Back to the Future: Observations on Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049"

I'm rarely the kind of guy that would go see a film on its opening weekend but I made an exception for Denis Villeneuve "Blade Runner 2049", which I went to see this past Friday in all its thunderous IMAX glory. Having seen Ridley Scott's original "Blade Runner" as a teenager (it has become one of my Top 5 favorite films) and finding myself unusually giddy about the sequel, I feared someone might post a spoiler on social media or perhaps I might accidentally overhear someone talking about the film's ending while satisfying a late-night blueberry pancakes craving at my local IHOP. Then I might have had to kill that person. And go to jail. I wanted to avoid that.

Having seen Villeneuve's gritty "Sicario" and being a long-time fan of cinematographer Roger Deakins, I felt really, really good about the sequel being up to par with Scott's original 1982 masterpiece. It was. And it wasn't. I mean, it was an excellent film in it's own right - a brooding, methodical film that slowly sucks you into its shadowy world; a film that surely requires (like the original) multiple views to truly appreciate. But unlike what some movie critics have stated, it does not surpass the original.

It's actually quite unfair to compare one to the other in the first place. Two different films made by two different directors in two different times. There are many similarities, however. Villeneuve's film, much like Scott's, is more film noir than sci-fi and both films raise questions about reality, individuality and freedom. And they both look gorgeous. Perhaps, BR2049 will stand the test of time like Scott's original has. We shall see. That said, here are a few SPOILER FREE observations from my viewing of "Blade Runner 2049":

Denis Villeneuve is a Force to be Reckoned With

I've only seen "Sicario" (which I absolutely loved) and BR2049, but in both films, I was reminded about what Roger Ebert wrote in his review of 1967's classic French film noir "Le Samourai" (starring Alain Delon and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville). "The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense - how action releases tension, instead of building it", Ebert wrote. "Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don't care about are happening constantly."

Villeneuve understands this concept unreservedly.

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After the first 20 minutes of BR2049, I was like, "When is this thing gonna kick into gear?" After about an hour, I was like a guy who had been thumbing through his Instagram stream while unknowingly standing in a giant pond of wet cement. Before I knew it, I was waist deep in it - and the cement had hardened. Make no mistake about it, this film is a slow burn. And the action, when it comes, hits you like a splash of ice water to the face.

In sharp contrast, directors like Zach Snyder, who totally butchered "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (yeah, I'm still mad about that!) after Christopher Nolan carefully built the Batman movie brand, can learn a lot from Villeneuve ("action is the enemy of suspense"). Villeneuve, like Fincher and Scorsese, is also a director who seems comfortable in the dark, shadowy alleys of a film; he's not afraid to get his hands dirty - I like that. This director is one to watch.

Ryan Gosling and the Failure of Harvey Keitel

Did you know that Harvey Keitel was originally cast as Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"? Filming actually began in the Philippines with Keitel in the lead before he was fired by Coppola after a week of shooting. Copolla stated that Keitel didn't have the "gravitas" to carry the role. That's a little bit how I felt about Ryan Gosling in this film. I know most critics have raved about his stoic performance and I thought he did an adequate job but it felt as if he was sleep-walking through much of the first half of the film.

Blade Runner 2049

Moreover, he didn't make me forget about Ford's portrayal in the original, and that shouldn't have been too hard as I've felt that Ford himself was a little out of his element in Scott's film (that's right, I said it). The jury will continue to deliberate on Gosling's performance until a future viewing but in other news, newcomer Cuban actress Ana de Armas is a revelation as Gosling's real/not real love interest. She's an actress to watch...

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Old School Visual Effects Can Still Be as Awesome as CGI

Allow me to tip my hat once again to director Villeneuve as he eschewed the common practice of "blockbuster" films over-depending on CGI effects in favor of practical camerawork and effects. "I hate green screens. It sucks out all my energy. I get depressed," Villeneuve said in an interview for Variety. "For Blade Runner, we tried our best to do as much as possible in-camera, building everything." I mean, there was no CGI in 1982, the year the original "Blade Runner" came out, so it would have been somewhat of a cheat to go all CGI for the sequel, right? Right. Is Zach Snyder still listening?

Roger Deakins is Actually Getting Better

After 13(!) Academy Award nominations without a win, I think it might be safe to say that the white-haired cinematographer Roger Deakins is actually getting better. I haven't seen all his films but I've seen enough. Deakins reminds me in many ways of Burt Lancaster - never the best of his era but he never disappointed. I loved "Fargo" and his work with the Coen Brothers but after watching 2007's "No Country for Old Men", I was like, "THIS is his best work!". Then came 2012's "Skyfall", "No, THIS is his best work!". Then came 2015's "Sicario", "Seriously, THIS is his best work!". And now, "Blade Runner 2049", his best work yet. He isn't Emmanuel Lubezki nor Janusz Kamiński but he doesn't need to be. That said, as good as his work was in BR2049 (and it was brilliant), it still fell short of the look of the original, which brings me to my next point...

Blade Runner 2049

Jordan Cronenweth Absolutely Nailed it in the Original

I mean, the look of Scott's original film would be the envy of most cinematographers if it came out today. As great as Deakins was in the sequel, the late Jordan Cronenweth's cinematography in the original (which won awards from the British Society of Cinematographers, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and BAFTA) still trumps it by a hair. Cronenweth explains, "[Director] Ridley Scott felt that the style of the photography in Citizen Kane most closely approached the look he wanted for Blade Runner. This included, among other things, high contrast, unusual camera angles, and the use of shafts of light." The final sequence between Roy Batty and Deckard in Scott's original film is still one of the most visually stunning sequences you'll ever see.

PS - His gritty NYC cinematography in Phil Joanou's 1990 film "State of Grace" which stars Sean Penn and the best actor of his generation, Gary Oldman, is also some of his best work (and no, I've never seen "Peggy Sue Got Married"). That said, here's my next point...

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Douglas Trumbull is a Friggin' Genius

If you're not familiar with the name, Douglas Trumbull is the man behind the visual effects of some of the greatest sci-fi films of all time: "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and oh, yeah, the original "Blade Runner". Trumbull, as well as Richard Yuricich and David Dryer were nominated for an Academy Award in 1982 for the visual effects for "Blade Runner", losing out to "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial", a film whose effects have not aged all that well. On the flipside, the look of Scott's "Blade Runner" still holds up today. I mean, it not only holds up, it would wipe the floor with most of the CGI-drunk summer "blockbusters" of the past 10 years. As good as BR2049 looked, that you can still compare it to a film made 35 years ago, is a credit to Scott, Trumbull and the visual effects team as well as cinematographer Cronenweth (and surely a whole lot of other people).

Harrison Ford is the Greatest Actor of ALL TIME!!!

OK, not really but how many actors have remained around long enough to resume their roles in sequels to three ground-breaking films they starred in 35+ years ago? He starred as Han Solo in 1977's "Star Wars" and again 38(!) years later in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". He played Indiana Jones in 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (and say what you want about how good an actor Ford is, his Indiana Jones character has been often imitated, NEVER duplicated) and again 27 years later (and there's still an untitled Indiana Jones project slated for 2020!!!) and he played Rick Deckard in 1982's "Blade Runner" and again 35 years later. He's also the highest grossing actor of all time with a total box office gross of almost $5 billion. Number 2 on that list? Samuel L. Jackson. However, Jackson has been in 66 more films than Ford. Yes, Ford's career has been pretty damn amazing.

Where Have You Gone, Roy Batty?

One of the things missing from BR2049, and one of the main reasons Scott's film was so good, was a great movie villain. Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty character was one for the ages. Despite his murderous ways, his motivation was clear ("I want more life") and in his desire to live, to be free, he sparked something hidden inside us all. When he spares Deckard's life at the end of the film, he shows more humanity in his last act before "expiring" than Deckard had in probably his whole adult life. In BR2049, Jared Leto looks and sounds creepy but he's no real villain. Instead, lovely Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks handles the role of "villain" quite well; however her motivations as the film progresses become a bit cloudy. Not a deal breaker but if we're gonna compare one film to the other, here's another one for the original.

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Blade Runner 2049 is an Excellent Film. Period.

That's the bottom line here. That it doesn't quite eclipse the greatness of Scott's original film makes it no less of a great film. I mean, after 35 years, this is as close to the look and feel of the original Blade Runner as any film has ever been. That's quite the accomplishment. Will it attract large audiences and set box office records? Don't think so. It's too long and like the original, too deliberate and too gloomy for mass appreciation; people don't like to think too much when they go see a movie (that's why there are directors like Zach Snyder around). Furthermore, the word is out that you need to see the original to understand Villeneuve's sequel (you really do) and that will probably set it back even further. In time, I believe it will take its place among the greatest sci-fi films (and neo noirs) ever made.

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In the Old Testament of the bible, during the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness, there was an inner room called the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, a portable earthly dwelling place of God amongst the people of Israel. Whoever entered into the Holy of Holies through the thick curtain which shielded holy God from sinful man, was entering the very presence of God. In fact, anyone except the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies would die. Moreover, the high priest himself could be struck dead if he did something he was commanded not to do or if he was commanded to do something and didn’t do it.

Now, as far as sci-fi films are concerned, Scott's "Blade Runner" is the Holy of Holies and if you pull back that thick curtain to enter that sacred room, you'd better have your heart in the right place. Villeneuve's heart was true. And that's something all fans of "Blade Runner" can appreciate. Go see it. Nuff said.


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