The Flipside #9: ‘Blade Runner 2049’

A big-budget sequel to a certified cult classic is always a dicey cinematic prospect, but with Denis Villeneuve at the helm, the Flipside fellas just couldn't wait to see what this new work would enhance.

Sawdey: So apparently, in 2017, it is no longer controversial to hold the opinion that Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi epic, is not really a total masterpiece.

Although flush with Vangelis’ iconic score and a production design that set the tone for sci-fi films and anime for generations to come, the idea of a futuristic noir has always proved to be a compelling concept, updating and interpreting Isaac Asimov into some gritty modern context and somehow still relating to our current times and philosophical qualms. But as it stands, Blade Runner remains rather ponderous, drawn out, and frankly just too long. (Of course, for this debate, we’re talking about the latter-day Scott-tinkered cuts, not the studio-meddled compromised ending that was released into theaters.)

So thus, the only significant selling point for Blade Runner 2049 to me was the man running the show: the great Denis Villeneuve. There are some critics who have swallowed his filmography whole, calling everything he does tantamount to genius, and while no one can deny his ability to craft, films like the Lynch-ian Enemy and even Sicario come off as instantly watchable and occasionally thrilling but also cold, cynical. They reeked of style and dealt with heady concepts far removed from mainstream contemporary cinema, but while we can over-analyze the aliens and sudden appearances of massive spiders like any good film student would for Enemy, it wasn’t until 2016’s Arrival that it felt like Villeneuve came into his own.

Putting a generous amount of trust in his audience, Arrival was linear until it wasn’t anymore, curious until it became heartwarming, romantic until it became tragic. It wasn’t a perfect film (the soldiers being indoctrinated by right-wing news outlets honestly felt a bit tacked on), but the wallop it left you with, to say nothing of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s revelatory score, made me feel like Villeneuve had mastered every quadrant of his storytelling powers, being forward-thinking in philosophy, groundbreaking in visuals, trusting of his audience, and finally (finally) finding heart.

Thus, even with his name attached to a Blade Runner sequel, I was only moderately excited to see what he was going to come up with. He was flush with cash and had a much bigger sandbox to play, but given this was a sequel to an existing property — to say nothing of the fact that he wasn’t even writing the script — I had question marks dangling from my head as I entered the IMAX theater. Before I reveal the journey this thing took me on, what, Mr. Brice, were your expectations going into this?

Ezell: Like you, I came to Blade Runner 2049 with two different sets of expectations: one derived from the original Blade Runner itself, and the other from the filmography of Villenueve, who happens to be my favorite working director at the moment. Taken together, these two sources of expectation met in the middle, leaving me with a sense of cautious optimism. As much as I love Blade Runner, a flawed yet brilliant sci-fi classic, I have never felt it needed a sequel, largely because it feels like an idiosyncratic one-off for everyone involved. (The same can be said for a less-remembered Philip K. Dick adaptation, Richard Linklater’s gonzo 2006 rotoscope film A Scanner Darkly.) So upon first hearing about Blade Runner 2049 it felt like another iteration of the Nothing Can Ever End syndrome that’s infected contemporary filmmaking, in both television and cinema. To pick off some low-hanging fruit as an example, Fuller House got renewed for a second season.

But then there’s Villeneuve. The man has proven himself not just as a brilliant director with a sharp eye for shot composition, but also as an adapter of literature to film. Enemy — my favorite of Villeneuve’s pictures to date — envisions Jose Saramago’s novel The Double as a kind of chamber thriller, with the entire city of Toronto turned into a jaundiced landscape in which Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of his most underrated turns. Arrival, as you point out, takes a little-known short story and turns it into a high-stakes meditation on language and humanity. No one has ever accused philosophy for too easily lending itself to cinematic success, but Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer made a truly unforgettable film where the fate of humankind hinges on the philosophical questions posed by thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V.O. Quine. Brains and beauty coexist marvelously in Villeneuve’s style. If any director could assuage my cynicism about the endless sequelling and franchising of modern-day cinema, it’s Villeneuve.

Did he succeed? Well, like you, Evan, I saw Blade Runner 2049 at an IMAX theatre, and I’m glad I did. The images in this movie are astounding, perhaps even the best of Villenueve’s career. I could have sat through the entire 163 minutes of Blade Runner 2049 even if there was no audio at all. It’s that gorgeous. As Charles Mudede points out in his excellent analysis of Villeneuve’s shooting style, the cityscapes of 2049 Los Angeles — a true absurdity, in that L.A. actually gets snow in this film — aren’t as compelling as Scott’s envisioning of L.A. in the original Blade Runner. In contrast to the claustrophobia that defines much of Scott’s film, writes Mudede, Villeneuve “cleared a lot of clutter” in conceptualizing the shots of Blade Runner 2049. Mudede, a self-proclaimed “urbanist”, takes issue with this “clutter-less” style; to me, that style is precisely what makes Blade Runner 2049 such a visual triumph. Each shot feels like a painting, particularly in the movie’s third act, in which K (Ryan Gosling) finds the grizzled ex-Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) living in the seemingly inhospitable remains of a radioactive Las Vegas.

As for the story? Well, there I’m left a little wanting, especially considering how effectively Blade Runner repurposed the Miltonian creation myth in its cryptic, noir-inflected dialogue and narration. But before getting to that point, I’m wondering if you felt as immersed in Villenueve’s visuals as I did.

Sawdey: Let me stop you right there Brice: Fuller House got renewed for a third season. Get your facts straight. Jeez.

And secondly, as stunning as every technical element is, there is a bit of bandwagon writing that needs to happen right now. As we discussed at length in our first episode of PopTalk, there are easily-debatable merits about the Academy Awards and whether getting “Oscar gold” or being snubbed for it even matters in a purely commercial sense, but goddamn: give Roger Deakins his Oscar already. As one of the most commanding modern-day cinematographers to ever live, his name being spoken in the same sacred breaths as Conrad L. Hall, the visual supper presented in 2049 absolutely transported and immersed me. I truly felt like I lived in the world of this film, in grand terms, and while you would be content to see this film without sound, I would’ve been happy to see this movie had it been twice as long (and it already clocks in at a mighty 2h45m). Rarely do I feel major studio epics justify their length, but after Arrival proved that there are existing audiences for heady and truly challenging material, 2049 never once felt overbearing. Each scene and element (save a few trims) existed because it needed to.

Yet that wasn’t even the best feature to this piece of skinjob cinema, no. What I loved about 2049 is how it didn’t necessarily subvert expectations at every turn, but found something “new” to do at every turn.

You want a sex scene? How about one where the hologram AI that K has at his apartment, the one that has been developing feelings for him, hires a prostitute to come over that it can “sync” with so he believes the actual physical act is real. To have an overarching villain like Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace arc go relatively unresolved by the end of the movie, him and K never actually meeting once? A surprisingly bold move. Then, for K to have his journey, his revelation that he might be “the one,” the first-ever naturally-born replicant, only to later have that taken away from him? That was truly a twist I did not see coming. Heck, even in the one rare sequence that 2049 “calls back” to the original film, involving footage and then a flesh revelation of Sean Young’s Rachael, is used in pointedly sadistic narrative terms.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. I know you had issues with the plot (and, in truth, K’s visit to a child labor camp went on a bit too long before getting to the necessary memory revelation the plot needed), but I take it you left the film with a favorable smile, much like a real human because you’ve made a point over the years of insisting you’re not actually a replicant?

Ezell: When I left the theatre after Blade Runner 2049, I did feel as if I had left a world and come back to my own. I certainly don’t want to live in Villenueve and Deakins’ vision of a post-apocalyptic 2049 Los Angeles, but it’s a credit to their work that when I was in it, I forgot where I was. Hell, had the camera explored the charred remains of Las Vegas for another five minutes, I’m not sure I would have been bothered at all. For a somewhat languid, almost three-hour film, Blade Runner 2049 sure doesn’t feel like one. Between Skyfall and now Blade Runner 2049, Deakins has amassed enough superlative films on his résumé to more than justify an Oscar win, even if the win primarily signifies the Academy’s dragging of feet in honoring him.

Yet even as I felt image-drunk after Blade Runner 2049, I also had plenty of nagging questions about the plot. Screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green deserve some commendations for not making the final act of the movie a Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque battle between the replicant rebels and the LAPD, but why do they shoehorn in said rebel army? (The cynic in me suggests, “Pathway to another installment,” but I could easily see the army being a vestigial remnant of an early screenplay draft.) Why does Wallace need to take Deckard off-world to torture him for information? What is the relationship between K’s employer, the LAPD, and Wallace’s replicant corporation?

I would chalk up the vagaries of these questions to the neo-noir style in which Blade Runner 2049 participates. Noir rarely privileges clear, linear plots, preferring labyrinthine paths into increasing uncertainty. The original Blade Runner itself concludes with dozens of unanswered questions in its wake: Is Deckard a replicant? What’s the deal with Edward James Olmos’ origami? But Villenueve’s film differs from Scott’s in (at least) one key respect when it comes to screenwriting: Fancher and Green’s script willingly indulges a lot of exposition and unsubtle figurative language. Blade Runner cryptically explores the relationship between creator(s) and the created; Blade Runner 2049 features an antagonist, Wallace, blinded like a seer and who speaks of his replicants as “angels”. He might as well have come out and said, “I am God.” Such unsubtle dialogue mars an early conversation between K and his boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) about whether or not replicants have souls.

Point being: Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t try to be as opaque as Blade Runner, meaning that plot holes and discrepancies feel less like noirish obscurantism but rather patchwork screenwriting. The plot never got so bad that I got distracted from the quality of the acting (uniformly great) or the filmmaking (superlative), although the sex scene you mention is essentially a visually striking recapitulation of the proxy sex scene in Spike Jonze’s Her. But I do feel that Blade Runner 2049 falls short of being a true masterpiece because no matter how much the images compel, the script doesn’t do the same heavy lifting.

Sawdey: And therein lies our disagreement, Mr. Ezell. Unlike certain recent films where production was so rushed they didn’t even get to film 15% of the script, the choices made here are deliberate, careful. Wallace’s little hovering droids and his snap-in neck installation pieces? Speculative. The fact that Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv can fire off pinpoint missile attacks on scavengers set on attacking K while getting her nails done? An omnipotent moment that feels strangely, unnervingly lived-in. The uprising aspects you talk about don’t bother me one bit: the fact that we’re left wondering if Deckard is a replicant himself remains an eternal movie mystery; the fact that we’re introduced to K as a replicant, and it’s he who has to wonder if he’s human as he has his own memories examined, again, tries to provide a twist on a cliche. Meeting the resistance army and finding out he’s not alone in thinking that he was convinced he was “the one”? How many other movies lead you down to that level of hope only to dash it in the end?

Truth be told, the one thing that was fitting but left me feeling a bit hollow was, in fact, the ending, with K hiding his wound for an astounding amount of time, only dying on the steps of Ana Stelline’s memory-manufacturing institute. While K’s sacrifice is noble, Deckard asking him what he’s doing it all for was a good question. As with most films that casually end with action sequences (and make no mistake, the damp fight between K and Luv at the end is ridiculous and satisfying all at once), part of the film’s real joy was in its constant state of discovery, with K’s dogged detective work, sometimes aided by his virtual live-in girlfriend, kept us hooked. The wrong guesses were as fascinating as the right ones, and small little twists like the tracking device dropped into K’s coat kept us in a constant state of apprehension, wondering when that payoff would spell dire consequences for all involved. It’s fairly standard plotting, but presented with enough clarity and verve that it actually felt refreshing.

Honestly, Gosling has had more than a few stare-ahead steely-eyed roles where he’s been able to fill in the gaps in the script with his sheer personality (think Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 effort Drive), but here, him taking on the role of K (a name that itself lends to the Kafkaesque journey his character goes on), everything is intensified. 2049 doesn’t fetishize pupils in to the degree that the original Blade Runner did, but the more you spend time looking into Gosling’s, the more you saw his world tremble and quake, making us think that for all his manufactured memories, maybe there was a soul in there afterall.

Personally, it feels like Harrison Ford phoned it in his paycheck — pardon — star turn a bit (he gave his turn on Han Solo a bit more oomph), but such quibbles are minor. At the end of the day, Blade Runner 2049 felt like a defiant mainstream masterpiece, and one I cannot wait to revisit again soon, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s Vangelis-indebted score leading me down the plot’s many neon-accented corridors. Brice, will you too live in crowded Los Angeles hallway with me, existing only to antagonize the people going to and from their futuristic space apartments?

Ezell: I mean, give LA maybe… three more years? Five? It’ll be there.

Blade Runner 2049 certainly dashes whatever expectations one might have for a major blockbuster. Villeneuve knew he couldn’t hope to re-create the cult classic vibe that’s now all but surrounded the original, and for that reason, he leaned into all the advantages his $150-plus million budget afforded him. Still, he and the screenwriters, as you say, avoid the easy plot devices. No, there’s no climactic battle: Gosling dies, snow coating his body like cast ashes, and Deckard reaches out to his daughter right as the film cuts to credits. Just as Villeneuve kept the focus of Arrival on Amy Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, and the aliens with whom she conversed (affectionately named Abbot & Costello), he chooses to anchor Blade Runner 2049 on the intimate family relationship that K discovers at the beginning of the movie. I suppose I might have come into the film expecting the big-picture stuff to be emphasized. Human cloning! Environmental catastrophe! L.A. looking even worse than it already does! Looking back on Blade Runner 2049 in light of our conversation here, my feeling is that I’ll need to watch it again in order to form my feelings about the screenplay fully. Admittedly, the gobsmackingly obvious God complex of Wallace might be caused more by Jared Leto’s insufferable method acting than the script. And if in the end what I feel about Blade Runner 2049 is that it’s a visually rhapsodic motion picture that invites immediate second (and perhaps even third) viewings, even as it runs nearly three hours, then it’s safe to say that Villeneuve’s cinematic success streak continues.

Sawdey: Can’t wait for us to discuss the new sequel in 35 years time.

Ezell: Hopefully we’ll both pass the Voight-Kampff test when that happens.

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