Blade Runner 2049 Brilliantly Uses Visibility And Light To Show Us A Ruined World

Blade Runner 2049 came out last week, facing the challenge of both honouring and updating the aesthetic of one of science-fiction cinema's most beloved films. The filmmakers who made the just-released sequel rose to the occasion by imbuing the movie with a hauntingly appropriate approach to illumination.

All images: Warner Bros.

Back in July, I was part of a roundtable interview with Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve at San Diego Comic-Con. One of his answers to my questions has stuck in my mind for months:

The first Blade Runner popularised a sort of future-shock vision of cyberpunk and that aesthetic imprint is all over the place now, and people are familiar with it. Can you talk about, aesthetically, some ways that you want to surprise people again?

It was a long process to find the keys. The keys were in the screenplay and the ideas of Hampton about how climate evolved. Climate for me was a key because [changing] climate means different kind of light. And that was something, with Roger Deakins, we explored those ideas and came back that we feel is deeply inspired by the first movie but slightly different.

Let's say that the first movie was made by a director born in England under the rain. The second one was made by a Canadian director that was born in snow. So the light is different...

When I saw Blade Runner 2049 last week, it was immediately apparent how much work Villeneuve, director of photography Roger Deakins, and their cohorts put into the filtering and obscuring of light. Here, truth lives in darkness, which fits with the movie's noir genre aspirations.

Light carries information. Light creates memory. But it also can be used to channel falsehood. In a world where fake memories look just like real ones, luminescence is unreliable. The holograms and other visual overlays that are a fact of life in 2049 also serve as avatars of a broken world, where what it means to be human is an explosively evolving idea. As seen in the Wallace Replicants offices and in Ana Stelline's memory-making facility workshop, only the rich can afford clean light, and, as a corollary, anything clearly lit is meant to be mistrusted.

When we first meet Stelline, the dazzle of the tropical environs that surround her is shocking and ultimately revealed to be fake. She's making a birthday memory when Officer K calls on her, paying particular focus to the candlelight. If the radiance of the flickering flames aren't realistic enough, the memory won't be effective as a psychological anchor.

The more brightly something shines in Blade Runner 2049, the less likely it is to be trustworthy. Pure sunlight only appears a scant few times -- most significantly, we see a few shafts when K meets with the Replicant insurgency -- and, overall, the clearest electric light feels like harbingers of danger or signs of moral offence in this movie. The blinking eye of the faraway drone that kills scavengers, the red tripwire indicator in the decrepit Vegas hotel, and the sinister blue data node of mad corporate prophet Wallace all represent hazily seen threats in waiting. They remain hidden or misunderstood in plain sight until the realities behind them are unleashed.

All throughout the movie, K and other characters are followed by remote spotlights and framed by indirect rectangular radiances. But Blade Runner 2049's use of light isn't just dramatic; it's thematic, as well. The lead-up to the meeting of K and Deckard showcases this implementation. The gauzy atmosphere of post-dirty-bomb Las Vegas comes across like a purgatory.

There's a glow in the air but we never see a light source. Is it day? Is it night? This uncertainty -- which seems to call back to the old Sin City tradition of not letting folks know what time it is -- creates a thick suspicion.

Later, when the beams of the holographic Elvis stage show dance around the room, suspicion explodes into assault. The elaborate light show serves a mnemonic tether to the future-slave exploitation that connects Deckard and K. One of them is the subject of a manipulation of the truth while the other has done the manipulation to obscure his own past.

When Deckard and Wallace face off in the latter's moodily illuminated offices, the elder man growls that he "knows what's real". For all the light and power at Wallace's command, he doesn't have the means to create a new kind of life. It's not a coincidence that the fate of that miraculous new life gets resolved in the movie's murkiest scenes. The swirling chaos makes for a perfect cyberpunk climax because it's dim and tough to see anything at all. Poor visibility is the most recurrent visual trope in Blade Runner 2049, a sign that we can't trust what we see in the future that's coming.

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    It was stunning. I feel like watching it again this weekend.

    its like jewellery, lovely to look at but ultimately useless. great effects dont make a great movie

      Yes I agree. The flying cars were also marvel to watch but it didn't hide the fact that the story was disjointed, haphazard even, and ultimately dull.

      Hey, it's interesting that you'd say that. If you're interested in a counterpoint, I just read this great article about how lighting conveys tone and meaning to enliven the themes of the film.

    It certainly was stunning - stunningly boring. Ryan Gosling is hopelessly miscast. He is better suited to La La Land (also crushingly boring). The most important factor in any story is that you have to care about at least one of the protagonists; and in this the film failed dismally. All that money., all those special effects, all wasted. Shame really.

      Disagree. Ryan was well cast in this, I thought he was totally miscast in LaLa Land, which I also liked (it "was" a musical). This movie had great character development, I mean ita made by a guy who knows how to make great film (Sicario, Arrival...) The subplot of his "computerised" love interest was brilliant. The obvious parallels between her and "replicants" was carefully constructed, and Ryan had to play his part very "wooden", when amongst "humans". Ryan only felt happy among his own kind, he really saw himself as nothing more than a robot, at least in the first act, and most of the second.

    Oh, I thought you didn't have a Spoiler Alert - that graphic is a bit too thin & I ignore most graphics (they are usually advertisements). How about a typed in first line Spoiler Alert at the top of your article. I saw the movie, loved the soundtrack, every scene outside and pacing but was disappointed at the very end.

      soundtrack? what the constant motor bike revving noise of hans zimmer.. it was terrible.... bring back Vangelsis

        Agree with you here. The soundtrack didn't ruin the movie for me or anything, but it's disappointing that they'd spend so much money bringing back key cast members and overlook one of the most significant creative voices from the original.

        haha funny, I liked the soundtrack/ambient sounds, really helped amp up the intensity of some scenes for me, actually kinda stressed me out which movies never do these days.

    Well as the original movie was one of my all time favorites, I thought this new one was a nigh on perfect follow up. I had no problems with the story and enjoyed the mood, darkness, sounds, music and the acting. It "resonated" with me the same way the first one did.

    Different strokes for different folks and each to his own as they say.

      You thought a blind antagonist (who can actually see) who creates Replicants virtually indistinguishable from actual humans (but for some reason cannot make a functioning womb) is desperate for the "miracle" offspring of a Replicant so that Replicants can self-replicate and thereby become a new species: the knowledge of which could trigger an apocalyptic war of the species not utter bs?

    It was rubbishy nonsense ! More action in 2001 . It never should have been made

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