Villeneuve is stuck in the gilded prison of the blockbuster filmmaker: You can make whatever you want, as long as it's forged from someone else’s memories.
Image: Warner Bros.
There are seemingly two inescapable realities for big-budget filmmakers in 2017: you have to use existing intellectual property and you must provide spectacle that can lure massive domestic and foreign audiences to the the theater.
It seemed that Denis Villeneuve chose wisely when he selected the IP that he would ride into the mainstream. Ridley Scott's 1982 Blade Runner isn't just a beloved property with the requisite nostalgia cachet, it has artistic bona fides that have earned it a place in the Criterion Collection and art house retrospectives. While Blade Runner 2049 is often beautiful and sometimes moving, this $150 million film demonstrates the limits of big budget filmmaking in 2017.
There is much to admire, but as a whole, Blade Runner 2049 works best as a case for why filmmakers like Villeneuve should be given big budgets to try out new concepts rather than retread what's come before them.
Just like Arrival was at its best when we saw the elegance of how the space ship and the aliens within it actually functioned, this version of Blade Runner shines when we get to watch how Villeneuve's dystopia operates. Moments of technical brilliance small and large are at the soul of this film. Whether you're watching the creation of robot memories, the execution of an air strike from an effortless, detached distance, or even something as simple as a stroll through a hall of records, the mechanics of this world are jaw-dropping. Ryan Gosling (K) wisely opts for a muted, brooding performance, allowing the world to steal the show while still illustrating the burden of living in it.
Even with all of this technical brilliance on display (the costumes, sound, and special effects are brilliant), the baggage of the original film's mythology weighs down Blade Runner 2049. Harrison Ford (Deckard) makes his umpteenth obligatory reboot cameo of the last few years and is so committed to phoning it in that the Verizon "Can You Hear Me Now?" guy should fear for his job. Ford is a symptom here though, not the disease. A story that could have been told in a lean two hours or so balloons as Villeneuve is obliged to tie everything in with a larger mythology that even fans of the original would likely struggle to recall. One moment towards the end that seems to leave the door open for another sequel isn't just bad, it feels like they shot the first draft of an email from a studio executive.
The most burdensome baggage for Villeneuve to carry, sadly, is the Blade Runner story itself. What made the original structure of Scott's film so compelling was the interplay between film noir and science fiction. The femme fatale is a robot and the robots are used as slaves: Is it weird for the hard-edged detective to sleep with her? In the retrograde 1980s, this question felt fresh, even imperative. Ex Machina, Westworld, and the real world, meanwhile, have somewhat normalized the idea of human + robot sex.
There is a 90-minute version Blade Runner 2049 that would feel unrelenting yet also elegiac and beautiful. But the director seems to want to do for the sci-fi noir what Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (also shot by Deakins) did for the Western. He wants to round up the tropes of the genre, layer them on top of each other, and smash them open. And there, it is a failure.
Because Deckard fell in love with a replicant, the film feels a need to pair a robotic Gosling with someone (something?) less human than himself. The unenviable task falls to Ana de Armas in the thankless role of Joi. In this world, robots get holograms who serve as their version of a sex robot. If you meditate too much on why a robot is programmed to have desire for a robot, you might short circuit. You're better off trying to forget this aspect of this film, and Armas' performance will help you; one unfortunate reality of this current moment in cinema is that being asked to play a robot turns mediocre actors into terrible ones. Perhaps out of adherence to the Phillip K. Dick source material or the original film, Villeneuve feels he can't give us a vision of womanhood outside of a shallow streetwalker or a femme killing machine. With the small exceptions of Robin Wright as a tortured police chief and Carla Juri as a fragile genius, the women in the cast sadly oblige.
This is just one of the ways Villeneuve feels obligated to tip his hat to the sandbox he is playing in. Despite all of these nods, it is difficult to tell why he wanted to pull this script from the vault as opposed the dozens of other films that will be remade by emerging directors in coming years. He doesn't seem so much passionate about Blade Runner as he is about the cool things he can do inside the confines of Blade Runner. On this point, the film also falls short where It, a lesser film by a lesser filmmaker, succeeds. You can't fake passion for source material.
The most beautiful sequence of the movie features Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, one of the few characters we meet that doesn't cleanly fit our pre-existing noir expectations. She makes memories for robots. This means that she can create anything she wants, so long as she stays in the glass enclosure provided by the Tyrell Corporation. She feels so deeply the privilege and beauty in creating dreams for other creatures, but she is also haunted by the painful limitations of living inside other people's memories. It is obvious that Villeneuve identifies with this character on a visceral level. There is deep empathy from the artist here that is never reached anywhere else in the film.
While there is much to praise about Blade Runner 2049, the film leaves you with a feeling of regret. If only we lived in a world where Villeneuve could have $150 million to do what he wanted. But, that isn't how things work in 2017. If you make a film north of $50 million, you have to confine yourself to the gilded prison of the blockbuster filmmaker. You can make whatever you want, so long as it is forged from someone else's memories. For all the beauty that Villeneuve channels in the Blade Runner universe, you can't help but wonder what could have been were he was allowed to channel a beauty all his own.
For the most part, Blade Runner 2049's style transcends issues of substance. The beautiful visuals sustain the viewer through the nearly three hour run time. But, with a filmmaker of Villeneuve's caliber, it is a pity to leave the theater feeling merely sustained.