Films of the year: Blade Runner 2049 (2nd place)
NB: The following contains spoilers for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049.
A truly great movie has to work not only as a coherent story, but also moment-to-moment, scene to scene. If it doesn’t advance the story or tell us something important about the characters within it, even the best action sequence will fall flat. This is why Blade Runner 2049 succeeds so spectacularly well: it’s a lengthy film, clocking in at well over two and a half hours, but its construction is such that just about every shot and exchange has meaning in its greater story.
Take Blade Runner 2049’s opening sequence: a tense and lengthy exchange in a house in the middle of nowhere. A pot’s bubbling away on the stove; an air of dread hangs unmistakably in the air. In many respects, it’s an odd way to start a movie set in a dystopian future America; other directors might have gone straight for the obvious shot of towers stretching up into the night sky and flying cars zooming out of the screen. Instead, director Denis Villeneuve goes for the exact opposite: a sequence shot in the pale light of day, in a desolate wasteland far outside the city limits.
Those familiar with the original Blade Runner’s production will know that it’s partly a homage to a scene originally planned for the 1982 film, but later cut. Yet the opening sequence is more than that: it’s a bold statement of intent, a sure signal that Blade Runner 2049 wants to couch its story in character rather than action and spectacle. The scene introduces Ryan Gosling’s K, a new form of artificial human (or Replicant, of course) created by the late Eldon Tyrell’s successor, Niander Wallace (a bearded Jared Leto). Like Rick Deckard before him, K is a Blade Runner, an assassin whose task is to track down and kill earlier models of Replicant, like the guy who works on the protein farm, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, whose little round spectacles make him look oddly vulnerable).
The opening scene establishes the beginning of an arc that we’ll follow for the rest of the film: K is a reluctant killer; in thrall to his boss, Joshi (Robin Wright) but quietly longing for greater purpose. Searching Morton’s farm, K stumbles on a clue that will unlock a years-old mystery: that of a long-dead Replicant who, miraculously, gave birth to a child. Joshi orders K to hunt down the child and kill it; K begins to investigate, and a series of clues lead him to suspect that he may be the very creature he’s meant to track down – the first infant born of a non-human.
Blade Runner 2049 positively brims with beautiful cityscapes and swooning music, yet the story it tells is wonderfully intimate. That $185 million was spent on making the movie might lead us to suspect that it would involve some kind of vast, save-the-world plot; instead, it remains true to the original Blade Runner’s noir roots. In essence, it’s a detective story, with all the existential angst and longing often found in that particular genre. K is a solitary figure, shunned both by humans and other Replicants alike; his one flicker of warmth is itself artificial – the hologram, Joi (Ana de Armas), whose ethereal quality constantly leaves us wondering whether she’s truly sentient or the result of clever programming.
Then again, there’s a pleasing ambiguity to just about all the characters in Blade Runner 2049. The opening crawl states that Wallace’s new Replicants will obey his orders with out question. So what are we to make of Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), whose body language suggests she’s constantly straining against the limits of her own programming? Doesn’t she display a flicker of affection for K, even as she’s sent to hunt him down? (Harrison Ford also deserves praise for a superb, committed performance as an aging Deckard.)
That ambiguity makes Villleneuve’s future dystopia feel all the more organic and real. The technology, like the terrifying piece of equipment used to interrogate K during his “baseline tests”, is all of a piece with a society where science has magnified our species’ failings rather than solved them.
It’s brave indeed to make a film this smart and restrained, and braver still to release it near the height of the summer blockbuster season. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, mass audiences didn’t flock to take in Villeneuve’s chilly sci-fi thriller; it’s arguable, though, that 2049 will do what Blade Runner did 35 years before it: continue to build an army of fans for decades to come.