There Will Be Criticism: Blade Runner 2049
By Simon Tessmer
Editor's Note: There Will Be Criticism is a weekly column by Simon Tessmer, a film student at MSU. Tessmer's other reviews can be read on his blog. Tessmer's criticism will be published on Fridays. Check out his last weekly column on "American Made" here.
Denis Villeneuve is my favorite living director. Discovering his filmography was the uncovering of a treasure trove, a shocking revelation that a contemporary director could so reliably produce work that leaves me changed, that infects my sense of the world and permanently alters my lived experience. His relatively fresh status as a proper Hollywood auteur is one of the few true gifts kept alive in this morally desolate and shameful era in United States history.
In keeping with Villeneuve’s directorial track record, Blade Runner: 2049 is an incredible film, infinitely more thoughtful and nuanced than the original movie (released in 1982, directed by Ridley Scott), a strange relic of 1980s culture that remains visually resonant but for me lacks the humanistic transcendence it’s reputed to contain. Villeneuve improves upon the source material’s positive aspects, visual style and noir-ish existentialism, and smartly updates that which Ridley Scott’s movie lacked, sensible performances and thoughtful gender politics. While in many ways 2049 is a perfect movie, it withholds the overwhelming emotional kick I’ve become accustomed to in Villeneuve’s work, an outcome that left me puzzled as I left the theatre.
2049 is set in the Blade Runner universe thirty years after the events of the original film. The world remains relegated largely to a dark, dystopic technologically saturated mega-city, where replicants (androids) used for slave labor on another planet have been legalized to some extent on Earth. However, certain models remain illegal and police officers known as Blade Runners are still dispatched to execute the rogue robots. K (Ryan Gosling) is one such Blade Runner, whose discovery of a revolutionary feature in a deceased replicant launches him into an investigation that uncovers Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), protagonist of the original Blade Runner.
Gosling is a terrific actor who sees an expanded ability to suffer loss and violence in this film. He gets the shit beat out of him in a persona-stretching manner akin to Marlon Brando in The Chase (Arthur Penn, 1966) or Matt Damon in True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010), complimenting Ford’s lightly-cracked steely masculinity. Jared Leto is suitably unsettling as 2049’s Tyrell equivalent Niander Wallace, and Robin Wright is pitch perfect as K’s superior Joshi. Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas shine outstandingly as replicants of differing models, stealing the film in many respects with their measured brilliance.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins is an outrageous talent. His images beckon the spectator to salivate while their eyes bask in the projected light. In the pantheon of cinema history, his high status is well earned, for Deakins’ jaw-dropping visual genius is the most spectacularly consistent of nearly any other living Hollywood director of photography. His skills are on full display in 2049, as he fills the screen with dazzling pools of light and ominous, rich tones of orange and purple.
Villeneuve’s narrative sensibility marries perfectly with Blade Runner’s thematics, as he engages sensitively with notions of humanity, intimacy, loss, and systemic oppression with a moving pathos. He smartly dispenses with Scott’s static coldness, and instead injects layers of warmth within the framework of a harsh, hard boiled setting. 2049 also takes direct issue with the original Blade Runner’s misogyny, centralizing the importance of women in a manner that thoughtfully undermines the original film’s naked sexism.
Despite containing the ingredients of perfection, Villeneuve’s upward trajectory of producing more and more perfect works sees stasis in 2049. The ineffable, inarticulably powerful emotional devastation wrought from viewing Incendies (2011) or Arrival (2016) is noticeably absent, though were it not for this self-set standard I’d likely have nothing but praise for such an undeniably great work of science-fiction. Against my better judgement, however, I was a twinge disappointed by the film’s end, as I was hoping for an hour more of grander narrative revelations and soul-crushing epiphanies.
By Villeneuve standards, Blade Runner: 2049 is okay. It’s perfectly beautiful, thoughtful, emotional, and compelling—to be expected from an artist of such high caliber. By any other earthly standard, the standards of Hollywood or of science-fiction or from the original movie, 2049 is a masterpiece, a work of technical and narrative brilliance that is in every way excellent.