I can’t say I enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 all that much. The film is dreadfully slow, plummeting from atmospheric to contemplative to languid in the span of its first ninety minutes. There’s the skeleton of a plot, but no story to speak of. “Deliberate” pacing combined with opulent (in a good way) camera work but free of much literally going on, 2049 delivers a self-indulgent, nearly exhausting result: there’s both too much and too little happening.
In the future, synthetic humans called “replicants” are common place, grown to do the jobs organic humans won’t. One such replicant is Officer K (Ryan Gosling), the titular blade runner: a police officer tasked with hunting down older, less compliant replicants. A routine day at work leads K to a discovery that could, as his superior (Robin Wright) puts it, “break the world.” Divulging what happens from there would spoil key elements that the trailers haven’t shown, so we’ll leave it at this: things go poorly.
The acting is fine, but really just fine from everyone but Gosling, whose journey from dead-eyed compliance to deep, existential panic is masterful, and probably better than this movie deserves. Actors are wasted in 2049, which prefers to linger on its scenery or quite moments with its main star, leaving talents like Wright and Jared Leto stranded in underwritten roles (Leto is in about five minutes of this film, but he goes all out). And, yes: Harrison Ford returns as original blade runner Rick Deckard. Harrison Ford’s appearance should not have been given away by the trailers, it would have made a nice surprise to see him when he finally appears nearly two hours into the film.
This film lifts heavily from the original Blade Runner aesthetically, thematically, and even plot wise (what little there is). This level of cohesion works better here than in something like, say, another recent reboot of a popular, futuristic franchise from the 80’s that starred Harrison Ford, because 2049 succeeds in being a sequel, and not just a remake with better effects. Story elements from the first Blade Runner aren’t necessarily answered here, but they are expanded upon. Unlike The Force Awakens, which anybody can walk in to and enjoy without previous knowledge of Star Wars, if you haven’t seen Blade Runner, long stretches of 2049 will probably leaving you scratching your head. This is a good thing. Sequels should carry on elements from there predecessors and generally strive to be more than tangentially related crypto-remakes of better movies designed to make money off toy sales (yeah, I’m bitter about Star Wars, what of it?).
Blade Runner 2049 favors aesthetic film-making, providing its audience with a visual feast but eschewing plot and story for tone and atmosphere. K is in a committed relationship with his AI device, Joi (Ana de Armas), who presents as a modelesque, holographic woman. The picture is filled with flying cars and smoky, neon skylines, but in her subtlety, Joi is its best effect; light peeks through her like the sun through laundry hanging on a line, making her ethereal but also distant and cold. And then, of course, there’s the cinematography. Roger Deakins rewrites cinematic language here, filling in large gaps about this world purely through his imagery. K’s trek through the bombed out desert of Las Vegas provides a study in both use of color and filming isolation that will surely end up in a text book. It’s a success that ought to finally net him his Oscar.
But, for all that, 2049 lacks (apart from an editor) the influence of its processor, in both the diegetic sense and—I think time will prove—the literal. In the coming 2049, students of film will still be navigating the complexities of the original Blade Runner while this film will get a brief mention when in a text book chapter about the franchise blitzkrieg of these 2000-and-teens.
The original Blade Runner is not a science-fiction film; it’s a noir film with aspects of science fiction. People criticize the original film’s use of voice-over to narrate the plot to the lowest common detonator (their words, not mine), but Harrison Ford’s internal monologue, along with the neon-chiaroscuro lighting, set Blade Runner firmly within the detective oeuvre, creating a genre mash-up that would inspire homages and imitators and serves as both a fete to and entry in the dying noir genre, and perhaps the last truly great one, even if it is a bit slow. Blade Runner 2049 lacks inspiration. The genre is standard contemplative sci-fi with no distinct influence outside of the original film, replacing the noir elements with “themes” and “meaningfulness.” 2049 rips so liberally from Blade Runner in most areas, you’d think they’d have realized that you can have both.
The picture has a menagerie of ideas, a lot of them good. One of K’s fellow officers crudely calls replicants “skin jobs” before offering a hurried apology. K, though po-faced, says nothing, the way minorities routinely brush off their coworkers sexist or racist jokes. There’s a conversation about classism and societal hierarchy to be derived from the way the organic humans subjugate and fear the more powerful replicants. “The world is built on a wall that separates kind,” K’s boss tells him. “Tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war.” Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) builds the replicants specifically to serve as a disposable work force; their freedom comes directly at the cost of innovation. But no character in 2049—human, replicant, or AI—is a mindless drone; they all have humanity somewhere, but at all at different depths below the surface. When K turns on the AI system that allows Joi to take human form, the first few notes of Peter’s leitmotif from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf play. Much like Peter venturing outside his grandfather’s home to catch the wolf, Joi and, eventually, K come to understand that sometimes freedom only comes when you buck the world’s expectations for you.
These are solid ideas to explore for a nearly three hour film, but only small elements of Blade Runner 2049’s whole, and therein lies the problem: there are a million ideas but no unifying theme. Director Denis Villeneuve prefers to lay out dots and let you connect them however you please, and I reiterate here what I said in my review for Aronofy’s mother!: this shit ain’t a choose your own adventure. At the price of nearly three hours, I expect to come away with a more solid understanding of what a film is trying to say. What 2049 left me with was confusion that slowly diluted into disinterest.
Verdict: Visually operatic and filled with interesting ideas, Blade Runner 2049 is too self-impressed and meandering to warrant its length or the multiple rewatches necessary to divine it’s meaning. It’s the best boring movie ever made.