At 6:45 pm on Sunday 8 October, I finished off the work I had been doing, packed my bag, and made my way, rather excitedly, to the New Picture House cinema on North Street; I was going to watch the new Blade Runner film. Unbeknownst to me — despite, admittedly, my desire for this to be the case — the next 164 minutes would unfold before me in a visual feast the likes of which are rare in today’s cinematic world.
The first Blade Runner film, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982, was itself an exquisite experience. This, not only because of Scott’s breathtaking cityscapes, the bleak vision of the future that accompanied them, and the visionary neo-noir cinematography that tied both together, but because of the film’s ability to push the boundaries of contemporary cinematic experience.
In this, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 honours and upholds Scott’s legacy to perfection. Villeneuve seems to effortlessly capture the mesmerising atmosphere of Scott’s classic while infusing his work with its predecessor’s melancholic beauty. He guides us through the dark streets and even darker underground of a future Los Angeles, across vast, intricate landscapes sculpted from industrial waste, and into mysterious urban deserts from which we emerge with different perspectives on ourselves and the world we live in.
Yet although certainly a stunning spectacle, Villeneuve’s film surpasses merely the visual. The Blade Runner story ultimately depicts the decline of an empire and the eventualities of capitalism: the never-ending drive for profits has destroyed the environment; those wealthy enough to do so have escaped to off-world colonies; and those who remain on Earth live in a fog of pollution, ash and dust, scurrying the ill-lit streets in pursuit of hedonistic impulses whose results are rendered meaningless by the penury of daily life.
It is undoubtedly a disheartening portrait of our future, and yet what Scott and now Villeneuve have managed to show us is that even in such a future there is beauty: a light patter of rain, a fragment of a song now forgotten, a fleeting but unmissable smile.
These moments, to me, capture perfectly the true value of experience, of life. And at this juncture we are faced with questions that we rarely consider: what does it mean to be alive? More importantly, what does it mean to be human? every viewer is faced with them, and no matter what we may conclude, we are compelled to uncertainty about our society, our identity, our existence.
What I look for in exceptional art is an ability to do just this: to make me question my beliefs and to make me look at the world in a different way, even if just for a passing moment. Above all, I like to be challenged, to be confronted with something that shocks me into reflection. Yet I also recognise different desires and different perspectives on art.
To some, art fulfils its purpose so long as it entertains and captures the mind of those who experience it; to others, art must make explicit the technical skill of its maker — and I agree with these perspectives.
Herein lies the quality that makes Blade Runner 2049 undeniably exceptional: it fulfils all of these desires, and more. It entertains in classic, grand, sci-fi fashion, then transcends this narrow-scoped genre into something more undefined and philosophical. It indulges the senses and stimulates the mind.
Remarkably, this is not done overtly, and yet the film is not obscure, nor does it feel the need to cater to those ostentatious characters looking for new ways to express their “cultural superiority,” their “heightened analytical abilities,” and their “sensitivity to the subtleties of art.” In short, it is unpretentiously profound.
What makes the film so unique, then, is that it can excite, surprise, and leave breathless, all while confronting the viewer with existential enigmas that are complex but fundamentally accessible. In an era of big-budget, poorly-written “epics,” Blade Runner 2049 offers a rare experience, and one not easily forgotten.