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The mysterious, devastating films of Blade Runner 2049’s Denis Villeneuve

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Last year’s Arrival managed to be the rare thought-provoking, emotionally rich sci-fi blockbuster, another stepping stone on director Denis Villeneuve’s ascendence toward becoming a major Hollywood talent, currently helming Blade Runner 2049 and tapped to rework Frank Herbert’s Dune. While there’s a clear sci-fi through-line connecting those projects, he has, over the course of more than 20 years, built up a rich filmography, full of meticulously crafted shots and devastating performances. While Blade Runner is (sigh) still almost four months away, it’s worth taking a look at his rich previous works and examining what makes them all so individually effective.

In a video essay called “Crafting Morality Through Mystery,” Channel Criswell teases apart some of the French-Canadian director’s techniques. While his early films employed a gritty, handheld style, he has over time developed a more patient approach, with a largely static camera that seems to cast a sinister pall over the very human dramas unfolding onscreen. These dramas are key to the success of his films—while his films juggle big topics like the nature of violence and the meaning of existence, they never lose sight of their characters. He manages this in part by controlling the release of information, revealing it to the audience only on his terms and sometimes cutting away during crucial moments, thus making the viewer voyage into the unknown, just as his characters do, and so be transformed by the quest alongside them.

Will he thus be able to explain the mystery of how Los Angeles got so damn clean in Blade Runner 2049, or will that, like the mystery of how Atari apparently stayed in business for another three decades, be left to rattle in the viewer’s mind and be puzzled over afterward, like the conclusion of Enemy or the whispered secrets of Sicario? Only time will tell.


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