Whenever I see that a great film, something particularly wonderful and innovative, is getting a sequel, I often only think one thing: Why?
Why on earth would you take a fantastic piece of cinema with a story possessing a clearcut beginning, middle and end, and roll the dice on extending it in the hopes of what? More money? Bigger merchandise sales? Just because? There are a lot of questions you could ask but really only one satisfactory answer: Because you – “you” the filmmakers – have something worthwhile and compelling to add. Now my second question: Is Blade Runner 2049 worthwhile and compelling?
I think it’s fair to say when it comes to cinematic science fiction, Blade Runner is sacred ground. So what could directer Denis Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green add to the story? What could they possibly have to say that the first film didn’t? A lot, actually.
1982’s Blade Runner was a lot of things. It was a box office flop. By that time’s standards, its 28 million dollar budget was enormous and seeing only 33 million in total, global ticket sales meant a sizable loss for the studio and investors. That’s a whopping 4% of what Star Wars: A New Hope brought in five years prior. A film that cost less than half to make. There’s the well documented ego-fueled production issues. It’s no secret many of the cast and production team were famously difficult to work with.
So why is it sci-fi hallowed ground? Why are we still talking about it thirty-five years later let alone discussing a sequel? Because it was amazing. What the poor box office showing didn’t illustrate was the film’s elegantly asked questions. What an oversized budget and on-set drama didn’t convey was the new standards being set by cutting edge visuals and groundbreaking production quality. Those lucky enough to have discovered the film in its infancy were treated to story and world-building George Lucas could only dream about.
What Blade Runner did was tell an entire story centered around a single question: What does it mean to be alive? Or some equally ponderous derivation. 2049 asks that same question while managing to give you a totally different, yet familiar, story. It adds and expands on an already complete backdrop while bringing worthwhile and compelling elements to the table.
There are already so many challenges and obstacles when making a sequel – let alone making one thirty-five years later – now include trying to satisfy a cultish fanbase while trying to do something new. Diving into the differences and the evolution of such an undertaking would require too specific a dissection, spoiling the entire film, so let’s just focus on Villeneuve’s final product.
Back to the Future
One of the most interesting things to me about films like Blade Runner 2049 is that it gives us an opportunity to look into our future. Not a necessarily realistic look, but one that reflects the potential state of mankind a generation removed from the choices we’re making now. 2049 offers up an intensely interesting glimpse into one such potential future.
In a comfortably ironic instance of art imitating life, the binding thread between the film’s story and the production itself is simply “questions.” While the film considers the notion of life and soul, the production team sought answers on “how.” How do we tell this story? The choices that question led to turned out to be the backbone of the entire experience. Central among those brilliant choices was to mirror the passage of time. Blade Runner came out thirty-five years ago, so its sequel takes place thirty-five years later. The second core element was the decision to maintain a near identical look and feel to the original’s environment. With over three decades having passed, Villeneuve and crew could have easily reinterpreted visuals and sounds giving 2049 their own look and feel. They instead chose to honor the work already done, simply expanding on the established designs.
Sure, with that much time having passed things would have changed. And they did. They changed in ways that felt like evolution and not just filmmaking tech being farther along. From the set to the wardrobe, the lines between BR and 2049 make perfect sense. But it all starts with the story.
More? Or more of the same?
No matter how I dissect things I keep circling back to the question of “why?” If the central dilemma of the first film is also central to the second, why make it? If the world of Blade Runner is relatively unchanged and facing the same issues, what is there to say? Why? Why make this film?
It’s those unchanging, persistent overtones that make what happens in 2049 so relevant. In a world where most people don’t matter, where regardless of what you want or what you do, you can’t escape your place in the system, “people” will still claw, scratch and die pursuing their version of freedom. In the sequel we follow K – Ryan Gosling’s finest performance in a string of wonderful performances – a Blade Runner tasked with hunting down the remnants of Eldon Tyrell’s rogue replicants. Sounds a lot like the first one, but with a very new twist that defines the difference between the two films: K, like Deckard, is himself a replicant. But unlike Deckard, he knows what he is from the very beginning. Or at least he thinks he does.
Another storytelling choice I love to see in films is the “slow reveal.” You the moviegoer get the same information at the same pace as the followed protagonist. You learn what’s happening along with the story’s hero. In a format where the twist or final reveal is key, I personally find this to be, by far, the most impactful and interesting way to engage the viewer, to make the person – or skin-job – watching feel like they’re in it with the characters.
I think we get the “Why.” Now let’s tackle the “Who.” You’ve seen the trailers, you know all about Ryan and Harrison and Jared, but they’re not the only ones worth watching. Ana de Armas, who plays Joi, is a wildly welcome source of light in an otherwise bleak landscape. I won’t ruin what she is exactly, but what she means to the story is so important. In an otherwise ordinary conflict of man versus machine, Joi is another offshoot, another potential source of burgeoning life. Or is she? She does what every great ambiguous character should do, she makes you ask interesting questions. Questions about life, about humanity and even about yourself. In the hands of a lesser storyteller she would be a throwaway character. A paper tiger there to give you something nice to look at while meaning absolutely nothing in the context of the story, but in 2049 something like Joi is remarkable. And de Armas gives so much to the character, Joi may be the best acted part in the entire film.
So much more than honorable mentions are Robin Wright and Dave Bautista. Dave’s part in the story is integral because it not only sets the tone of the entire film, it introduces K to his dramatic conflict. Without Bautista hitting an absolute home run with his relatively short amount of screen time, nothing that comes after works. Robin, in similar fashion, is important as the story’s mediator. Playing the part of Lieutenant Joshi, K’s boss at police HQ, we get to see the working bridge that exists between man and machine. Another – I feel like I could say this about all the roles – character that if played poorly would break the narrative.
Last up on the who’s who is Sylvia Hoeks as Luv. I don’t want to tell you too much, but what she does with what she’s given is amazing. She has a more action-centric role compared to many of the others on screen, but that’s not where she shines the most. There’s this roiling intensity behind every spoken word and every facial expression. She definitely gets the award for Best Scene Stealer.
Arts and Crafts
So, the story is amazing, the acting is superb and the thoughtful connection to the original film is brilliant. What else could I possibly gush about? Probably the one thing most viewers don’t notice – unless it’s bad – and that’s what the camera does. The film looks fantastic. Set design and any other department that impacts what ends up on screen did nothing short of amazing work, but none of that gets its due without cinematography. Specifically in this case I want to highlight the camera work and scene lighting with some sound design thoughts thrown in.
The pace of almost the entire story is built around the performers having a series of conversations. Yes there’s action, but it’s this sequence of moments that defines and dictates the way you’ll consume the movie. What keeps this repetitious template from feeling boring or stale is the way in which the scenes are presented. Roger Deakins, a literal living legend in the industry, uses the camera to reveal what needs to be seen and to conceal what you shouldn’t see. Keep the latter in mind.
Excluding visual information can very easily become a lazy way to build tension or suspense, but in Blade Runner 2049, knowing there’s more than what’s on screen actually informs you. By noticing you’re not able to see who’s talking or what is being talked about makes you notice it. It makes you pay even closer attention once that “thing” is finally on screen. The camera placement and movement here is some of the best I’ve seen in modern cinema.
The aesthetic element with the greatest impact on what you’re seeing is the lighting. Just like in the first film. The lighting in 2049 is so present you can almost feel how it changes the scene or enhances a performance. Like the camera, the lights are always pointed in the right direction, creating a clear and deliberate shape to what you’re seeing. That is quite a feat considering just how much there is to look at throughout the film.
And closing out our “And the Award Goes to” section, the sound. There is a conventional score, but very little compared to most modern thrillers. Instead, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer repurpose several of the audio effects from Blade Runner and use them in a similar but still very different fashion. The distinct and original audio element that get reused are even more purposeful and even more relevant. They don’t just queue an action sequence or scene transition, they act more as the film’s actual heartbeat or its labored breathing. The film’s environment is oppressive and bleak, and the sounds a creature enduring those conditions made would reflect those states, just as they’re reflected in the movie’s sound design. I noticed throughout that I shifted in my seat or took a deep breath in direct relation to the louder, more dramatic sounds. Pretty amazing.
What else do I need to say? Blade Runner 2049 excels in every category relevant to this type of film. Everything, both in front of and behind the camera is executed at such a high level that anything I could nitpick about is moot. This is the kind of film that raises the bar on all filmmaking. Is this movie for everyone? No. But if you are the kind of person this film will resonate with, it’s a game changer.
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