It’s hard to sum up what Blade Runner means to film. For anybody that loves film and wants to devote their lives to it, Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner stands as a pillar of cinema that we all reach at some point in our journey. Originally ignored and derided upon release, Blade Runner managed to become regarded as one of the greatest films in history. It forces the viewer to ask ourselves what makes us human, and what constitutes a soul. Blade Runner stands as one of the most inspirational films ever made, there is film pre-Blade Runner and post-Blade Runner. It is simply one of the reasons we love film. I remember watching it for the first time my senior year of high school, and I got about halfway through before turning it off because I was so bored. I was watching the theatrical cut, which is pretty much agreed to be the inferior version of the film. About 6 months later, I talked myself into giving it another chance. I felt the same way for the first 2/3rds of the film, I couldn’t figure out why people held this film in such high regard. Then the last act happened, and it’s one of the most beautiful third acts in the history of film. Everything comes together thematically into a powerful, emotional finale. Afterwards, I watched the other 3 cuts of the film and gleamed more into the mysteries and themes of this beautiful work. We all discussed and dissected each scene and image of Blade Runner, trying to figure out what it all meant. A possible sequel never even crossed our minds.
A sequel to Blade Runner just sounded like a bad idea, it was just hard to see what the point was. It couldn’t possibly be a cashgrab, the original wasn’t successful enough theatrically to really warrant it. It also never begged for a sequel, it was a self-contained film. How could they possibly make it work? Enter Denis Villeneuve. As soon as I heard the news he would be directing, I was in. Villeneuve hit me like a lightning bolt back in 2013 when my friend Huston and I walked into the theater to watch Prisoners. We didn’t have much expectation, we knew we liked a lot of the actors and love anything shot by Roger Deakins, it was simply the only thing either of us were half-interested in seeing. We walked out blown away. Prisoners was my favorite film of 2013, and stands as one of my all time favorite films. Villeneuve has risen to one of the most talented directors around since then (more on this later) and seemed to be possibly one of the only filmmakers capable of tackling a Blade Runner sequel. It just made sense that it was him. All my worries went away. Denis Villeneuve has crafted an impossible feat with Blade Runner 2049, making a sequel to one of the most beloved films in history and making a film that carries on its themes and questions in a rare meditative big-budget film. This film was clearly made by only people with an immense respect and love for the original, and the understanding on how to continue the dialogue the original brought into cinema. I hesitate even reviewing this film on one viewing, but I will do my best.
Pretty much the first thing my friends and I said to each other was “I can’t believe they got to make this film.” 2049 is asking a lot of similar questions that the original did – What is it that makes us human? What does it mean to have a soul? Do Androids dream of electric sheep? How do you validate your own memories? Are they proof enough that you existed? Then it asks a few questions further with emotional curiosity – What does it mean to create? To give life to something? Are humans the end of evolution, or is there a next step in the chain?
Villeneuve is just on a roll, putting up a hit streak of films I’ve never seen in my lifetime. Just this decade, his filmography is a historic one. In 2010, he got a best foreign film nomination for Incendies, a haunting Hitchcockian work. In 2013’s Prisoners he made a lifelong believer out of me. In 2014, he made my brain cry with Enemy. In 2015, Sicario was again one of my favorite films of the year, and last year he stepped into sci-fi thoughtfully and emotionally with Arrival before diving full head on with Blade Runner 2049. All these films are incredible, they are all different from the other, Villeneuve has never made the same film twice despite working at an incredibly taxing pace. This run of films the cinema equivalent of LeBron going to the finals 7 straight times for myself.
In 2049, Villeneuve creates something monumental in his sequel. The film is long at 2 hours and 43 minutes, but I wouldn’t cut a second from it. It’s a patient, awe-inspiring vision, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the original. Villeneuve, with screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, never spell out the big facts of the film in bogged down exposition, they give you enough information to intuit what you need. Within the first few minutes of the film, they let you figure out a startling revelation about the film that makes you reevaluate what you thought you knew coming in.
Villeneuve and company never undermine what happened in the original, they manage the impossible feat of building off the events of the original. For those worried it would definitively answer whether or not Deckard was a replicant, it doesn’t. It keeps the mystery alive, emboldening it from new perspectives. The film mirrors the original thoughtfully in multiple aspects, certain replicants resemble replicants from the original, enhancing the nature of replicants as products – they are newer models. Corporate logos populating every possible space like the original is striking still in their vision of future Los Angeles. One of my friends pointed out that there was a haunting element to the product placement, that even though the world has gone to shit and is barely habitable, these corporate entities still exist.
Villeneuve uses a lot of the same techniques that Scott used in making the original, and it does wonders. They use miniatures in wide cityscape shots to enhance the physical feel of this world. When they do use cgi effects, there is a physical space for it to exist in, allowing it to lend itself thematically to the question of what we define as real and not real. De-aging actors via CGI has become a new and common practice in film, featured heavily in Rogue One and previously in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy. The results are varying. Here, the whole concept is given new meaning. The CGI de-aging is not only phenomenally done here by WETA, the best in the business, it also gets to do something that it hasn’t been able to do in a film yet – it serves a thematic purpose. What is real enough for us? The scene is asking us and Deckard if the representation of a character is good enough. It’s just remarkable that this technique and tool is being used to further the themes of the film rather than as a stunt gimmick. Villeneuve makes 2049 a sequel that is both literal and spiritual, an unlikely combination in today’s studio climate.
The cast is incredible, there’s not a wrong move among them. Gosling gives a terrific lead performance, lending his emotive brand of stoicism effectively to K. There’s an almost childlike quality to how he feels emotion and remembers things, steeped in sorrow of uncertainty that he carries extremely well. Harrison Ford gives arguably one of his best performances in his return as Rick Deckard. Based on the trailer, you feel like it has the tendency to be a “look at me, I’m Harrison Ford!” performance, you’re practically waiting for him to say something like “Chewie, we’re home.” at this point in his career. That’s not the case here. Ford reminds us of his natural talent, creating a deeply emotional portrait of a broken, lonely man. I want more films that allow Ford to explore this side of himself.
Jared Leto isn’t too insufferable here as Niander Wallace, the blind magnate now creating replicants, he thankfully isn’t in the film enough to distractingly try to overtake it. One of the true highlights of the film is Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, the replicant assistant to Wallace. Hoeks is great! Where has she been? Why have I never heard of her? She has this icy yet playful demeanor throughout that’s altogether terrifying and captivating, and she truly gets some deep moments for Luv that she just nails. I’m buying a ton of stock in Sylvia Hoeks now! Villeneuve surrounds the film with an immensely skilled cast in roles larger and smaller, with talents like Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Wood Harris, David Dastmalchian, Lennie James, Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis, Barkhad Abdi and Carla Juri.
Roger Deakins is the greatest living cinematographer, and he reteams with Villeneuve after Prisoners and Sicario for one of the most gorgeous films I’ve perhaps ever seen. We are truly blessed to have Deakins doing photography for a Blade Runner film. The trailers for the film emphasize a lot of action, which thankfully is quite minimal in the finished product. That’s not to say the action scenes are lacking, they are filmed with an acute even hand by Villeneuve and Deakins, it’s just nice and comforting to know that’s not the point of the film. Every image of 2049 is just gorgeous, there’s not a frame in this film that doesn’t awe inspire. The level of attention to detail in every image is just astonishing. One of my friends said the imagery reminded her of Kurosawa, how it was always cognisant of the elements. In a career of numerous all-time cinematography efforts, Deakins can add 2049 as another gift to the audiences.
The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is immensely pleasurable, especially considering they were brought in almost last minute. Johann Johannson had been a part of the film since Villeneuve joined, but exited just about 2 months ago. While I hope we one day hear Johannsson’s work, Zimmer and Wallfisch can rest easy knowing they did a terrific job. Their score recaptures the wonder and emotion of the original score by Vangelis, relying heavily on synths and unearthly production. They also add a sort of scope to the score to match the epic feeling of the film. Hopefully we’ll get to see Zimmer and Wallfisch team up more in the future.
I’ve written quite a bit already, but I still feel I did not do this film justice. It is that kind of film. Much like the original, it beckons and rewards multiple viewings, and provides hours of thoughtful discussion. I don’t want to call this sort of stuff too soon, but I feel that we’ll be talking about 2049 in the same way as the original Blade Runner – as a classic. I felt the same way watching this film as I did the first time I completed the original – I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’m grateful that I’m alive to see it.