As with anyone who loves a creation and is protective of it, I was very skeptical of the score for Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. However, after having seen the film, and listening to the soundtrack several times, I can say that Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch do not disappoint. Like the film itself, their nuanced score is blend of nostalgia for the original with a fresh sense of wonder. (Not unlike a replicant in some ways, perhaps.)
The reason I, and other fans, were so concerned about the score was pretty straightforward: Vangelis’ work on the original Blade Runner was in itself an important character in the film. Each contemplative synth pad and every emotive, brassy melody played on the Yamaha CS-80 felt as important as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, Sean Young’s Rachael, or Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty.
That Vangelis didn’t return to the new film would be like one of the original film’s stars not coming back. (I won’t say anything more here, lest I spoil things.) The Blade Runner 2049 filmmakers hadn’t asked Vangelis to return, apparently, so that kind of settled it.
With that in mind, I figured someone like Cliff Martinez or Johnny Jewel could easily write a score that takes the spirit of Vangelis’ work and adapts it to the needs of what is inevitably a bigger film. Nevertheless, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has scored quite a few of Villeneuve’s films, was the chosen composer. He wasn’t who I would have selected, but he had a long history with Villeneuve — not to mention he’s a very good score composer — and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As has been established, it was not to be. Villeneuve wanted more of a Vangelis sound and Jóhannsson apparently had something different in mind — details are slim, because of non-disclosure agreements. Zimmer and composing partner Wallfisch were hired on in July to do additional composing, but eventually supplanted Jóhannsson altogether.
I scoffed at the traditional, big-Hollywood choice of Zimmer and Wallfisch, even as I knew that an investment in a film this large — about $155 million — would make Alcon Entertainment, Columbia Pictures and the other production companies very risk-averse. But I can safely say I was wrong to be worried. Zimmer and Wallfisch recall the heart and soul of Vangelis’ deft neo-noir synthery while creating new themes and sounds (and more orchestration) to highlight that the sequel is not merely a photocopy of the original film.
This time the film’s scope is bigger — more characters, storylines, and sets and a runtime of nearly three hours. There’s more action and less noir; but not no noir. There are serene moments and then there’s bouts of giant, heart-stopping action. This comes through in the score.
There are cues like “Rain,” that are delicate, with crystalline synths, single-piano-key flourishes, and sweet string melodies that reflect a tight intimacy. But then there are also cues like “Sea Wall” that pulse in a bombast of big and buzzy synths, throbbing rhythms, and unbridled suspense, underscoring with Hollywood-massiveness a key denouement of the film.
“Wallace” is a haunting number, utilizing what sounds like the chordal, throaty chants of Tibetan Buddhist monks to carry what is at its core a Martinez-esque ambient cue. All of this in service of describing Jared Leto’s off-putting antagonist Niander Wallace.
“Tears in the Rain” is the antecedent to Vangelis’ “Tears in Rain,” and like its title sounds very similar to, but not the same as, its predecessor — yet another opportunity for a replicant analogy. The sentiment carries over, though. There is the brassy bend of the CS-80 lead under which serene synth pads evoke the tenderest of emotions. Zimmer and Wallfisch add twinkling pianos and change up the chord progression a bit, but the Vangelis spirit remains.
Another standout on 2049 is “Blade Runner,” an 11-minute adventure through all of the concepts studied in the film’s score. It kicks off with modern-sounding propulsions — those explosive, charred-up bursts of synth and orchestral sounds. After driving home that intensity, the cue gives way to beautiful waves of uplifting synths and horns. These move on to quiet corners with glassy synths and delicately ominous expressions that are borderline celestial. The end of the cue — well, I’ll let you find that out for yourself.
The soundtrack also has numbers by Elvis Presley (“Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Suspicious Minds”), Frank Sinatra (“Summer Wind” and “One For My Baby”), and an original by Lauren Daigle. Those fit the narrative in their own key ways.
Overall, Zimmer and Wallfisch achieved an impressive score without seemingly much time to do so. Although they didn’t write a score that’s “more Vangelis than Vangelis,” they tap into the spirit of the Greek composer’s original work, while injecting modern flourishes that underscore that 2049 is a whole new entity. For better or worse, it’s bigger, has more action, and is less noirish than in 1982. This is mighty fine, though, because the overall end result is a package that makes for one of the best films of the past several years.