by: Chris Thompson
The case for Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 as the best film released in 2017…
Director Denis Villeneuve has been making a name for himself over the last several years. In 2011, Variety selected him as one of their top ten filmmakers to watch, and that same year, The New York Times listed his Academy Award nominated film Incendies as one of the ten best films of 2011. Soon after, Villeneuve directed 2014’s Prisoners, another Academy Award nominated film for Best Cinematography, and then in 2015 he directed the critically-acclaimed crime thriller Sicario. Subsequently, the talented filmmaker went on to direct 2016’s Arrival, a film widely-praised for its thoughtful explorations on communicating with extraterrestrials. The film topped numerous publications’ Best Films of the Year list, was selected by the American Film Institute as one of their Ten Films of the Year, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Director, and eventually went on to win an Oscar that year for Best Sound Editing. To say the least, Villeneuve has been on a bit of a directing tear lately, and with the success of Arrival, seemed poised to release another phenomenal film.
When it was announced that a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner was in the works, it was no surprise to many that Denis Villeneuve was confirmed as having been passed the directing baton. Directed by legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott (Aliens, Gladiator, The Martian), the original Blade Runner left a legacy that has grown to that of cult status, taking on a life of its own as its societal and environmental commentary has been recognized for paralleling numerous modern day issues. With Villeneuve at the helm of the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, and with Ridley Scott in the role of Executive Producer, there was a general consensus among fans of the original film that he would be a worthy stand-in for Scott, and just the person to usher the world of Blade Runner into the twenty-first century.
That said, returning a cult classic like Blade Runner to the big screen is no easy feat. For many, the original film has been elevated by its fan base to an almost god-like status, and any mention of messing with the “purity” or “sanctity” of the original film is likely to blow up internet fan sites, blogs, and social media platforms with criticism and commentary about messing with or diluting the quality of the original material. It’s a challenge that Hollywood seems to tackle every few years, frequently chasing profit over quality in their endeavors, and which is often met with disastrous results. Case in point: George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, American Psycho’s sequel American Psycho 2: All American Girl, the Mean Girls sequel Mean Girls 2, and one of my all time let downs, the sequel to Donnie Darko, the terribly unwatchable S. Darko, just to name a few. Suffice to say, Villeneuve, if he wanted Blade Runner 2049 to be successful, had to understand that he was making more than just a film. He was charged with satisfying the Blade Runner junkies who have experienced five different versions of Ridley’s sci-fi film throughout the ensuing years in pursuit of a deeper understanding of its iconic film noir world.
One of the most anticipated films of 2017, Blade Runner 2049 not only packed a talented starring cast in Ryan Gosling (the replicant K), Jared Leto (the technologist Niander Wallace), Harrison Ford (revising his role as Rick Dekard), and Ana de Armas (as the holographic companion Joi), but also included a spectacular set of performances from its supporting cast, including Robin Wright (House of Cards), the always surprising Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Lennie James (The Walking Dead,), Edward James Olmos (BSG, “So say we all!”) and the somali-born actor Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips). Originally reaching out to rapper-producer El-P, one half of the masterly rap duo Run the Jewels, to provide the musical score for the film, Villeneuve eventually settled on famed composer Hans Zimmer, working in concert with Benjamin Wallfisch, because the director “needed something different” for the film. A veteran of over 150 films, including 2017’s Dunkirk, and a winner of an Academy Award and multiple Grammys and Golden Globes, Zimmer’s inclusion brought to the film a musical score that at times not only serves to draw the viewer into the film but also to push them away. Often times the soundscapes in the film take on an active role, as if it is an unseen actor existing within the ruined dystopia of 2049’s West Coast.
Most notably, there is a scene in the films third act where Harrison Ford’s character, a much older-looking Rick Dekard, is fighting with the younger, seemingly more capable replicant, K, played convincingly by Ryan Gosling. The two have found themselves in the darkened lounge of a once-grand mega casino, long abandoned amongst the radiation-choked wastes of a future Las Vegas. As Dekard and K battle it out, each suspicious of the other, the lounge intermittently sparks to life, with obscene bursts of sound and light, not to mention holographics of an Elvis in his heyday and legions of feathered, long-legged showgirls. There is an intense, often harsh interplay between the sputtering lounge, the two characters slugging it out, and the fierce bursts of light and sound that are thrown at the viewer. At times Dekard and K trade blows in almost silence, save for the sounds of their scuffle, but at other times, that are as random as they are jarring, the lounge bursts into full resplendence, as if the last thirty years of neglect and abandonment had never occured and business at the casino was as usual. The scene created is akin to a record skipping, but what the record is playing at is the struggle for life, life albeit artificial in nature, with the occasional pound of human flesh mixed in for good measure. What transpired in that casino lounge of the future is as evocative and intense of a scene as I have ever witnessed or heard on film, and one that is a perfect encapsulation of the combined genius at work in Blade Runner 2049, scene after scene.
With immersive cinematography that raises the viewer to dizzying heights and plunges them to lowly depths, of both the physical and virtual world, Villeneuve’s inclusion of famed Cinematographer Roger Deakins, referred to as “the pre-eminent cinematographer of our time” by the president of the American Society of Cinematographers, only added to the assembled talent working to craft Blade Runner’s sequel. Adding in a team of skillful set designers and CGI alums tasked with building the dark, chaotic, and eerily familiar world of Blade Runner 2049, both in miniature and with the aid of computers, Villeneuve brought together an all-star team more than capable of deepening and expanding the beloved Blade Runner story so expertly crafted by Ridley Scott thirty-five years ago.
The result of all these combined efforts is a film that is as stunning as it satisfying, one that picks up on the original narrative thirty years after it left off and crafts a new, original story that hits on all fronts. The film is at moments satirical and romantic, tragic and lonely, beautiful and joyless, and time after time in well-crafted scene after scene, from the silent, light painted halls of the pyramidal Wallace Corporation to a wasteland orphanage in a ruined San Diego to the towering headquarters of the LAPD, the viewer is treated to a visual feast and a sonic journey into the vast unknown that is the world of Blade Runner 2049.