2018 Film Essays

Days of Future Past: History and ‘Blade Runner 2049’

When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released in theaters in 1982, it presented a radically different vision of the near future. Its present, our future, was characterized by its profound sense of a lived-in past pockmarked by industrial dominance. Los Angeles, 2019, was a hellhole cast over with shadows. Where the neon glow of floating advertisements did reach, it revealed a grimy, infested underworld. Its gutters ran over with soaking wet trash. Rain fell endlessly from the sky, and the sun almost never shone through the clouds and the darkness. Twenty-five years later, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 relies on Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Dennis Gassner/Alessandra Querzola’s production design to create an even deeper sense of history. Inside the world of Blade Runner 2049, the future is the past.

Both Deakins and the production design team are nominated for 2018 Academy Awards. Deakins, despite his near-universal acclaim and long history of nominations, has never won an Oscar. Gassner won as a part of the art direction team for Bugsy in 1992, and this is Querzola’s first nomination. Together, the design team creates a remarkably tactile environment. Though the film boasts hundreds of visual effects shots, accomplished with CGI-enhancement (the visual effects team is also nominated for an Academy Award), the lived-in quality of the physical spaces grounds the environment firmly within reality. The result is a film that avoids the glassy, too-neat vision of an advanced future in favor of a ruined, smoking crater. This future is not one humans reach for, but the one that is left behind when the ideal slipped through their fingers. It would be too simple and reductive to call this vision dystopian; instead, it is a future characterized by its own internal history, marked by the frustrated lives of its characters and the changes wrought by its corporate titans. It is a graveyard of men, of replicants, of equipment, of structures, of furniture, of cars, of ideas, of ideals, of hope, of possibility.

The opposite is true of Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) corporate headquarters, with its shimmering aquatic drift against dusty stone walls. The setting manages to both stifle its subjects in the frame and suggest a much larger world. When Agent K (Ryan Gosling) talks with one of Wallace’s receptionists, the man is framed behind a desk built into a wall that entirely covers his face and leaves only his keyboard-clacking hands visible, eliminating the possibility of anything resembling human (or replicant) interaction. In the very next moment, the camera looms over a massive storage warehouse with row after row of files, like an enormous library card catalog, as K accompanies the receptionist into the cavernous space. It is a testament to Deakins’s cinematography and the production design team that both shots and spaces feel grounded and connected to one another. In this corporal world, in this corporate space, the receptionist mentions a blackout, one that zapped all digitally stored data, leaving only the paper behind. In this vision of the future, the paper, a quintessential relic of a bygone era, becomes the only connection to a world otherwise evaporated into thin air.

Further contrastive elements highlight the design of Wallace’s space. The dusty yellow-orange of the walls and floors is highly suggestive of a barren desert, a sensation reinforced by the sparsity of furnishings, especially in expansive space. Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s lieutenant and enforcer, sits behind an enormous black desk in an office entirely bereft of decoration. A shimmer of water, the reflections of the gentle waves of an indoor pool, fill the room from above, the office’s only light source. The effect is the illusion of life in a place of robotic obedience. The same is true of Wallace’s darkened conference room, with only a pair of chairs set in the corner of a floating beige island of artifice, surrounded by black, rolling water and four walls that rise seemingly into infinity. The entirety of the headquarters is bathed in darkness until the characters’ movements through the space pour artificial sunlight into the rooms, streams of bright warm glow cascade in a recreation of a thing, but not the thing itself.

In each of these spaces, Deakins draws from an inexhaustible fount of beautifully composed images that highlight the design of this ruined world. In the storage warehouse, the endless rows of cabinets dwarf K and the clerk; through Deakins’s lens, the path to the stack of information they are seeking looks the same in both directions, a monument to fastidious record-keeping that disappears ahead and behind, seemingly into infinity.

Inside the Wallace Corporation, the dominant impression is the impeccability of the design, which should come as no surprise; fine craftsmanship and mass production are Wallace’s business, after all. He brooks no imperfection. His killing of a newly born female replicant without the ability to bear children is evidence of that. If he sees himself as an artist, in addition to a corporate titan — and he most certainly does, in the tradition of our world’s early 21st century Silicon Valley captains of industry — then his purpose is to unify form and function into a product, serialized and sold, until the next models roll off the line.

The world outside the controlled environment of Wallace’s tower, however, is something different entirely. Early shots of K’s cruiser returning from a mission take him over the dark city of Los Angeles, seemingly at night, but it is admittedly difficult to tell. The sun never really seems to shine in this place. K’s beat-up junker flies over the city’s outskirts, its dimly lit slums recalling the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. An entire world of countless struggling people living inside countless tiny rooms, inside countless packed tenements, inside countless dead-end neighborhoods is merely suggested, but never explicitly shown. Sweeping shots do show a massive sea wall, presumably built to forestall a rising climatic disaster, protecting the city from the raging ocean beyond. The LAPD’s centrally located headquarters, a towering panopticon, appears out of the freezing rain and fog.

By the time K heads for his apartment building through the streets of Los Angeles, the sleet has turned to snow, a discomfiting sight for an audience of viewers accustomed to a brighter, warmer vision of southern California. Somewhere along the path, history forked, and the legacy of a culture and climate in decline began to take hold. Deakins traces K’s walk from the street to the front door of the apartment building in a tracking shot that holds him in silhouette. In the tradition of noir adopted by the original Blade Runner, K is just another anonymous denizen of a dying place, one of a million stories in a naked city of ruin.

The urban nightmare of Los Angeles finds contrast in the awe-inspiring section in the middle of the film when K flies to what used to be San Diego, now a city-sized dumping ground of scrap metal, a desert of trash, with dunes of industrial junk piled high for miles in all directions. Where the production design inside Wallace’s corporation is slavishly devoted to order, in the narrative’s hinterlands, the center does not hold. Chaos reigns. It is an entire second city of ruins, LA’s cast-off wreckage and garbage rusting from a steady rain, trickling down from a sky so full of gray clouds it appears to have none at all.

Deakins captures the steady patter of drops on K’s windshield, after his cruiser has crash-landed in a trash heap, racking focus to sharpen the camera’s eye on the unconscious officer, his head hanging down as water appears to pour over it. It is a fleeting image, gone like tears in the rain, but one that emphasizes the film’s overt concern with the importance of human(esque) touch. Consider a moment early in the film, when Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s hologram girlfriend-cook-girl Friday is finally able to venture outside the apartment thanks to a wi-fi hotspot that lets her travel with him wherever he goes. Her first moments on the roof of their building are a lush, poetic passage in the film, as she holds out her open palm to catch a few sprinkling raindrops. This is a world where the holograms, the replicants, and even the humans are all seeking the same thing — connection to the world around them through what they can touch. There, in the tactile, real feeling is present.

Both the cinematography and the production design of the film are at their best when they foreground the contradiction between the expansive space of the world around the characters and the narrow personal journeys they undertake. As impressive as several of the film’s shots in the endless sea of trash may be, they only work because of the camera’s alternative tendency to trail closely behind K as he pursues his investigation. In essential moments, the camera trades scope for intimacy. A key sequence occurs inside an abandoned factory when K, in a reverie of days gone by, gets a flash of déjà vu. Climbing the metal staircase, the clang of his boots echoing through the industrial cathedral, he stops, his gaze lingering somewhere in the distance, in the dark. Deakins’ frame follows the forced perspective of a catwalk railing, shooting into the background and collapsing into an almost painterly tableau of mechanical gray. This is a dead place, but one full of ghosts.

As K makes his descent into the belly of the deserted factory, Deakins finds comfort in heavy shadow, again pulling from film’s noir tradition. An extreme long shot, its foreground almost entirely draped in deep black shadows, captures K, looking small, as he climbs down yet another grated-metal staircase. The resulting effect of the space and Deakins’s framing is like post-industrial M.C. Escher, stairs on top of stairs, all leading somewhere into an infinite and unknowable past.

His journey deeper into the bowels of the factory is similarly defined by shadow. Secrets, real or imagined, live here. A particularly striking Steadicam shot in front of K, dollying backwards down a long hallway, keeps nearly his entire face covered, with a thin ribbon of light just illuminating his right side; only his increasingly heavy breathing does the emotional lifting. When he reaches the dormant cistern, and his search for the totemic wooden horse he sees in his dreams bears fruit, the darkness follows him, ever-present despite Deakins’s fluid camera moves.

Though Deakins does move the camera, the pace of the tracking shots, the dollies, the Steadicams, is ponderous and languid. One of the film’s most striking features is its epic running time — in excess of two hours and forty minutes. Though its slow progression is a particular peccadillo of the film’s critics, it is difficult to quarrel with the film’s commitment to its own internal aesthetic. The camera luxuriates in its strictly crafted images, both in spaces of order and chaos. Its production design is so expansive, the film commands the eye’s attention. In this vision of the future, all the little pieces, the fragments of battles won and lost, the detritus of corporate cannibalism, add up to something grander.

Las Vegas, where K finds the fugitive Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the original film’s protagonist, is all grandiosity. Pomp and circumstance. The promise of a chance at a rich and lavish future, dolled up into flashing lights and noise. The cold gray murk of Los Angeles is replaced by the bright orange fog of radioactive dust, the lingering effects of a narratively unexplained local apocalypse that left the glitz and glamour of sin city a nuclear wasteland.

In the film’s 2049, the highways into town are blown over with the desert’s sands. Massive towers, once living testaments to the power of belief, if not reality, stand dark and empty. The silence of the place is emphasized when K moves on foot through the desert, walking between gigantic stone statues of women, laid low by some unspoken devastation, a concrete counterpoint to the all-singing, all-dancing female hologram advertisements that dominate Los Angeles. In this place, it is the 50-foot women who have been attacked, their bodies chipped away by erosion both natural and unnatural.

A massive stone head, its face crumbled away and revealing its steel-framed skull beneath, lies on its side, its mouth agape. Lips that may have once suggested consequence-free sexuality now part in a mixture of surprise and horror. Deakins frames K on the left side of the image, the head on the right. The next image, an aerial long shot craning downward, spots K between the open mouths of two other enormous statues, their faces contorted with eroticism, their naked bodies rendered monuments to careless days gone with the wind. He walks among them, no taller than their high heels. A long shot in this sequence frames K in the center, surrounded by legs, arms, lips, heels, knees, breasts, an orgy of ruined stone women, hovering between the past and the present, like ghost ships on a sea of dusty orange.

For a sequel produced and released 25 years after the original film, Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is certainly unafraid to take chances. Its commitment to the corporal is a refreshing return to the era of filmmaking that the film’s predecessor occupied. The experience of the world created by the production design team and photographed by Deakins is overwhelmingly tactile, and ultimately suggestive of lived internal history. The city streets, the interior of Wallace’s headquarters, the sea of trash, the desert wreckage of Las Vegas — they are all wonderfully, profoundly present. The sheer devotion to craft and detail in every frame, especially in the irony of capturing a world teetering on the edge of collapse, is an important reminder that just because the computer can create anything, that doesn’t mean it should create everything. As Blade Runner 2049 suggests, perhaps the way forward into a future of possibility is through a deeper investigation of the past’s secrets.

As K sits on the steps outside a research facility in the film’s final moments, snow falls from the sky. As Joi did earlier in the film, he opens his palm to catch a few errant flakes on his skin. This, as he has painfully discovered, is an implanted memory, not one of his own. But, in this moment, he makes the memory for himself. He drags someone else’s past into his own present, and for a fleeting second before the end comes, he can imagine what the future might be like, if he were able to reach out and touch it.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.


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