Second Sight: The Miracle of Blade Runner 2049

Science fiction at its core is about challenging the accepted fundamentals of human reality.  What defines us as a species, what are the limits of that definition (if they existed in the first place), and what lies beyond our practical understandings of the universe and our place within it?  In 1982, Ridley Scott's misunderstood masterwork Blade Runner joined a small fraternity of monumentally important science fiction films that redefined what was possible within the genre.  Fusing elements of neo-noir tragedy with baroque set pieces in a dystopian fever dream, a mark was made on the science fiction genre forever.  35 years later, Denis Villeneuve returns with Blade Runner 2049, continuing the story of AI's inevitable place among humanity.  

The importance of Villeneuve's effort is not in the kneejerk reactions of film lovers and critics.  There are imperfections alongside once-in-a-lifetime achievements that automatically catapult the film into the upper echelons of science fiction cinema.  What is of import is the fusing of Superhero big budget production numbers with art house craftsmanship and sensibilities, showcasing the possibilities of a major studio release.  As with Arrival, this is a dense, sprawling epic packaged in an expensive veneer that demands an unusual amount of patience from the average audience member.  Intense themes of identity, memory, sexual politics, and spiritual freedom are in play, while cinematic titans Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford light up the screen with some of the best performances of their careers. 

Hampton Fancher returns with Michael Green with a script that is steeped in homage and yet, manages to transcend its source material.  The Hero's Journey is a concept that has been deeply scrutinized with the rise of the superhero formula.  The monomyth's three stages: Departure, Initiation, and Return have been broken down and reinvented for decades.  With Blade Runner 2049, Fancher, Green, and Villeneuve subvert the well-established conventions by inverting the well-known recipe.  Gosling's K begins as an outsider, not part of the normal world.  The call for adventure, or in this case, investigation as a life or death order, is a matter of fact component of a peacekeeper's existence in a world he longs to be a part of it, rather than being a champion of its flawed ideals.  K traverses a labyrinthine web of conspiracies and manufactured mythologies where the final reward is not a powerful, situation reversing elixir, but the peaceful understanding of what defines him.  The return is more of an escort, the carrying of this knowledge back to a reality that has not changed and most likely never well.  It is in this small, falsely Pyrrhic victory that the genius of the film reveals itself.  

Gosling's performance as K is sensational.  Drawing inspiration from dozens of trench coat clad gumshoes and interesting outsiders to deliver an unforgettable amalgam of emotional turbulence and uncanny dedication, Gosling defies expectations.  He is supported by Harrison Ford, returning to his role of Deckard, but sidestepping noir expectations to reveal the wounded heart of the aftermath.  When the hunt has long ended, the hunters become rebels, outsiders whose murderous dedication to their purpose set them outside the confines of what they sought to protect.  Ford's mastery has rarely been matched in this performance.  Elements of his haunted detective in Witness and furious patriarch in Mosquito Coast rear their heads to remind viewers that underneath DL-44 blasters and bull whips, Ford is a true dancer.  

The question of Deckard's possible replicant origins are present and yet, in context of the living, breathing sprawl of Villeneuve's design, they do not matter and more importantly, 2049 asks "Did it ever?".  This is K's journey and Deckard's important role as a reluctant mentor enhances his odyssey by way of violence and regret.  This is juxtaposed by Jared Leto's inhumane billionaire, a synthesis of the darkest recesses of the free market creating a futuristic totem of avarice and class divide that permeates every frame of a future Los Angeles cherubic sorrow.  Everything is housed in Paul Inglis' unbelievable art direction.  While Scott's Los Angeles of 2019 was a steamy, noir lit metropolis, the world of 2049 has moved on, recovering from environment and electronic catastrophes to become a stratified purgatory of neon delights and sterile interiors.  Everything about the film says “look, but don't touch”, the perfect allegory for the replicants place in the world they've inherited.  

Roger Deakins' cinematography will garner him his 14th Oscar nomination.  This is a fact.  The visual compositions, aggressive color palette, and harmonious presentations are nothing short of a landmark achievement.  The Las Vegas sequence, drenched in Orange decay and haunted sculptures is some of the finest camerawork in the history of cinema, the crown jewel in a visual frenzy whose complexities will be dissected and analyzed for decades to come.    Alessandra Querzola's impeccable set design is the key, giving Deakins’ camera potent targets of opportunity in every frame.  Nothing is wasted, with every scene featuring dozens of clues, ideas, and nightmares to discover. 

Sex also plays a part.  The introduction of artificial intelligence is an interesting concept, but when explored through the lens of eroticism, its immediate relevance and complexity becomes clear.  This is simulated in a remarkable scene of romance that challenges expectations and yet seems perfectly natural, if somber, within context of the 2049’s ballad of self-discovery.  Attachments and memories have been thoroughly explored in Kaufman's The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Jones' Her, and yet, here, Villeneuve depicts love and ardor as qualities that transcend species, ideas that are the inherent right of life, no matter the origin.  While some may feel rebuked at the presentation, the understanding of transhumanity and its alien, but organic ideals makes perfect sense.   Certain countries have edited some of the pixelated nudity, including excising an essential revelation that defines one of the characters.  While this is saddening, it is an almost fitting atrocity, simulating the control that imprisons the fabricated denizens of Blade Runner's design.  

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's score is a terminal syringe, delivering deadly pulsations and thunderous conjurations at every step.  It is overwhelming, to the point that the mind often forgets it is watching a film as opposed to experiencing a revelation.  The absence of Vangelis's iconic score is noticeable, however, as the story unwinds and the viewer is submerged in the world as it is, the storied notes become a foundation for the new blood, a powerful inspiration whose influence is present at every audible turn.  Christopher Aud's sound editing is an essential addition, housing the gunplay and perfectly sparse dialogue within a massive warehouse of cascading booms that punctuate every twist in the narrative.  

The final act contains patches of hollowness, featuring unneeded expositions and obtuse inclusions of miraculous happenings and this is a fair admission.  The film runs almost three hours long and the slow burn presentation will most like repulse those who are expecting flashy firefights and Whedon-esque quips between the reveals.  The importance of their absence is in Villeneuve's monumental summation.  2017 is the year in which tentpoles have struggled and unexpected, ill marketed wunderkinds have struck gold, connecting with the hesitant zeitgeist at the heart of audiences who crave not only a good story, but a resounding, heroic respite from the horrors of social media journalism and word of mouth division.  Patience ultimately provides freedom.  

In theaters now, Blade Runner 2049 is an imperfect triumph, building upon its predecessor and presenting itself, flaws and all, to a world in dire need of fresh ideas and redemption.  This is a “see it to believe it” affair that rewrites the rules on what is possible with a major studio production.  Impossibly dense, glacially paced, and remarkably realized, this is one of the most essential films of the century.  To see it on the big screen, preferably in IMAX will not only garner an unforgettable viewing experience, it will implant the notion that audiences deserve more, be it in depth treatment of the latest spandex fad or tragic dreams of electric sheep.  

-Kyle Jonathan