Judging by early reviews, the film successfully blew up its share of skirts, though it’s clear many are reacting foremost to its considerable visual scope. Villeneuve is an atmospherist, and he continues, by his own admission, to be drawn to abstract scripts that allow a lot of room for him to inhabit them and place his stamp. He certainly found that here; if you take more than a few moments to think about the actual story being told in “Blade Runner 2049,” it completely disintegrates. Nevertheless, the film has big ideas and the import of those ideas is enough to carry many a viewer through.
It helps that the whole thing is such a feast for the eyes. After the first images from the film surfaced, cinematographer Roger Deakins was instantly tapped as an early favorite to win his elusive first Oscar. When he is inevitably nominated for his work on Jan. 23 next year, it will be a record-breaking 14th in the field. Is this the one to finally get him to the Dolby Theatre stage? Perhaps. He’s likely to have more overall support than any film since “No Country for Old Men” this time around, and it’s also a great way to honor the late cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who shot Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film. But this year’s race is filling out quickly with sure-fire best-picture players like “Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk,” noteworthy visual accomplishments themselves.
Deakins had a lot of amazing things to point his camera at, too. Indeed, the bigger crafts story on the movie might actually be the art department. The sets are overwhelmingly elaborate, verging on gratuitous, really. Oscar-winning production designer Dennis Gassner truly outdid himself, building out Philip K. Dick, Scott, and original “Blade Runner” production designer Lawrence G. Paull’s world in ways both epic and intimate. The tangible elements work seamlessly with the visual effects, and there is practical movie magic of note as well.
The sound design is robust and singular. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score maintains proper reverence for and distance from Vangelis’ iconic original work, but this kind of thing rarely registers for the Academy’s music branch. (Villeneuve’s usual composer, Johann Johannsson, left the project over creative differences.) Other elements, like the costume design and makeup, perhaps the film editing — if the needlessly bloated running time isn’t held against it — will at least pick up guild recognition.
On the whole, this is about as elaborate as it gets below the line. So you can probably expect a slew of Oscar nominations. But whether “Blade Runner 2049” can become a juggernaut akin to “Mad Max: Fury Road” for Warner Bros. (with Sony distributing internationally) is left to be seen. That film ended up in the best picture and director races, a tall order for heavy genre fare. (Its eventual dominance even caught the studio off-guard.) That will largely depend on how the film is received outside the crafts realm.
On that score, Ryan Gosling is a solid anchor throughout and he’s asked to go to some interesting places with his performance. Harrison Ford’s presence is more than just a nostalgia pop, bringing with it an emotional context. To talk in further detail about their work would lead to spoilers, and lord knows Alcon Entertainment has been cripplingly paranoid about those, so let’s leave it at that. The point is, whether all of that stuff works or not could be the key to how much of a player the film will be overall; will it be viewed as sci-fi with actual meat on its bones, or will it be “just” a crafts accomplishment in the eyes of voters?
Time will tell. Box office will be a considerable part of the puzzle here. And the caveat on this and all other such analyses this year is that the Academy continues to evolve at a rapid rate; the membership’s collective taste becomes more and more nebulous as the years go by. But when you look at a movie like “Blade Runner 2049,” you have to figure if anyone is going to be dazzled, it will be the people who do this work for a living. It’s simply engineered to impress.