The sci-fi sequel controversially dropped its original composer a month before release – so does Hans Zimmer’s score match up to Vangelis’s iconic original, or is it a simple nostalgia grab?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the question posed by sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick that went on to influence the film Blade Runner, in turn pre-empting our modern landscape and the blurring of what we consider to be real and what we do not. When Blade Runner was released in 1982, artificial beings and drone strikes were theoretical fantasies that existed within alternate realities. It created a new world, one that depicted a man-made dystopia before Terminators and RoboCops showed us alternate pathways to our own self-destruction. Soundtracking the noirish, claustrophobic world that Blade Runner brought to life was Vangelis Papathanassiou.
To many, Vangelis’s score was just as important and equally as seminal as the movie itself. Before Blade Runner, Vangelis was known in the popular consciousness for Chariots Of Fire, the now-instantly recognisable ode to Olympic glory across the world. Blade Runner remains his most defining work, however, a timeless exploration into sound that – much like the film – gave emotion to electronics and helped redefine everything that came after it. “A pop-culture zeitgeist” is how The Guardian described his work almost ten years ago, and in a recent FACT documentary, synthesiser icon Gary Numan told how the film was “like putting a sponge in the middle of a big bath” in terms of its seemingly endless inspiration. Innovating Detroit producer Derrick May cites the soundtrack as one of his earliest musical inspirations, leading him to further experiment with the sort of synthesised sound that gave birth to what we today know as techno. Massive Attack (and arguably the 90s as we best remember them) owe much of their unsettling yet euphoric sound to the reverb-drenched, haunting atmosphere that Vangelis displayed so well in his definitive work – and everyone from Flying Lotus (himself soundtracking the Blade Runner 2022 short anime) to El-P of Run The Jewels (whose music for the trailer was rejected) have embraced the film’s score in modern hip hop.
“Vangelis’s score was just as important and equally as seminal as the movie itself”
Is that far-reaching influence something you can recreate again in 2017? Probably not, but it was the responsibility of director Denis Villeneuve and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to try. Blade Runner 2049 was not the first time that Villeneuve and Jóhannsson had worked together – they both collaborated on the highly praised Sicario in 2015 and Arrival in 2016. Before audiences were given the chance to witness Villeneuve’s vision for Blade Runner firsthand, scepticism around the film was understandably rife, and fans weren’t exactly reassured when Jóhannsson’s work on the project ended just one month before the film was set for its release, replaced by the more established Hollywood composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. “The movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis,” Villeneuve told Al Arabiya English. “Jóhann and I decided that I will need to go in another direction.”
But is that direction one that simply pulls from nostalgia? Yes and no. Using nostalgia as a simple way to draw a response from an audience isn’t a new or necessarily bad thing. Blade Runner 2049 is littered with references to the original film – a relatively early scene echoes Rutger Hauer’s famous ‘tears in rain’ speech, for example – but these references are often subtle. The original Blade Runner excels in its ability to distill a sense of beautiful unease or blissful tension, portraying the often strange loneliness experienced from living in a city stacked on top of one another. Blade Runner 2049 achieves a similar feeling, but much of that unease is drawn from the relative sparsity of its soundtrack and what’s on screen.
At times, in fact, it’s the lack of music which proves most powerful. Altogether more powerful than Zimmer and Wallfisch’s compositions is the orchestra of raindrops that hit the roofs of metal cars that soar through mid-century Los Angeles, or the ambient drone that plays as Ryan Gosling strolls through a tangerine-drenched open wasteland. This sound design is used in barren settings – settings that weren’t explored in the original Blade Runner – and it feels more unnerving for it. Maybe we’re so used to our daily lives being dictated by a cacophony of sound that, when there is none, it fills you with an atmospheric dread. As our existence becomes ever-more stifled and confined, perhaps our fears are more closely linked to the concept of nothing, something Blade Runner 2049 portrays beautifully.
“At times, in fact, it’s the lack of music (in Blade Runner 2049) which proves most powerful”
Elsewhere, Zimmer’s brand of bellowing horns, booming drums and high-pitched, sonically resonating synthesisers can feel a little textbook. An all-too-easy criticism of Zimmer’s work is that his signature sound has become a musical shorthand for emotion and tension in modern cinema. He does it well of course, and Zimmer is far from the first seminal composer whose musical style has become a Hollywood trope, but after the departure of Jóhannsson it’s understandable to wonder how different it could have been.
Could Jóhannsson’s score have replicated the creative ripple effect that Vangelis’ succeeded in doing all those years ago? Arrival was heralded by fans and critics alike, with Jóhannsson’s contemporarily orchestral score taking the cinematic build to an artform, often using sustained repetition and pulsating single-notes that crescendo into slow burning works that sends your BPM monitor racing higher with each minute you listen. He uses our own impatience as something to unnerve us, relying on slow-burning emotion rather than fleeting moments of epicness.
Vangelis famously refused to read a script for Blade Runner when crafting his soundtrack, largely improvising his works while watching footage from the film and allowing his ingrained responses to dictate what came through the vast collection of analogue gear that littered his studio. Zimmer is an altogether more formulaic composer than his Blade Runner predecessor – a fight scene sounds like this type of chord progression, a love scene maybe B-Flat minor – and those Zimmer tropes are what the soundtrack sometimes relies too heavily on. A piece like “Sea Wall”, for instance, is so characteristically Zimmer it doesn’t necessarily reside in the same universe that Blade Runner inhabits. Blade Runner 2049 is most powerful in its moments of tranquility. It’s perhaps telling that the one true goosebumps moment from Zimmer’s soundtrack is his reimagining of Vangelis’s “Tears In Rain”.
Blade Runner’s original score wasn’t widely recognised for its brilliance until around a decade after the film’s release, nor was the film itself an instant success (something Blade Runner 2049 is emulating after disappointing opening weekend box office takings despite glowing reviews). Zimmer and Wallfisch’s score might stand up as an individual work 30 years in the future, but it will always fall victim to what came before it, and in the case of Jóhannsson’s score, we’ll always be left asking ‘what if’. So while Blade Runner 2049’s music may not be a replicant, it’s definitely not a replacement.