Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

Paramount/Courtesy

Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.