse himself. “It’s only once in lifetime. It’s like doing another Chariots of Fire, it’s impossible.” To his credit, it’s an understandable notion — after all, who in their right mind would want to followup one of the most iconic scores of all time? — but that didn’t stop director Denis Villeneuve from wanting to try. And so, Jóhannsson was surprisingly deactivated late into the process, opening the doors for Hans Zimmer and rising talent Benjamin Wallfisch.
As Villeneuve told Al Arabiya, “The thing I will say is that making movies is a laboratory. The movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis. Jóhann and I decided that I will need to go in another direction — that’s what I will say.” Seeing how Blade Runner 2049 is a bonafide masterpiece, we’re not going to argue with his decision, but we will say it was a risky one. Very rare do we ever see a composer successfully take the reins from the celebrated work of a previous icon, even when they’re icons themselves: Danny Elfman did zilch with Brad Fiedel’s industrial tones on 2009’s Terminator: Salvation; Daft Punk pulled the plug on Wendy Carlos’ future sounds on 2010’s Tron: Legacy; and the Force was not with Michael Giacchino’s attempt to capture the intergalactic majesty of John Williams on last year’s Rogue One.
But Zimmer’s on another level right now, arguably the most in-demand composer in Hollywood, save for Giacchino, and while he came late into the game on Blade Runner 2049, he’s delivered one hell of a Hail Mary. Alongside Wallfisch, who recently struck gold with Andy Muschietti’s blockbuster phenomenon It, the two found the perfect balance between reverence and ingenuity. Their collaborative score for Villeneuve’s masterful sequel is powerful and elaborate, brimming with all the right sounds that fans need to hear to not only know they’re in the same universe, but one that has since evolved. Because really, that’s what this score sounds like: a total evolution of what Vangelis set in motion way, way back in 1982. It’s louder, it’s gloomier, it’s heavier, and it’s much more expansive, all qualities one might tag with Villeneuve’s breathtaking sequel.
Those who’ve grown up worshipping the original score will undoubtedly hear faint echoes of the past, much like the narrative that unfolds on-screen, but it’s hardly as abrasive or on-the-nose as that might read. With the exception of their “Tears in the Rain” redux, the two opt for a more subtle approach to past motifs, one that thrives with hush-hush flourishes sprinkled throughout. It’s as if Zimmer and Wallfisch are sneaking through the abandoned confines of the Tyrell Corporation, and they happened to brush by an ancient machine or two. Instead, you get the idea that Zimmer’s leaning heavily on his recent work for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, capitalizing on that signature bass and those distant strings of his, all of which makes for an essential touch to the hollowed-out world of Blade Runner 2049. But there are also hints of The Dark Knight Rises, what with those haunting Gregorian chants (“Wallace”) and the unforgiving digital storms (“Blade Runner”), and they also set aside enough room for the beauty in the universe, as evidenced by the tranquility of stunning tracks like “Rain” or “Joi” or “Memory”. It’s stunning stuff.
Completists will also appreciate the two Elvis Presley songs — “Suspicious Minds” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” — and the lonely Frank Sinatra classic (“One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”) that soundtrack arguably the greatest scene in a film of greatest scenes. Hearing those pop up during the listen should send a few shivers down the spine of anyone who’s seen the film, particularly the way they’re wedged between haunting tracks like “Pilot” and “Hijack”. Unfortunately, the whole shebang is somewhat soured by Lauren Daigle’s godawful closing ballad “Almost Human”, but the song itself works like a post-credits sequence — superfluous and extra baggage the majority will otherwise ignore. Instead, due attention should be given to the real closers, the two sweeping 10-minute suites, “Sea Wall” and “Blade Runner”, all the evidence you need to know that Villenueve made the right choice in giving the job to Zimmer and Wallfisch. You’ve never seen a miracle, but you can hear one.
Essential Tracks: “Sea Wall”, “Rain”, and “Wallace”