Critics and moviegoers alike have been raving about the new Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, USA 2017). The film’s success is even more impressive when one takes into account the deep skepticism– -or even disparaging sarcasm– -that has surrounded every effort to make a sequel to the original Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, USA 1982) during the last decades. The original film has a strong cult following and nothing infuriates fans more than a bad sequel. But now some critics and fans have even suggested that the new Blade Runner even surpasses the original, a credit rarely granted to a Hollywood sequel— Terminator II, Mad Max II and maybe The Godfather Part II are among the few exceptions. But even most of those who are not ready to make such a radical claims and prefer the original Ridley Scott movie tend to agree that the sequel is also an impressive work that fully justifies its right to existence.
What makes Blade Runner 2049 such a remarkable film? Critics and online reviewers have praised the film’s visual style with its outlandish landscapes and special effects as well as well-directed action scenes. Most reviews have approached it as an extremely high-tech film, highlighting the possibilities offered by digital filmmaking and computer-generated imagery (CGI). And it is undeniably true that the film is visually impressive; it is impossible not to be mesmerized by the colorful dystopian landscapes that are simultaneously stunningly beautiful and eerily desolate. Images from this film look like well-composed easel paintings with a dystopian sci-fi theme.
On the other hand, and notwithstanding its obvious high-tech aesthetics, I would argue that Blade Runner 2049 at the same time serves as a proof for the fact that the traditional idea of cinema is still very much alive. But what do I mean by “traditional idea of cinema” and why would it not be alive?
Ever since the arrival of digital filmmaking and computer-generated imagery, there have been debates about the supposed “death” of film. Cinema had (almost) always been a photographic art, and the physical medium on which movies were recorded, stored and projected was 35mm or 16mm film. Can digital cinema still be the cinema we used to know if the medium itself has disappeared? And can we still call movies “films” when they are not anymore produced on film? The content of the movies also raised critical questions: while traditional film cameras recorded “objectively” the pro-filmic reality (i.e. what was placed in front of the camera), movies today regularly feature people, objects and events that have never physically existed, thanks to digital manipulation and computer effects. In other words, can we even talk about the same medium if both the format and content have undergone fundamental changes? Does cinema still exist in the age of digital filmmaking? Or is digital cinema something else? These questions are too big to answer here, but Blade Runner 2049 at least seems to suggest that the proclamations of “the death of cinema as we knew it” may be premature.
In his influential book The World Viewed– -published in 1971, well before the advent of digital cinema– the American philosopher Stanley Cavell argued that the a priori conditions of the film art are its photographic basis and its special relationship with reality. Cinema is about people and objects that are positioned in front of the camera during the moment of shooting. This sounds simple enough, but Cavell develops a rather complex and sophisticated set of arguments and observations around this basic insight. According to Cavell, this idea of cinema being about reality (real people and objects) also explains our fascination with film stars. We never see just a character on the screen, we see first of all an actor (who is playing a character). People go to the cinema to see Brad Pitt, John Wayne or Natalie Portman, and they take for granted a certain kind of continuity between an actor’s roles in different films. This is also why the aging of actors impacts us so strongly, Cavell suggests. Following a film star growing older from one role to another for years and decades– -and sometimes returning to his or her earlier films– -reminds us of our own mortality and the impossibility of eternal youth. No other medium is able to capture the processes of aging and changing like cinema, and Cavell argues that this is an important element in our relationship to the medium.
Cavell would probably not be surprised at all to observe that one of the most celebrated aspects of Blade Runner 2049 is the presence of Harrison Ford, who repeats his role as Rick Deckard from the original Blade Runner. Not only does his presence provide the sequel an extra touch of realism and a stronger narrative connection with the original. The main point is that we still remember the young Harrison Ford from the original film. In the sequel he has aged dramatically but appropriately; the story takes place 30 years after the events depicted in the first film and we really see him– -more or less– -30 years older. Furthermore, the film also cruelly reminds us about the effects of aging; once so charismatic, resolute and physically capable Harrison Ford has become grumpy, unstable and weak. At the same time, we still seem him as a hero and are willing to forgive him his (newly acquired) shortcomings and flaws. To a large extent, it is the co-existence of the young Ryan Gosling and the aged Harrison Ford that provides the film’s narrative, the tension that makes it so riveting and exciting.
In Blade Runner 2049, the question of aging and mortality is but one element in the film’s complex web of meanings. However, there is at least one recent example of a film whose appeal relies almost entirely on the film medium’s ability to capture age and aging. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2013) follows the childhood and teenage years of its protagonist and it was filmed during the course of twelve years. The result is fascinating and uniquely cinematic; we follow the protagonist aging realistically from one scene to another, finally reaching the age of 18. Linklater had already experimented with similar cinematic methods with his earlier films Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), in which the same characters meet every nine years and the actors are also appropriately nine years older.
By Juho Ahava