‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to’ – Jean-luc Godard.
The streets are deserted: clubs long emptied, curtains long shut, and lights long extinguished. Stumbling out of the IMAX and into the cool night air, I struggle to contain the infatuated awe which envelops me – on that screen, on this night, something incredible happened: something that defied the inherent flaws that threatened to push it off the rails. That thing, dear reader, was Blade Runner 2049.
This was always going to be a significant film. Rebooting Blade Runner was more important, not to mention riskier, than rebooting Star Wars – a series with low critical approval, guaranteed box office, and prior reboots. No, this was a reboot of one of the greatest films ever made. Reflecting this importance, I’m going to refrain from saying much about the plot aside from the fact that it stars Ryan Gosling as Officer K, a humanoid cop living in Los Angeles who discovers something that could change the world.
Despite the insistence on spoiler-free viewing, this is not a plot-driven film. There is a story, and it twists like a knife through the smog and neon of this future city, but director Denis Villeneuve has other priorities. One could distil the original Blade Runner to its narrative essence with elegance: a damaged police officer has to track down and kill four rogue replicants; but with 2049 it’s not so simple. There’s no beginning or end that appear logically tied to the nexus of a story, but there’s the same elegance that surrounds the essence of its central theme: what does it mean to be human? The movie is a space outside of space itself – a picture with temporal context, but which exists to explore a particular theme which has none. Villeneuve has no answers, but his approach is genius: a nigh-on three-hour montage of birth, death, and life (artificial or not) – a tone poem if you like – which posits a series of scenarios and asks you which characters carry the gravitas of humanity, and why. Just make sure you visit the bathroom beforehand.
This is the single most aesthetically pleasing movie I’ve seen in the last three-four years (at least): Roger Deakins displays a mood-board of apposite palettes that he switches between with the glee of a child frantically trying to choose which new videogame to play first. The world of 2049 is filled with an ethereal mist that renders skyscrapers into shadows, and bright lights into poster paint, filling the sky with a rainbow glow. And then, out of nowhere, the action jumps to a nuked Las Vegas: a place with the universal hue of a candy-coloured sun, shrouded in dust and spectral statues of sexual bodies. And then there’s the city evenings, where the blank canvas of darkness plays host to the most magnificent holographic light show; where embers fading into the cold can become dropships racing for the ocean; and where the creatures of the night take to the streets in all their multicoloured glory: green, pink, orange, electric blue – as long as its toxic it’s in there, burning images into your retinas with its visual xenomorph blood. Deakins exhibits flair for the kind of Kubrickian symmetry that makes you want to weep from sheer beauty: every frame of every shot is calculated to be the most pleasing it can possibly be. I’ll say it once, and once only: see this thing in IMAX 3D.
As for the soundtrack, the most noticeable facet is the lack thereof. Zimmer/Wallfisch make excellent use of silence throughout, only deciding to bring the big guns out for the final act, providing a brilliantly false sense of conclusion. It’s not Vangelis, and doesn’t try to be, although it exhibits hints of the early synthwave he pushed – instead, it’s far more industrial and unmelodic, with gloriously sinister undertones and supreme scale.
So 2049 is elegant, beautiful, and thoughtful; but it’s important to note that this is also a huge, sexy, violent, sweary behemoth of a blockbuster. Blade Runner had edge, and so does 2049: never quite enough to feel opportunistic or sensationalist (looking at you Logan), but enough to create something that most definitely feels an adult rather than a kids movie. When people get shot, there’s blood; when people get angry, they say fuck; when people have sex, they take their clothes off. It’s all part of the timely appeal of the R-rated blockbuster: it’s far more grounded than most big budget fare, and 2049 has grit.
The power of the picture is vested in the visual and thematic heft of a pure cinematic experience. Villeneuve knows this all too well, preferring to keep his characters and script on the downlow: perfect territory for Gosling, the person whose brilliant performances were almost completely mute in Winding Refn’s Drive, and later Only God Forgives. He’s an actor that has a way with long, hard gazes: staring unblinkingly into the lens and telling us things that don’t need to, or cannot, be said. It’s a trait closer to real life than the traditional artifice of the blockbuster script. Given that his film is 163 minutes long, Villeneuve has an uncanny ability for sidelining almost all his characters (aside from K) to deal with his thematic portmanteau, leaving little room for dialogue. But what words there are crackle and fizz with effervescent energy. Meaning, metaphor, and verse collide in a fiery meteor strike of script precision, crafted expertly by none other than Hampton Fancher, the creator of the original Blade Runner script.
It’s also a film that’s not scared to take its time. From the get go, all the way to its shattering conclusion, 2049 is deliberately paced – never rushing, nor dragging, to reach the finish line. This is particularly encouraging given the current trend to keep entire features at breakneck speeds. And, despite what you may be thinking, Villeneuve keeps it light on the nostalgia – quite unlike The Force Awakens. It’s a hallucinogenic wonder: filled with smog and neon, ambiguous characters, and hypnotic images. Truly a masterpiece in every way.
Werner Herzog once delivered a pivotal lecture entitled On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth. It’s a hard thing to define – something purer than words could describe. The best way I could put it would be a deeper personal realisation of some worldly truth, spurred on by a perfect balance of images, plot, and script. 2049 reaches that euphoric level of ecstatic truth frequently: it is, to my mind, the greatest science fiction movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Featured image: Wired.