Denis Villeneuve’s legacy sequel is the marvel of sci-fi cinema in 2017, but it owes a lot to 1982.
There’s a lot to be said about the vision of 2019 in the original Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi opus, regardless of which cut you’re watching, is a massive, meticulously crafted world that’s meant to feel lived in. From its towering Aztec-inspired megastructures to its claustrophobic street-level markets, the world of Rick Deckard and his quest to retire illegal replicants is as vivid a cinematic memory as we have in our collective consciousness. And that’s even without delving into the fun stuff, like the crazy hairdryers or the almost post-apocalyptic fashion sense.
Perhaps the most indelible thing about the original Blade Runner is the feeling we have — that we’ve carried with us through the years — of what it was like to step into that world. The slow pans as Deckard’s flying car rolls over the horizon, Vangelis’ booming synthesizer score guiding us above a futuristic world that yearns to explored further, even though we, like Deckard, are focused on the task at hand. It’s the magic of the unexplored corners and alleys of 2019 Los Angeles. The promise of a world with so much more to offer than a rumination about the very essence of humanity. When you stop and think about it, the original Blade Runner exists at the intersection of a thoughtful, albeit simple story concept, and magnificent world-building. Perhaps this is why so many sci-fi fans have allowed themselves to become attached to the original and its many forms. Why, against the better judgment of time management, we are willing to explore the Director’s Cut, The Final Cut, and any other version we can find. It’s a world we want to live in.
With Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve understands this truth above all else. It’s about the world you build and how much time the audience gets to spend in it. And if there’s an emotional payoff inside said world, it’s all on the shoulders of your cast. The story within 2049‘s world is very simple. Villeneuve’s film is never hiding anything from its audience. Which means two things. One, it relies heavily on the eyes of its star, Ryan Gosling, to deliver much of the film’s emotional punch. And two, when it finally gets to the “big twist” (or one of several smaller twists), there’s less surprise and more of a sense of release. For some keen observers, this might be a problem. A story turn that feels flat in the end.
But to get wrapped up in the minutiae of Blade Runner 2049‘s story is to lose sight of the film’s true purpose. It is, above all else, a magnificent, almost perfect realization of the world Ridley Scott began building in 1982. From the design carryover of the hulking heart of Los Angeles to a series of holographic marvels in its buffet of digital creations, 2049 is a magnificently crafted world. Villeneuve is more than happy to allow his audience time to bask in its glory. It’s what makes 163 minutes of exploration still somehow not enough.
It’s not hyperbole to say that this is the most magnificent technical achievement we’ve seen in cinema in a long while. Plenty of films have tricks — a single amazing special effect, a particularly nifty production design, a score that shakes your soul inside of your body. But few films combine a version of all of these things as well as Villeneuve’s revival. Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer deliver familiarity and nuance in the film’s score. You feel it in your chest when that synth fires up. Production designer Dennis Gassner has rebuilt the world not to exact specifications, but to a vision of what the 1982 film’s world should look like without the limitations of its time. It’s the perfected version of what Scott and team were building.
And finally, there’s Roger Deakins. The legendary cinematographer whose involvement in this project was enough to wet the whistles of many a film nerd. The way Deakins uses light and the absence of light is at the heart of his incredible work. There are scenes flush with light and dust — you’ve seen these in the trailer, they are bright orange — in which Deakins follows Gosling’s ‘K’ through the radiated ruins of Las Vegas, slowly revealing massive humanoid structures that once would have appeared as welcoming titans of Pleasuretown. Elsewhere in the film, there are scenes that are almost completely stripped of light, save for the interior lights of a car or a single beam through a window. At no point does Deakins’ camera ever lose sight of the details of the world. It makes the exploration of this fantastical future all the more fascinating and beautiful.
Blade Runner 2049 ultimately calls into question what we require from our blockbusters, just as its story continues the question of the original, asking what we require to be truly human. Do our blockbusters need to deliver perfect emotional responses, as replicants trying to pass as human would? Or is the fact that what we’re looking at is imperceptible from the real thing enough? It’s a simple story with several earnest, grounded performances from Gosling, Harrison Ford, and even Jared Leto. But it’s wrapped in the most beautifully complex packaging to create an experience that is otherworldly. In this way, 2049 is the ultimate successor to Blade Runner. It’s the full realization of what Ridley Scott started building in 1982.