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Blade Runner 2049 Review

10 Oct

Jared Leto doesn’t deserve to be lit by Roger Deakins.

The d.p. legend is back again with a masterwork of epic proportions. As is the case with the rest of his work, every frame here is heavily calculated and pored over, but it’s more readily apparent in this film than in others. It feels overtly artificial for a reason; Deakins, Villeneuve, and production designer Dennis Gassner are first working from a futuristic visual framework, then at key moments slowly introducing hidden depths and pinpoints of humanity into this bleak and foreboding environment. In this manner, the visual storytelling parallels K’s journey from blake slate through memories and towards the soul. There are several main canvasses that we see throughout: the sterile darkness of Los Angeles, the smoggy orange ruins of Las Vegas, and K himself. Deakins has an absolute field day filling those canvasses. Motivated source lighting (see: the lanterns in the Jesse James train sequence) is his forte, and you can see that he realized how much of a gold mine the city scenes are. It’s heightened artificiality. It’s a glorious collection of neon and fluorescent, with huge holograms and ship lights providing even more striking colors amidst the darkness. They all show up in some way during these scenes, illuminating the image in a way that allows Deakins to play with shadows and silhouettes. You’ll notice how mobile the shadows are, whether they’re peeling back to reveal or creeping forward to conceal. This certainly plays in tandem with the lights, which take on lives of their own as they shimmer within the frame.

The characters are positioned with purpose and precision. The quintessential image of the film is of a centered K facing away from the camera, the contours of his body delineated clearly in relation to surroundings that convey magnitude and uncertainty. This makes it all the more striking when the camera focuses on faces, particularly that of Ana de Armas’ Joi. Again, this is visual storytelling working closely with the script, and Gosling himself plays a large part as well because his character is, by necessity, a blank slate. But when he’s positioned by a character like Joi, Deakins and Villeneuve are able to pinpoint those hidden depths and attempt to tap into some of that humanity. It’s even more clear what they’re doing when we’re reminded of the opening and closing shots, which–without giving too much away–provide a clear contrast to the majority of the film. The way the ending is lit, the choice of final frame, the final setting itself…it all says an incredible amount through imagery. Roger Deakins is just oozing into every single pore of this film, and it’s an honor to experience it.

Overall, I don’t think the film is anywhere near perfect. It’s a bit listless at times, and I’m definitely not as enthused by Villeneuve as everyone else is. Prisoners was gripping, but Sicario and Arrival were major missteps in my mind. To be fair, they were primarily both undermined by weak scripts with little eye for strong structure and pacing, but I also think Villeneuve’s strengths are confined to the straightforward set pieces, to suspense on a very basic level (and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s why I like Prisoners). There’s just something missing in his work that prevents all his grand ideas from congealing in the way it’s intended to–the recent attempts to do so have resulted in rushed second halves–and he hasn’t quite gotten over that hump with Blade Runner 2049. It’s a step in the right direction, though, as he manages to draw emotion from certain scenes in a way that Arrival only sort of managed due to Amy Adams. This film has more of a clear vision even in its more languorous moments, and everyone from Deakins to (a great) Harrison Ford assist in crafting and honing that vision. It’s truly an impressive piece of filmmaking on its own, and the artistry on display is simply dazzling on a high level. It would be easy for it to get lost in the technical elements and forget to tell a compelling story along the way, but it does have some magic in it to guide it along.

GRADE: B

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3 Responses to “Blade Runner 2049 Review”

  1. taylorgaines October 10, 2017 at 8:29 pm #

    You should watch Arrival again. I’d be interested to see how you feel revisiting it.

  2. Sean October 11, 2017 at 11:30 am #

    I really like your detailed descriptions of the cinematography! It is truly amazing how much visual density there is to this film, and I think that’s fitting for a Blade Runner sequel. I totally agree that it’s not perfect but it is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It’s a sequel that comes from the right place as opposed to the many disposable franchise entries we slog through each year.

    • polarbears16 October 11, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

      Exactly, I very much appreciate the existence of the film regardless of its quality (and it’s pretty good!). And thank you, I feel like Roger Deakins deserves his own substantial section in basically every film he shoots.

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