Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve; Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford
[4 out of 4 stars]
In 1968, Philip K. Dick asked us to ponder a question: do androids dream of electric sheep? His novel about what makes the human experience so human inspired director Ridley Scott to bring his vision to the big screen with Blade Runner (1982). It subsequently took Scott five attempts to tell Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) story, culminating in Blade Runner: Final Cut (2007). It is a case study in the revisionary practices of art, a constant attempt to improve. Since its release, Blade Runner has shifted the science fiction landscape of filmmaking, echoing on, leaving filmmakers like Alex Garland with Ex Machina (2015) and Denis Villeneuve with Arrival (2016) indebted to the vision Scott brought to life. So it is without surprise that we find Villeneuve at the helm of a continuation of Scott’s world with Blade Runner 2049 (2017), a no less challenging and intriguing puzzle-box of science fiction.
Set 30 years after the conclusion of Blade Runner’s events, the film begins in a car with K (Ryan Gosling). Like Deckard before him, he is tasked with hunting down replicants, the bio-engineered disposable workforce of this future, who have gone astray. He himself is one of a new generation, created by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) without the rebellious impulses of the originals. Nonetheless, some of the old ones have stuck around, and K is part of a new force of Blade Runners tasked with hunting them. Soaring over a desolate landscape of dust and satellites, K tracks down Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue replicant who has settled into a life of farming. Tender is not a word that comes straight to mind when one thinks of Bautista, but that is exactly what he is here. K has come to kill Sapper, a fact both men are well aware of. Yet, they talk of garlic and the protein that Sapper makes.
Blade Runner made us question the essence of humanity through the mystery of whether or not Deckard was a replicant. There is no mystery here. We know both K and Sapper are replicants, but Bautista makes Sapper effortlessly human, while Gosling keeps K the bland, company man he has been trained to be. Sapper is a model of replicant that fought against their design, and to him it must seem K has given in too easily to the demands of his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). By beginning the film with this sequence, Villeneuve presents the question we will be challenged to ponder through its almost three-hour runtime: what, if anything, makes a replicant less than human, and, more unsettling, what makes us human anyways? What K finds in Sapper’s house, details I will keep out to avoid spoilers, sends him on an odyssey that forces him to consider these questions.
For such a heady concept to unspool, the world must be believable. We must feel every particle of radioactive dust, each snowflake as it melts on skin, and every ember as the cities smolder. Villeneuve enlists legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins to photograph his expertly designed world, and Deakins, who has crafted worlds for everything from Shawshank Redemption (1994) to Skyfall (2012), revels in it. This may be his finest work. When K has landed in bombed out Las Vegas to find Deckard, he walks through air saturated with red dust. Half-seen statues loom around him. In the haunting moment when Deckard comes face to face with a ghost from his past, Deakins lighting and precise focus highlights the shifting power and fear in the room. For Wallace’s floating office, Deakins enlisted a ring light of his own design to create an ethereal landscape, bathed in yellowed shadows.
Together, Villeneuve and Deakins have crafted a world like nothing I have ever seen. From frame to frame they fashion a world of out of images as poetic as anything that has been put to page. They and the production team rely sparingly on CGI, opting to build massive sets, matching each with its own particular palette: the streets of L.A. are chained to greys and blues, Deckard’s Las Vegas is coated in reds and oranges, and Wallace’s headquarters are an endlessly unsettling scheme of mustard and black. I challenge you to find a still from this film that is not worthy of framing.
I have intentionally not lingered on the performances in this film because it strikes me that what the actors do seems rather subsidiary to how they look while doing it. Gosling is fine in the role of K, and Villeneuve seems to be subverting the type of character we associate him with. The performance is bland, seemingly intentional in its detachment. Gosling looks like the hero, but he is only defined by those that he comes in contact with in this film, and so it is the supporting cast that stand out. The already mentioned Bautista is superb, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Wallace’s hand-crafted second-in-command, is a scene-stealer. She radiates outward the internal battle between wanting to make her creator proud, and hating the control he exercises over her and the other replicants. Wright turns the possibly one-note character of police lieutenant into a deliciously pulpy genre transplant: she seems to have walked out of a 1950’s film noir and into this new world. It is a treat to see Ford return as Deckard, and he is given more to do here than in The Force Awakens (2015). That film relied on looking back on how we felt for Han Solo; this one looks forward, to how we would feel as Deckard.
I don’t think Dick, Scott, or Villeneuve have the answer to the questions they pose about what makes us human, which I am grateful for. The attempted comprehension of what makes us tick has inspired gifted artists to grapple with the question on the page, on the canvas, and on the screen. Blade Runner 2049 plummets us into a landscape so completely that we are forced to consider what it would mean to be a person within it. The idea of replicants and the repercussions of such advancements were terrifying in Blade Runner and it remains so 35 years later in Blade Runner 2049. But that is the joy of it. Villeneuve has no intention of answering Dick’s question, or shutting the door on the world Scott introduced us to. He has instead lent his vision to the oeuvre of humanistic exploration, and we are better for it.