Denis Villeneuve has done the impossible. He has pulled off a feat that most directors won’t even take a stab at. He has delivered unto us something we haven’t seen for years. With this act Villeneuve has firmly established himself as one of the greatest modern day directors simply by doing what no other modern day director has been able to do.
He got Harrison Ford to stop playing all his characters as Harrison Ford, something no one has done since around the time of Clear and Present Danger. He managed to pull the actor out of his old-timer malaise and pushed him into delivering the kind of performance we use to expect from Ford.
Oh, he also made a pretty good Blade Runner movie.
Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Release Date: October 6, 2017
If the title didn’t make it abundantly clear, Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the original film. After the whole Nexus 6 fiasco and a series of further bloody uprisings, replicants, bioenginered humans forced into slave labor on the outer planets, are declared illegal and the Tyrell corporation goes bankrupt. This is followed by industrialists filling the void, and Niander Wallace takes over Tyrell and creates replicant models that obey humans. The remainder of the old replicants, Nexus 8s mostly, are tracked down and killed by Blade Runners.
That’s where we find K (Ryan Gosling), a newer model replicant designed to hunt down his own kind. But, much like the original film, all is not what it seems and K is brought into a mystery that once again prompts the audience to evaluate the meaning of life, human souls, and love. Blade Runner 2049 is in essence a move that is the same and yet strikingly different from its predecessor. It pulls at the same threads and hits the same plot points, but does it so differently that it never feels like the same movie (for better or for worse). It has updated its dystopian future to reflect our current fears and dreads about the future. Many of these are the same (corporate control, overcrowding, pollution, AI), but many of which are different (pornification, social engagement in the age of the Internet, bioengenering).
Like the original we are dropped into a stark future, full of smog, rain and grime, and the world is allowed to exist around the story. Villeneuve is smart enough to know that a world unfolds best not through exposition, but through action. Not the exploding action of most science fiction films, but the thoughtful action of a thriller, that unfolds its drama while unfolding its characters. He challenges us once again to question who the bad guys and the good guys are, but ditches the film noir aesthetic for a more modern take that updates and iterates on the original film’s themes. K himself has a holographic girlfriend (think Her) named Joi (Ana de Armas) who feels and emotes, and is easily the most human of any character in the film. Her and K’s relationship is the only time we see two people connect in anyway on screen that isn’t driven by sex, power or crime, and yet they are the two considered least human.
The most ingenious thing is that the movie never forces these things down our throats. We are given a world and asked to interpret it, not told what to think. That is until the final third when it starts to lose its thread as it turns full “good versus evil” while becoming more like a nostalgia trip than a sequel. This final act in no way ruins a stunning and fantastic film, but tonally it shifts from a messy and complicated world to one where things work out. For anyone who has seen the original cut of Blade Runner in which the studio forced on a happy ending it feels a little off putting. For me it changed a thought-provoking piece of cinema into simply an enjoyable movie. It doesn’t make it bad, it just loses that thing that could have elevated it to something more.
Villeneuve’s ability to put together some of the most visually stunning shots in cinema is in full force here. He has taken the iconic and influential future of the original film and shot it with artistry that will stick in your mind for years. Slow pans over futuristic cities and overcrowded metropolises crammed with neon lights are breathtaking to behold. A later portion of the film in a desolated Las Vegas is some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in ages. He could easily be up for a best director Oscar.
The world seems less alive than with Scott’s more gritty style. The original film’s Los Angeles breathes and teems with life, and dirt, and sex. Villeneuve’s seems constructed for show. The world isn’t alive, it’s cinematic. Gone are the aggressive shadows (save for one scene near the end between Ford and Leto) and the dark corridors of a future that is falling apart. This isn’t a noir film. We aren’t on the back streets anymore with a gumshoe, his femme fatale, and his anti-hero ways. We’re in full spotlight, and it feels like a movie not a world. Maybe some of that is intentional as Villeneuve layers metaphors on top of metaphors in his films. In this case one could make an argument for Blade Runner 2049 commenting on its own existence as a unneeded sequel spun up by a studio.
“Here,” Villeneuve is saying, “Here is the glossy world you thought you wanted, remade over to reflect our ever increasing self vanity.”
There’s a structural argument for that in the way the film unfolds that is for another time when I was in college writing thesis papers, not movie reviews. So I’ll digress.
If Villeneuve’s style feels too cinematic the performances he pulls from his actors are the exact opposite. I’ve already spoken of Ford, but Gosling’s K is one of the best performances of the year. His slowly unraveling character, coming to grips with his own soul as the film unfolds, is performed with subtle complexity by Gosling. A moment of emotion in the film from K is powerfully shocking thanks to Gosling’s simmering performance. Robin Wright, as K’s commander, teases at ideas about sexuality and humanity within her exposition, and Sylvia Hoeks performance as the replicant Luv is horrifically evil and yet nuanced.
The only let down of nearly the entire film is Jared Leto who just can’t resist Letoing all over the place. As the blind (Villeneueve continues Scott’s obsession with the eye being the window to the soul and as such this soulless man has no eyes) corporate leader who controls much of the off world colonies he is powerful and insane, but Leto’s performance is more smarmy than threatening. A scene between him and Ford is stunningly shot, and acted, but could have been even better with a different actor.
What couldn’t have been better is the score. Hans Zimmer’s music blare across the screen, shaking the theater with its long held notes that reflect back on, but do not mimic, Vangelis’ electronic masterpiece from the original film. This isn’t an 80s noir soundtrack, but it feels big and bold for the cinematic film that Villeneuve has put together. It is almost never traditional, evoking feeling instead of telling you how to feel. It backs off when needed, and then comes back in full force to unsettle you or establish the world.
Blade Runner 2049 is a fantastic movie with bold ideas, visually stunning direction, and powerful performances. But underneath it all lies a Hollywood reboot, and that made it less than for me. Let’s trot out all the classics and tie up some things here and there so we can make a few more of these seemed to be an underlying motivation. No, the big question of the original Blade Runner is never firmly answered, but it’s addressed more openly than ever. There is a lot of good about this movie for sure, but it isn’t the artistic and defining masterpiece that the original was. That is, obviously, a very high standard to hold something to, but it’s the standard that it set itself up for. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t have the grit and honesty that the original had, eschewing noir aesthetics for perfectly framed set pieces. It is that edge that the movie lacks, and what kept nagging me as I viewed it.
For many this is already proclaimed a new science fiction classic that pushes away from the YA dystopian future films we’ve been fed for a while now to actually address themes that we are struggling with everyday. And it is all those things, but it is also a sequel to a movie that probably shouldn’t have one even if Ridley Scott was all for it. It may be in these conflicting ideals that we can find the true soul of Blade Runner 2049: a film looking to not only address the themes of its predecessor, but the way in which both that movie and itself were made.