With Blade Runner 2049 hitting theaters in just a few days, it seems fitting to explore the reasons as to why Denis Villeneuve; the acclaimed director of films such as Arrival, Prisoners and Sicario – is the perfect candidate for advancing the much-beloved universe that was so uniquely realised in Ridley Scott’s 1980s cult hit. In an era where every reasonably well-respected film seems destined for a sequel, reboot, or remake that either repurposes the original for the sake of derivative fan service or disregards it entirely, the question as to whether or not Scott’s film warrants a sequel is void – such things are practically an inevitability in modern-day Hollywood. What is something of a rarity, however, is the opportunity for a filmmaker with such well-established, auteurist tendencies to be given the chance to build upon the foundations set by such an influential classic, especially when such similar foundations can be found across his own body of work. In fact, it can even be argued that the Canadian filmmaker may be a better choice to expand upon this universe than Scott himself.
Where Scott is masterful in his world-building, he is always somewhat lacklustre in his storytelling capabilities, at least when it comes to weaving a complex narrative with well-developed characters. His best films often utilise a barebones narrative with little to no character development, instead relying upon the atmosphere created through methodical direction and endlessly inventive set design to tell the story. Main characters are not people but vehicles through which ideas can be expressed, and this is reflected in their treatment. Whether its Ripley only emerging as the protagonist halfway into Alien or Maximus’ death at the end of Gladiator, Scott’s heroes are often blank canvases who are only imbued with purpose upon the emergence of an antagonist, and even then their sole purpose revolves around the eradication of this villain and little else. By far, the most compelling example of such a dynamic is present in Blade Runner, through Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Deckard and, in turn, Rutger Hauer’s colourful portrayal of Roy Batty. While Deckard is (as far as we know) human, he is very much a character without character; a near-emotionless slate, untouched even by Ford’s own natural charisma, who seems to exist only in the present, with no past to haunt him and no goals to carry him into the future. By contrast, Batty is a replicant, but is shown to be overflowing with human emotion, repeatedly making wild and desperate attempts to elongate his own existence and find out more about his past. This synthesis of humans without humanity and replicants who do not merely replicate complicates notions of what is good and what is evil, and it is this that played a part in the many theories surrounding the original on whether Deckard himself is a replicant.
Regardless of whether Villeneuve chooses to address these theories, it is indisputable that his treatment of characters will be key to advancing the audience’s knowledge of the Blade Runner universe, while also having the potential to build upon Scotts character dynamics. If the Canadian filmmaker’s previous works are anything to go by, Ryan Gosling’s ‘K’ in 2049 is liable to share many qualities with Ford’s, but will have one essential difference in his character – he will be driven by questions, and have ulterior motives in hunting out Deckard. With Villeneuve, perspective is everything, and the questions that have been plaguing the minds of audiences for decades will undoubtedly be shared by K in this upcoming sequel. In a Denis Villeneuve film, the audience uncovers the mystery alongside the character, and is rarely given any information that they are not. The question of how this information is interpreted, however, rests solely with the audience, and this crafting of morality through revelation often confuses an audience’s perception of the film’s set of characters. His protagonists are often mere witnesses to events larger than themselves, and have their own morality tested by other characters who linger somewhere in the space between good and evil, not quite human and not quite beasts. In most cases (with, perhaps, the exception of Arrival and Incendies), they are not even easily definable as protagonists, sharing centre stage with a variety of eccentric, morally deprived characters who push the film in different directions. Take, for example, Kate (played by Emily Blunt) in Sicario. Although she is established to be the protagonist and the audience sees the world as she sees it, a fair proportion of screen time is given to Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro’s characters, with the climactic moment of the film – the slaughtering of Alejandro’s family – taking place without Kate’s knowledge or presence. It can be noted that Villeneuve’s protagonists, then, often have a small role in the greater context of the plot, but upon seeing how much they have changed and developed as a result of these events and the effect they have had upon the world in which they live, it can feel monumental. The choice of Ryan Gosling for the role of K is already an indicator of what to potentially expect from the sequel. Gosling is perhaps most well-known for his understated, emotionless portrayal of the driver in Drive, and this expressionless style of performance will not only mean that he is the perfect fit for inhabiting the role of protagonist in a Blade Runner film, but also that his character is susceptible to be moulded and shaped by whatever events take place in the sequel – as is Villeneuve’s way. He will consequently undergo some form of dramatic revelation regarding his own humanity, or lack thereof, one that was missing from the first film and will be much needed in 2049 to bring some much-needed clarity to this world.
Much like Scott, Villeneuve also favours visual storytelling over exposition-laden narratives or performance-driven stories. For these two filmmakers, characters are often products of their changing environments, and for this reason, these environments they find themselves in often threaten to engulf them entirely. This is shown through their joint appreciation for ultra-wide shots and repeated establishing shots that pin characters to allocated areas in either the corner or bottom of the screen, and examples of this can be seen throughout both of their filmographies; for Villeneuve in particular, the repeated establishing shots of the oncoming giant spider above the city in Enemy spring to mind, growing larger and larger until it infiltrates Gyllenhaal’s apartment and takes over his bedroom at the end. In addition to this, and at the other end of the spectrum, Villeneuve also tends to use as little visual information as possible to relay as much as he possibly can to the audience, and herein lies his infatuation with the smallest details of a human being, or the aversion of eyes to something minute at key moments in his stories. While Scott’s camera invites us to get lost in the world he creates on screen, Villeneuve’s often wants to avoid it altogether, leaning more on characters’ reactions and interpretations of it. Instead of receiving any kind of payoff or climactic moment in regards to the final appearance of the spider in Enemy, for example, he chooses to instead push in on Gyllenhaal’s reaction to it, before cutting there as the last shot of the film. No one is whole in his films, and their very existence, fractured by this constant battle of fragmented close-ups and all-consuming wide shots, is defined by their desire to be complete in some way. The whole picture is not of the human him/herself but rather of what the audience can come to understand about them through their actions, movements, and where they avert their eyes to in pivotal moments – see the blurring of the bodies upon their discovery in Polytechnique, or the interrogation scene in Sicario. Who better a choice for tackling a film franchise that is so concerned with where humans end and machines begin, or even if there was any difference between the two in the first place?
If Blade Runner wanted us to ask the question of what it means to be human, then one would hope that Villeneuve’s 2049 will want us to ask how to be human instead. The desire for humanity and a strong sense of self that informs the director’s body of work will, with any luck, ensure that Denis Villeneuve is the worthy candidate for expanding upon Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott’s vision for the universe they have created. From what can be derived from the trailers, short films, and promotional clips from the film so far, as well as an understanding of what the director chooses to put into his films, Villeneuve will soon be making a household name for himself as the filmmaker who managed to do artistic justice to Scott’s world while also assuming a unique, humanistic perspective on such a world that will add greater depth to its story and set the benchmark, once again, for science fiction blockbusters.
Words by Jake Shelvey