I’ve seen Blade Runner a half-dozen times, but the one viewing of the film that sticks out for me isn’t the first time I saw it – complete with lackadaisical voiceover and VHS fuzziness – nor the most recent, from a freshly-purchased Blu-ray steelbook. What I remember most is being slick with dancesweat, dazed with drunkenness, seeing snippets of film screened – sans audio – on the wall of a crowded nightclub. Excised of plot, of dialogue, of coherency, the purity of the film’s visual potency struck me in a way the film hasn’t been able to before or since.
I suspect that Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic, would play equally effective in those circumstances. 2049 is visually intoxicating. It’s indebted to the art design of the original film, but it trades the perpetual rain and crowded anxiousness for something sparer. In concert with Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins – who surely, surely earns his first Oscar here – crafts stunning images that abstract and iterate on the insignificance of the human experience. This is a cold film, viewing its protagonists as insects crawling on the face of a derelict metal sphere. The oppressive busy-ness of the first film has decayed into oppressive emptiness.
One of the reasons that Blade Runner played so well on that nightclub wall was the slenderness of its storyline. Trafficking in noir tropes, Scott’s original is remembered for its concept and themes more so than its narrative core. Blade Runner 2049 is much the same; a few days after seeing it, the specifics of its plot have begun to erode even as its images are scored into my brain.
It seems counterproductive, then, to complain about Villeneuve’s request that critics omit any plot particulars from their reviews. Not only because I’ve always resisted the laziness of padding out a review with a couple paragraphs of synopsising (does anyone do anything but skim past these?), but because 2049’s plot is by far its least interesting element. It’s a detective story that drowns in detail, that struggles to execute twists through an internal logic that crumbles upon reflection. (One specific complaint – how easy or difficult the replicants are to identify in this film makes no sense.)
Audiences watching 2049 for the storyline – or even the action, which is thin on the ground – will likely be disappointed by the film’s deliberate pacing. Which is probably why publicists are keen for critics to avoid going into specifics in their reviews; it instead forces us to focus on the things that do work: the cinematography, the performances, the themes of oppression and resistance and transhumanism, did I mention the cinematography? It’s smart PR because the only issues I have with 2049 are minor quibbles about its plot: beyond that (and Jared Leto), the film is a straight-up masterpiece. Much like Scott, Villeneuve again demonstrates – as he did with Prisoners and Sicario – that he can weave mediocre screenplays into gold.
At its best, Blade Runner 2049 is a film about negotiating the notion of identity in the dense lattice of a technological society. Villeneuve amplifies the first film’s themes of complicity in an oppressive society: our inability to resist, our implicit support of subjugation through obedient existence. Despite looking back – to the first film, to the Bible, to Brazil, to noir, to Her, to Tarkovsky – and despite looking forward to the future, the film feels vividly contemporary. Our social interactions monitored by faceless corporations. Our memories confined to handheld devices, or recreated as corrupted simulacra. Our ‘freedom’ restricted to the inside of a cage.
These themes aren’t entirely disheartening because they’re executed with a lightness of touch. Where Scott’s film was overwhelmed by despairing nihilism, Villeneuve subtly emphasises the glints of hope gleaming through the murk. Despite the (more!) overtly dystopian setting, there’s a morality here that felt muted in Blade Runner that struggles to assert itself.
There’s beauty, too. The film’s most extraordinary scene is a love scene with the slenderest bearing on the wider storyline, but its execution – which plays with artificiality and intimacy, identity and sexuality – is stunning in its originality. As two bodies blend into one – literally – we find ourselves questioning the solidity of our perception of reality. This single scene is more effective, more memorably than reams of analysis over whether or not Deckard is a replicant (a question thankfully left unresolved here), and it’s easily the best thing I’ve seen on a cinema screen this year. Like seeing the first film on that nightclub wall, it’s an image whose potency transcends context and narrative. That’s Blade Runner 2049 at its best: a singular, unforgettable experience.