What do you remember the most from the movie Blade Runner? Maybe it’s the hypnotic score, or the unicorn scene, or tears in the rain. There’s a lot of striking, impressive, beautiful staples here that anyone can recall from memory. But the first thing that tends to come to mind, for a lot of people anyway, is an eye.
An eye seeing/recalling the stunningly redesign of a futuristic Los Angeles, gazing at the horrifying beauty of a terrifying world. So much of a critic’s time is focused on the more literate side of the equation when it comes to cinema. Characterisation, dialogue, plot progression, mistakes in story. It tends to take away the importance of storytelling via the visual component of an audio visual medium.
Blade Runner is well known for being a very tactile, visual movie. It’s sequel does not fail to disappoint there. That’s what tends to happen when you hire Roger Deakins, one of the greatest cinematographers who has ever lived, to shoot your movie. Visual storytelling was around in film long before high end graphics, before dialogue, hell before orchestral scores. All these components are important, nobody would deny that, but the true power of a film is if you can tell the story being told while it’s turned on mute. So what kind of story does Blade Runner 2049 tell by its shot composition and blocking?
Look at this rather simple image-it’s just an extreme close-up of a small, yellow flower. It has no real significance and it’s just there plot wise to mark the grave of Rachael. But the warmer lighting and the way the yellow pops gives a sense of importance. It’s heavily hinted how rare this kind of wild flora is around this cowardly new world, and the rare time we see it the camera treats it like a thing of wondrous splendour and joy. The forest in the imagination room later on comes to mind. Anyway, part of K’s ultimate journey is breaking away from the artifice. Finding his own miracle. This is especially heightened when the rest of the scene looks like this:
Starkness, centred focus, control. Blade Runner is about a man questioning the artifice of his existence, 2049 is about what purpose does life have beyond this, or even if the unreality gives life more meaning in a roundabout way. We are not told about the routine, excessively monitored and dreary life pattern K has, especially in his working hours. We are shown it-the film has a particular love of lined up shots where our point of focus is right in the middle. This is the existence that K lives, and by extension the rest of the world. When we are meant to question, things become a little more off kilter.
Look at Lieutenant Joshi in this scene when talking to K. She’s trying to remain controlled and well-mannered even in a more relaxed environment, but there’s a clear sense of disrespect and suspicion in how she holds herself. She really does see him as nothing more than a machine, and he’s not acting according to design. K is also trying to be calm, but is subtly nervous and uncomfortable. He’s clearly not will to be this intimate with his superior, but still feels obliged to share. So much is happening, and you see it simply by looking at how they’re sitting.
This shot here takes place long after K has broken free from his demands as a blade runner but is still centred. He’s controlled, again, this time by the remnants of a past that may not be his, and he confronts this encased by literal figures from the past. And they’re artificial, there for show, to exude meaning to whoever gazes upon them. Something similar to what our protagonist realises. Everything he goes through in the film is an artifice-even his salvation is not real.
This car is blocked in this “hero” pose a lot. It really gives K a bad-ass vibe; a superhero in a trench coat. And it’s all an image, a mirage to strike authority where there is none. The way this car is depicted repeats several times in the movie, only to finally end, not when K realises his life is a lie, but when it’s forcibly taken from him by his former employers as they blow it up. If there’s nothing that gives him meaning, if everything is a controlled lie, then where does he find purpose? Well…
Look at this shot with K and Joi. It’s intimate and encouraging, but in a way possessive. A lot of the cinematography surrounding their bond plays with the idea of how real is Joi and if K’s love of her comes from an authentic place. This is before they “merge” as well, depicting how involved in his life she becomes and how much she influences him. There’s a great shot after K “discovers” his past and he’s discussing it with her; she’s looking up at him. it’s hard to tell if this is intimacy or worship, and the way it’s angled to make her appear to look up in awe really adds to that ambiguity. This thematic thread, of course, leads to a rather famous shot in the film:
Yep. What gives him meaning is facing the artifice. Not to embrace it, but to realise it gave him a taste of a miracle; despite the unreality of how their relationship started, what K and Joi felt was real. Or maybe it wasn’t, but as he looks at this heavenly vision that overtakes nearly half the frame, it is to him. K is motivated to make a miracle occur (in this case reuniting Deckard with his daughter) because he found a greater purpose out of the controlled, disjointed shitshow his life, and the lives of those around him, is. That’s really potent, because with our growing relationship to technology, stuff like the giant encompassing billboards in the original don’t have the same impact or even purpose. Advertising goes deeper and grander into our cultural design. And I wonder if there’s a shot in this movie to depict how deep it goes?
There is so much more I could go into here. How vast and cavernous a lot of Niander Wallace’s office is, adorned with water, to depict his isolation and sense of godhood. The extremely cool way Deckard is introduced like a gunslinger from the Old West, complemented by the glitching Elvis hologram. The vast, empty landscape of the dump, hitting home how empty and soulless this world is and the environmental degradation. But it would probably be a bit too long and I feel like I’ve gotten my point across.
Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent movie, for a lot of reasons, but a lot of that is the story it tells with excellent cinematography and meaningful, well thought out shots. It could be used to teach how to tell a story with images, both big and small, and how every minutia of what’s depicted in frame can be significant. Plot, writing and dialogue are all important, same with sound design and music, nobody is denying that. However, perhaps it’s as important to just sit back and look.