Film of the Week: Blade Runner 2049
The idea that a sequel could outclass its original exists firmly as an outlier rather than a norm. Not to say it’s correct, yet those that have fundamentally earned this status—The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Mad Max: Fury Road—still remain asterisked: ‘Is it really better?’ There is always some resistance, usually a harkening for originality over all else; yet it’s that originality that is key to both what makes a great sequel and why said sequels will always inspire debate. They don’t defer to the first vision, and tread their own path. Ridley Scott has seen this happen first hand: his (better) tight horror masterpiece Alien became a (still great) gung-ho American actioner in Aliens. Same idea, different execution: debate. Recently, he has seen his other widely deified sci-fi classic enter the fray, with the fantastic, Denis Villeneuve helmed Blade Runner 2049.
The original groundbreaking, existential cops-and-robbers tale morphed under the Canadian auteur into a soulful mystery and conspiracy thriller. Both are gloriously portentous neo-noir films, but they ask their questions from opposite ends of the same spectrum. Where Scott’s Deckard (Harrison Ford) was a human fearing he may be a replicant machine, Villeneuve’s K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant lost soul, yearning for humanity but distressed at its implications. 2049 allows new protagonist K to interact with Deckard’s greater story while forming his own questions; it compounds the narrative of the original while expanding upon its themes.
When replicants display an uncomfortable level of humanity (or: ‘go rogue’) their established place as a slave class becomes destabilised. Blade Runners like K and Deckard must provide ‘retirement’ (execution) as the only mandate. 2049 bolsters these concepts by linking replication with fertility. Should replicants reproduce, that instability splinters the upper echelons in two directions: suppress it to avoid humanisation of a subjugated class, or utilise it as a new means of manufacture. When a serving class is seen as non or less human, even their biological reality can be manipulated against them. Villeneuve has been quoted as saying that the world of Blade Runner, much like our own, is not kind to women. While their role is not as explicitly linked to servitude as replicants, each woman in the film is implicitly linked to some form of service. For the law, for corporations, for men. Villeneuve vilifies this depicted ‘present’ and looks to a more hopeful future. The women are the revolutionaries, those who will be and have been instilling change, and those who constitute the most interesting characters in dissecting the Blade Runner world. The cast is filled with a wealth of talent, from leads Ana de Armas and Robin Wright all the way through its supporting players (Krista Kosonen, interviewed by this site for her leading role in Tove, even features). Most fascinating though is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) as the diametric opposite of K: a replicant filled with empathetic rage for the horrors inflicted on her own kind, but too trapped within an inescapable system to change.
2049 is also the second sequel of 2017 to confront and subvert the hero’s journey narrative, after The Last Jedi—a film lambasted in quarters for its refusal to indulge the hero-by-birthright trope. 2049 establishes K as a worker who understands his place, his caste, his existence; until he doesn’t. This wandering soul discovers his manufactured memories may not just be real, but important to the wider world, and finds himself inserted into the great mystery, where a new existence and meaning may be bestowed from external to his self. Of course, as I said, subversion of these legends is Villeneuve’s game. K is taught to determine that his humanity comes from biology and circumstance rather than experience and individuation. Was he born, or was he manufactured? Memories don’t tell the whole truth, they hint to him of potential that he’s more than what he thinks he is; yet they also remind him of their, and his own, fabricated nature. He doesn’t have to be a legendary saviour, or even a human, or a replicant. His existence may just be proven by what he makes of it; his experiences, his choices, his morals—all to say, to be as humans are.
Technically, 2049 came into a year filled with established cinematographers hitting their (then) apex. Matthew Libatique crafted his most dizzying, disturbing subjective camerawork as he clung to Jennifer Lawrence in predominant close-up in mother!; Phillipe le Sourd turned 35mm film and candlelight into gorgeous curations in The Beguiled; and Dan Laustsen motivated his appropriately fluid (literally always moving) camerawork through every shade of the ocean in The Shape of Water; among other talented works. Roger Deakins’ work on 2049 stood front and centre among this glut. In retrospect, 2049 serves as the first of his twin magnum opus, demonstrating his supernatural ability to compose and sculpt light as much as 1917 showed his technical mastery of motivation. Shooting spherical 2.40:1 on an Alexa XT, he and his team managed to capture the vastness and detail of the brutalist architecture of the world (props to the majesty of the production designers and set builders) while inhabiting it with soft, ‘living’ light. Working with gaffers Bill O’Leary and Krisztián Paluch, he composed lighting grids that would perfectly light the subjects, and create extravagant backdrops of organic, geometric light. In one scene, the backdrop is lit through reflections off rippling water, while the actors are lit through a rotating light; constructed from 300 individual lights in concentric circles, turning off and on in a chase sequence overhead. Deakins’ has publicly commented on the irony of that scene: the fortress of a blind man in control of replicant production unknowingly swathed in moving lights that all feel alive, and breathing. Outside, the world is swamped in colour and obscurity. White mist, grey smog, yellow and red dust storms: the decaying world is being swallowed by colour and light. Much like their plight, the characters become isolated inside, and by, the visual mire of the world around them. The world in 2049 is not kind. The film 2049 is beyond generous to its audience.
It won’t get the credit for developing an original world as Blade Runner did, and it suffers from a lack of cultural contextualisation that age begets, yet 2049 deserves praise for how it develops an existing world in original ways that feel pertinent to the present. For its technical ingenuity and total commitment to expanding upon fascinating themes, I’ll side with the sequel in this debate.