The question of what it means to be human and existential angst will never be exhausted by the medium of film. Pinocchio, AI, Ex Machina and, hell, even Alien: Covenant, ring to mind as the sizzling hot Denis Villeneuve ventures into the purest of sci-fi worlds, creating the most reverent follow up to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. 35 years on, Blade Runner 2049 is in familiar philosophical territory, probed with such confidence, style and ambition.
It’s not for nothing that the first shot of the film is the extreme close up of someone’s eye. We are being invited to search for something, much like the central character, K (Ryan Gosling), and the answer is closer him than he thinks. But K, a Blade Runner in a dystopian Los Angeles, begins his journey, in more conventional manner; with a mission to track down a rogue replicant gone into hiding, instantly evoking Harrison Ford’s Deckard. Within the first ten or so minutes, it’s clear we are dealing with a delicately crafted narrative and the first unexpected beat recalibrates the way we contextualise proceedings.
The first replicant we become aware of, played by a quietly impressive Dave Bautista, sparks the noir elements of this film into life as the first mystery of this film presents itself to K. Some doors lead us as far back as the 1982 film, which was anchored in a surprising amount of biblical allusions. The theological influences seem like the most compelling aspects of . Aside from the noir and sci-fi inflections, this film could be aptly described as a biblical epic – a confluence of the story of Moses and Jesus, sprinkled with that sense of a fate foretold. The spectre of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty and his nail pierced hands hover over this film and the complexities he embodied abound, which Villeneuve handles with a calm that mirrors his central character.
I feel like I have garnered more from the world of cinema than sermons and Sunday school when it comes to the idea of man being made in the image of God. What followed this was a degree of hubris that aligned us firmly with Lucifer. Man always seems to be trying to accrue all knowledge and reach the heavens. Is the entitlement garnered from the “in His image” tag the reason for this pathology? Is that why in 2049, there is even talk of conquering the stars and reclaiming Eden by the ambitious head of the corporation developing a new breed of replicants?
It’s impossible to get to the crux of this film’s themes without jumping into spoiler territory. The screenplay is so deft and penetrating, carried home by near-perfect pacing and the performances to match. By the time the film’s resolution comes around and the traces of Vangelis suck the air out of your lungs, you come to appreciate the great work Gosling has put in. There is deep sadness underpinning K’s arc, which requires Gosling to tap into streams of angst and despair. He derives what little joy and warmth from his relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas who is also very good), which shifts from bizarre to very enthralling.
Of course, draped over everything are Roger Deakins gorgeous visuals of this futuristic setting, which are dizzying and suffocating mostly in a good way. Sometimes I feel Deakins tries too hard, like in Sicario, where it just messed with my surface engagement with that film. In truth, it’s really a testament to his ability to just captivate and immerse one in the world on-screen. I felt myself straining to imagine the feel of snowflakes falling caressing one’s skin or trying to conceive the force with the crashing waves would hit me with. I think that’s where the pacing comes in, edited in such a manner where the visuals are not competing with the actors. Deakin’s work with the light and Villeneuve’s framing even become a character unto itself. The best visuals come late in the film when K visits the hazy wasteland of Las Vegas; littered with the ruins of giant sculptures and statues oddly evoking a similar setting in Goldeneye.
Upon reflection, you realise there is nothing definite about 2049. Resolutions are open-ended. Answers beget more questions. Ambiguity reigns supreme. Like K, this is a puzzle for us and underneath the chaos is a certain calmness that Villeneuve invites us to connect with. He understands that a certain level of engagement is required to make this film an enriching experience for audiences – provoking the needed introspection. The experience will definitely change over time, marking this film as a sci-fi totem of the last decade. If it elevates to a status on par with its predecessor, the world of cinema will be better for it.