There is a sense in our increasingly electronic era that everything is surface. We are defined by our social media pages and herd to the gym to look a specific way. What defines us is becoming an increasingly complex series of ponderings based on many material factors. It is only appropriate then, that Warner Brothers would decide to revive Blade Runner here and now. Denis Villeneuve’s new Blade Runner 2049 is a film that is indeed all surface, with the cold heart of an android, but this makes it a fitting fable for its audience.
The original 1982 film by Ridley Scott was a groundbreaking blend of noir and science fiction, combining a pulp sensibility with a Kubrick-esque visual grandeur. The screenplay was loosely based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Its story of a Los Angeles in 2019 where a “blade runner” named Deckard (Harrison Ford) hunts down “replicants,” bioengineered beings who are near-perfect human copies, explored the eternal debate of what defines us as human. Villeneuve, one of the new important post-modern filmmakers, has crafted a visually immersive experience that may lack in a cohesive plot — or at least one worthy of its 163 minute running time — yet evokes a future worthy of our current predicament. It is a cold film placed in a world of electronic surfaces and detached emotions, where what remains of human feelings struggles to break through.
Ryan Gosling picks up the torch from Ford and stars as Officer K, who years after the original film, works as a replicant Blade Runner tracking down fugitive replicants and “retiring” them. Los Angeles is now a vast, even more heavily cluttered dystopia where those with means live in towering structures, and the plebs linger down below. While executing a wanted replicant (played by Dave Bautist), K comes across some human remains which analysis shows came from a birth attributed to a female replicant (Rachael, Ford’s companion from the original). This should in theory be impossible, and so K is ordered by his superior (Robin Wright) to track down the child. Also interested in capturing the gestated entity is Neander Wallace (Jared Leto), head of the monolithic corporation which produces replicants and is desperate to figure out how to make them actually breed. K now goes on the case while being tailed by Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s own replicant enforcer.
Blade Runner 2049 is cinema as visual immersion. Villeneuve has always been a director who’s work thrives on its visual technique. His 2011 film Incendies was an elegant but gritty story about civil war in the Middle East where images- more than dialogue- revealed stunning plot twists. His 2015 U.S. break through Sicario dealt with the Mexican drug war, but instead of delivering a typical crime flick, Villeneuve presented a baroque canvas lensed by Roger Deakins framed by a pounding, ominous score. Then there was last year’s Arrival, an evocative science fiction fable about what it would mean to try and establish linguistic contact with visiting extraterrestrials. That film used atmosphere and a stark realism to tell a science fiction story that feels wholly real.
Her Eyes Were Green
In Blade Runner 2049 Villeneuve and Deakins push themselves to a new level of visual grandeur, so much so that the visual style of the movie almost becomes its very narrative. Their canvas is broad- and worth seeing on a big screen- with a Los Angeles drenched in rain and mist. Walls seem to reach endlessly into the sky and the corners between buildings open like vast caverns. There is a vastness to the film’s vistas of futuristic decay, with a sense of detail reminiscent of films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Deakins lights interiors with a gothic lushness, especially the rooms of Wallace’s corporate imperium where great plastic dispensers drop in new replicants like oily newborns. Las Vegas is a dusty, abandoned ghost city, its futuristic statues left as ancient ruins, the casinos now radioactive tombs. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a character in charge of making memories for replicants discusses her craft while designing recollections right before our eyes, adding detail to each face and moment, for history is what we make of it. It is all given a driving rhythm by Hans Zimmer’s score, which is both new and an homage to Vangelis’s original 1981 score in its techno hums and waves of electro sound. Zimmer has crafted cold melodies for an electronic world.
It is the film’s images that linger in the mind even more than the dialogue, which can veer from too cryptic to too vague. K’s hover craft flying through the rainy, apocalyptic skies, an abandoned factory where children labor over disposed parts, and giant holograms emerging from skyscrapers, offering sexual pleasure and deliverance from loneliness with feline charm- these elements make Villeneuve’s film a beautiful work of visual craft. Deakins surely deserves the year’s Best Cinematography Oscar, for evoking a gorgeous melancholia through this idea of the future (his work in Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984 also had the same, haunting effect).
Blade Runner 2049 is melancholic noir, featuring an LAPD of the future corrupted by power and a crumbling society. But while at times I found myself lost within its plot, frustrated by the looming plot holes and unanswered questions (how does a replicant become pregnant?), the film still has enough noteworthy visual craft and ideas to make it worth seeing. It is not difficult to imagine its future as plausible.
The film’s best side plot involves K’s relationship with a mail-order female hologram named Joi (played sweetly by Ana de Armas). He is aware she’s a projection, as he himself is a replicant. But he yearns for her more than for any biological woman. In this era of the atomized phone slave, loneliness is a void filled in by the illusion of contact through technology. If a replicant feels loneliness and longing, does this then make he/she human? As society becomes more artificial, we will still seek the comfort of others, even if we feel safer doing so with machines and screens that tell us what we want to hear. It’s in these questions that Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s screenplay works like good, classic scifi. But at times the story doesn’t know where it wants to truly pay attention, and so it can drag along from one pit stop to another, throwing characters at us but without answering much. It’s as if Villeneuve prefers to stick to a current post-modern trend in cinema, where grand images are displayed but you as the viewer conjure what you will from the canvas.
Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the actual performances in a film like this. But Gosling’s performance is strong and measured, and a worthy heir to Ford’s original. When Ford himself appears in the film the two pair nicely. Jared Leto reportedly indulged in his usual method acting antics to carry out what amounts to a thankless role. Leto’s blind Dr. Moreau-like villain barely gets any proper screen time (or development for that matter), and it’s a wonder to read that he literally blinded himself (with contact lenses) to fully embody the character on set. But the Oedipus method is barely noticeable and his dialogue is what we would expect (“we must breed trillions” “we will take Eden back”). After Wallace states his intentions early on we rarely hear from him. It would be easy to guess we’re being set up for a sequel. The other performances are pitch perfect in expressing the world of the story. Robin Wright is stern and detached, while Sylvia Hoeks plays the replicant bounty hunter with great, malevolent gusto. But you get the sense they’ve all been shaped by a world defined by the sleek coldness of its design.
Still, the film is best enjoyed when the viewer is simply carried away by the canvas itself. If you see it on a big screen sit close, bask in the hypnotic panning shots and the way Deakins makes the reflection of a pool’s waves seem like a living organism. A climactic battle amid crashing sea waves is stirring in the way it combines visual grandiosity with action. Blade Runner 2049 is all experience, sound and rain, but that may be fitting for an age defined by artificial living, electric dreams and lonely desires.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor to Riot Material magazine and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.