Getting Your (Memory) Bearings: BLADE RUNNER 2049 And The Filmography Of Denis Villeneuve

In which one of Hollywood's most visionary directors shows us a miracle.

Caution: This post contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, supplies audiences with dozens of questions that will be contemplated, debated and discussed for years to come. But one of the most important answers it provides is the common ground, the thematic nucleus, that unifies many of the films of Denis Villeneuve, a director whose workmanlike productivity and effortless versatility overshadows what is emerging to be a visionary genius. Indeed, what may be among his most remarkable achievements in helming 2049 is that Villeneuve takes the nigh-impossible task of following in the aesthetic and conceptual footsteps of one of his greatest inspirations, Ridley Scott, and uses it to help bring clarity and definition to his own voice as a filmmaker.

Tackling Blade Runner 2049, irrespective of his aptitude for or interest in the material, solidifies Villeneuve’s status as a critical and commercial darling; perhaps the biggest hallmark of any director’s Hollywood ascendancy is an opportunity to tackle some of the industry’s most cherished intellectual properties, and Blade Runner was certainly one. But his undeniable skill, and his reverence for what was an essential movie in his cinematic upbringing, inspired nothing short of a miraculous sequel, eschewing contemporary storytelling rhythms in favor of something deliberate, contemplative and stunningly beautiful, an equal not only visually but conceptually. So complete and cohesive was his tribute and follow-up to the sci-fi classic that it, too, promptly flopped at the box office, even if many audiences recognized its genius much more quickly than those watching the original did in 1982.

Again, however, this sequel seems to say as much or more about him and his own work as the legacy of Scott’s. Prisoners, for example, outwardly shares little in common with 2049, but each explores humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and compassion, and how the two instincts are often confused, or obfuscated, by what seem like noble intentions. Just as Lieutenant Joshi’s (Robin Wright) instinct to contain and destroy the first child born to a replicant is motivated by a seemingly convincing but morally dubious logic, Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) decision to torture Alex Jones (Paul Dano) for information about his kidnapped daughter seems outwardly reasonable, but it is inspired by specious reasoning, and belies an unflinching brutality the revisits violence upon an already traumatized individual. Conversely, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki and Ryan Gosling’s K are consumed to the point of self-destruction by a search for the truth, and attempt to repair the injustices they discover at a considerable cost to themselves.

In Enemy, Villeneuve explores the process by which a young man named Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) sees himself from the outside, and begins to confuse that external perception from the internal. In 2049, K spends his days avoiding conflicts with humans, who hate him because he is synthetic, but discovers his own humanity through the one character who’s more artificial than he is: Joi (Ana de Armas), who helps him put together not just the details of his investigation but their relationship with his own “past.” Adam eventually assumes the identity of his doppelganger and accepts the responsibility that accompanies the role; through the loss of Joi and the discovery of the identity of Deckard and Rachel’s child, K is reminded who he is and accepts his fate as an imitation of life rather than life itself.

The similarities between 2049 and Arrival seem perhaps more obvious, not the least of which because they both explore sci-fi concepts. Like the aliens in Arrival, K himself offers a mirror reflecting the beauty and ugliness of humanity – a tool, a device, engineered with care and precision, acting upon fear and paranoia to stop a problem – replicant insubordination – that humans facilitated. The opportunity presented by the heptapods forces mankind to question its place in the cosmos – they challenge our perceived domination of the known species of Earth – and that quandary manifests itself in both breathtaking hope and terrible, fearful violence.

But further, the heptapods make Louise Banks (Amy Adams) understand the cost of her future choices, and also the value of making them anyway, just like K learns there’s no greater act of humanity than to make a sacrifice for something bigger than yourself, after suffering the disillusionment of learning about his own insignificance. That so-called “insignificance” – and yet the responsibility to play your role – is also central to Sicario, a film that was widely acclaimed and yet in some ways seemingly misunderstood. In the context of the story, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), its protagonist, is meant to be ineffectual, to not impact the events that unfold around her; that’s precisely what the film is about – her idealism, and the reality that shatters it. K’s epiphany is recognizing the hypocrisy of a system that carefully controls life in order to protect it, and the importance of sacrificing himself to undermine a system of oppression he has faithfully served.

In interviews, Villeneuve has spoken at length about the impact that Blade Runner had on him at an early age, and its influence upon his visual style – muscular, beautiful tableaus – belies what is emerging as a thematic throughline in his films, examining what it means to be human, and how we define ourselves both within the worlds that we build and those that give birth to us. But not only a reflection of his work but an embodiment of its best qualities, Blade Runner 2049 illuminates the connections between the characters and stories Villeneuve has already told, and offers hints at what is yet to come; for such a mercilessly dystopic look at our future, it hints at possibilities that are limitless, but also limitlessly hopeful – both for the medium, and humanity itself.

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