What makes for good science fiction? This is a complex question, with no “correct” answer. Ask ten different people, you’ll get ten different responses, but I believe each person will be getting at one specific idea. Good sci-fi combines futuristic settings and technology to explore questions of morality and examine the human experience. This is why Star Trek is compelling sci-fi, and Star Wars is simply a space western. 1982’s Blade Runner is an example of great sci-fi, as it combined a beautifully realized world with futuristic technology to examine what really makes us human. Oh, and it was damn good, too. Thirty-five years later, Denis Villeneuve now sits in the directors chair and delivers a thought provoking sci-fi film. Oh, and it’s damn good, too.
Denis Villeneuve is on a bit of a hot streak, and by hot streak, I mean his entire career. Since 2011’s Incendies, he’s put out a critically acclaimed film every year. While I didn’t care for Arrival, it’s tough not to recognize the man’s genius. And my goodness did he direct the hell out outta this film. The acting, the cinematography, the production design, the script, the pacing, all of it was tied together in such an expert way. Villeneuve clearly puts a tremendous amount of work into his craft, and I love that he doesn’t dumb it down in the process. So many movies today talk down to their audience, over-explaining every last detail just incase one person can’t quite follow along. Not Villeneuve, with a near three hour runtime, he lets his idea’s play themselves out naturally, never rushing them for convenience sake.
Villeneuve also crafts one of the most realized universes I’ve ever seen put to film. ’82’s Blade Runner gave a snapshot into what Los Angeles could look like 35 years in the future, and while they were (mostly) wrong, it was damn convincing. 2049 does a great job at introducing new and interesting elements to this world, all while feeling like a logical next step. Sometimes when a franchise gets revisited after a prolonged absence, it can feel forced and unnatural. The score also does a great job at paying homage to the original while matching the tone of this new film. Its synth heavy, drawn out, massive sounds only add to the sense of emptiness and dread of this world. Villeneuve is on record saying he wanted to direct this film so that no one else would “F*ck it up,” and I can’t imagine any other stepping up to the plate and knocking it as far out of the park.
But of course, what’s the point of a great world, if it’s not going to be a great looking world. Enter Roger Deakins. I don’t think I’m out of line saying Deakins is the greatest cinematographer in history, and if there were any out there still unsure, show them this film. Deakins has been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, and gone home empty handed each time. If he doesn’t win this year, I don’t know what else there is for him to do. So far, this is undeniably the best shot movie of the year, and I can’t imagine anything usurping it. I could go on and on about how gorgeous this movie is, but anything I say would simply be a disservice, just check it out for yourself.
As I mentioned above, this is a clear and natural successor to ’82’s first film. I won’t get into the story too much, as the best way to experience this is by knowing as little as possible going in, but there are a few things I want to address. This is an incredibly ballsy story. Not only does Villeneuve add some major new elements to this universe, but he goes back to the original and retroactively makes changes to the lore. If it all didn’t come together as well as it did, this could have been reviled by diehards of the series. What I find amazing is how, even though the world surrounding our central characters is massive, Villeneuve tells an incredibly small story. Don’t let the oversized budget and impressive production design fool you, this is as simple story of a detective working a case.
Ryan Gosling was a fantastic choice for the lead role. So much of this character calls for silent contemplation, and with films like Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling has shown he more than up to task. Gosling’s character is one who, through his investigation, uncovers a hidden underworld, one that upends his belief about everything he thought he knew. Terrified by what he now knows, yet driven to learn more, Gosling plays this tension with a quiet intensity so compelling he doesn’t need utter a word to speak volumes. The few times he does get to cut loose, you fear for anyone who might be in his way.
The breakout performance for me came from Ana de Armas. Again, it’s hard to talk about this film without taking away from your initial experience, but de Armas plays a character not many actresses would be capable of pulling off. Honestly, Villeneuve and de Armas are able to thread the needle so perfectly that it’s surprising how natural and believable she was in this film. One scene in particular between de Armas and Mackenzie Davis ran an huge risk of being silly and pretentious, but de Armas was able to create such a believable, caring, human identity building up to it, that I was completely bought in to her character.
Also solid are Sylvia Hoeks, as the main henchman for Jared Leto’s corporate antagonist. The pair are both menacing, and Hoeks in particular is fearsome, but if I had one negative of the film overall, it’s that I didn’t get quite enough of them. 2049 has a near three hour runtime, and while the gorgeous imagery was appreciated, it would have served the story to spend a bit more time fleshing out the central opposition. That’s how good this movie is, it made me want more of Jared Leto, and I don’t know how I feel about it.
This isn’t a negative, but a warning for those of you who haven’t seen it yet (which, based on it’s box office, is likely most of you). This is not going to be a film for everyone. It’s gorgeous and intelligent and well written, well acted, and all around well done, but it’s not for everyone. This is a deliberately paced arthouse film. If you’re looking for a fun, fast, sci-fi action thriller, this is not your movie. Hell, half of this film is loud droning music, slow camera movements, and Ryan Gosling looking at things. If you go in expecting to have your hand held through an action packed adventure, you will leave disappointed. Go in with an open mind, you’ll be blown away.
If the original asked “what defines humanity?” 2049 asks, “what defines the soul?” Villeneuve has crafted an intelligent science fiction story that never once talks down to it’s audience, but rather asks them to participate in philosophical discourse. This is a smart, thrilling, gorgeous piece of cinema that sticks with you long after you leave the theater. I suspect this will be a surprise Academy darling much like Mad Max: Fury Road was in 2015, so don’t expect the conversation around Blade Runner 2049 to stop any time soon. At the very least, Deakins cinematography is worth the price of admission alone.
Rating: 4.75 — Phenomenal