All words: Alan Pyke
It’s a destabilizing time to be alive, so much so that even the bedrock of one’s own tastes and cravings are like to go all tectonic on you at odd, fraying moments. “They’re making a new Blade Runner!!!” you might’ve thought a couple years back, six near-identical tweets on the news sliding down your magic pocket rectangle.
Only for the vertigo to come clopping up at you, hard to heels of the rushing elation. “tHeY’rE mAkInG a NeW bLaDe RuNnEr!?!?!?!”
How to explain that internal yaw? Do I want more of that thing I love, or do I dread it? Am I happy they shall finally expand the cathedral in my mind, or am I panicked they’ll crack the stained glass, loot the wine, scamper off to their barbarian camp with a squealing nun saddlebagged over each shoulder? Why. Why would they? How could they? (Unless!) What folly man, to cast stones at giants, or some shit? What the fuck, Ridley? Leave it alone! (Unless!)
And then two years of mounting dread — at least for the right-thinking obsessive fans of the original (or its proper version, sans spoon-feeding voiceover, sans saccharine bow-tied ending). There was, quite simply, no POSSIBLE way this could be a good idea. All you’ll do, you nitwits, is fail to learn George Lucas’ lessons. Stop picking at it if you want it to heal!
Let the trepidatious scales fall from your eyes, friends. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just a very good picture. It’s a whole new lovely wing on your brain-cathedral, each detail of the stonework lovingly retrofitted and delicately seamed so a quick gaze wouldn’t necessarily notice where original turns to addition. It’s a seat-shaking eye-flattering honorarium to the franchise (seventeen versions of one film allows the grandiose noun).
There is almost nothing worth saying about the plot. The studio delivered a frustrating list of spoiler-avoidance requests to all of us who write about it this week, but details of story are not omitted here out of fealty to faceless promoters. You simply don’t need to know What Happens In The Movie to understand why it is Good.
There are replicants and humans. There are cities and wastelands. Humanity gets its protein from industrially-harvested grubs grown on farms too techno-stale to support anything like our current rural communities. There are flying cars and grounded sex workers. These things all interact, over a surprisingly fleet two hours and forty minutes. Done. Leave it.
If Denis Villeneuve’s treatment of Scott’s world falls short anywhere, it is in the new film’s determination to foreshadow a bit too much. The same dubious studio suits who forced Scott to layer awful voiceover dialog into the original release of Blade Runner can be felt in the wings here, tweaking this or that moment of dialog, coming a bit too close to the spoonfed calamity of that old, controversial voiceover track.
But this is the unkindest thing that can be fairly said about Villeneuve’s work here. Enough. What works: Every performance. Every shot. Every editing choice. Every stern yet subtle shift in color palette as our scenery flits from Bakersfield to Los Angeles to San Diego to Las Vegas. Every effect and casting choice and pitter-pat of is-he-or-isn’t-he interrogation of what it means to be a human.
The truest note Villeneuve strikes is also his quietest. Scott’s original worked so well as world-building because it projected our future outward with feet planted in the present. None of the sighing doors and sleek comms badges of your shinier sci-fi franchises. The impossible digitality of an imagined future met the hereditary clunk of mechanical reality.
Villeneuve carries this torch high. The analog details nuzzled into the collarbones of 2049‘s post-ecocatastrophe Internet of Things never scream into your eyes. By the end of the first hour, maybe, you’ll begin noticing them. Not just the obvious – the piano here, the rattling slide track of a hologram projector there – but the miniscule. Our hero’s car flies and has an on-board AI-driven drone, but its control panels are still buttons swaddled in thick plastic like you’d find in an emergency responder vehicle today. Yes, there’s a medical examiner using laser scalpels and futurisitic optical gear. But the doors into his lab swing on two-way hinges familiar to every Law & Order fan and waitress in the world.
These details of props and set and mise-en-scene are deeply loved by their camera. Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have composed an immaculate series of frames and pans. Almost no frame in the film is fully symmetrical. Even as it builds a rational set of institutions and personal relationships, grounding itself carefully in the expectation-building work common to all cinema, the intentional asymmetry of each shot piles up a sense of canted unease on the viewer.
Patience, trust in the material and actors and tech people, and the confident compositional hand of a master infiltrate the thing. Yes, this has grand potboiler tensions of plot. Yes, you’ll get brain-teasing philosophical puzzles from this or that character as you go (though none so toweringly elegiac as tears in rain, a sensible thing to give up on topping the original here).
But they aren’t what will keep you, make you want to go back a second time high or not-high just for contrast’s sake. Instead, it will be the meditative quality of the way Villeneuve unfurls his tale, lets the icy grays of a future farm give way to the glittering black-and-neon city familiar from our original. They were updated subtly: the ads we overhear for trips “offworld” no longer aim at would-be colonists, sounding more like tourist ads for the hyper-rich now that 30 years have passed since Deckard stalked Batty through all that rain-drenched drywall.
And then you will leave. Return to your world, blinking a bit at the light perhaps but not staggering out of the primordial soup of intellectual confusion that attends the original.
2049 is not a failure by any means. But it does fail to deliver the same kind of crazy-making what-is-real wonderment inspired by the first film decades ago. That’s not the film’s fault. It’s the world around you – too real, too broken, too simple. We’ll all be getting our protein from eating bugs soon enough, the glossy magazine writers keep saying. But we shit-sure won’t live long enough to watch them harvested in industrial greenhouses that cover wastelands that used to house Amazon shipping stations and wine country.