Blade Runner 2049 is a magnificent outlier to the Hollywood blockbuster sequel farm, and at the same time a victim of it. The two-hour-and-43-minute runtime allows director Denis Villeneuve to immerse the viewer in a familiar world that has aged 30 years since the first film. The neon advertisements that dotted the landscape in the original film are bigger, bolder, more interactive. The urban decay has increased. A world so overpopulated that the only hope for the future is to migrate to another planet is displayed in the starkest terms.
Dead farms, junkyards the size of great lakes, orphanages and massive floating workspaces are all brilliantly realized. The film’s soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer, and Benjamin Wallfisch is lush, intoxicating, always churning and rising, like the sea. Then at times, it crashes–jolting, tyrannical and paranoid.
The film’s first scene kept me nervous and agitated with the sole sound of water simmering in an iron pot.
With Denis Villeneuve at the helm there probably never should have been a question about whether the film would be handicapped by its visuals. Still, the concern for many heading into the sequel was, “What about the story?” Why did a cult film based on a sci-fi novel by Philip K Dick– a movie with such an esoteric message–really need to have its story extended? After all, the original Blade Runner was not a hit. Despite Ridley Scott’s will, borne out by his heavy-handed directing, the original hung around at theaters for only a few weeks. It was later resurrected through director’s cuts and re-releases.
And indeed, the sequel’s script, delivered by Hampton Fancher and David Green, is the film’s greatest weakness. By Hollywood standards, it’s a fairly strong one, but coming 30 years after the original film it tries to do too much. It’s a shame that the Blade Runner sequel finally got off the ground in the age of the “cinematic universe.” Rather than concerning itself with establishing a strong center, the script goes out of the way to create mythos, to establish players off-scene and to introduce plot points that seem to exist mostly to advance another sequel.
The larger philosophical connotations–questions about perspective, consciousness, racism, discrimination, consumerism, artificial intelligence and existentialism that so dominated the first film–do creep into the sequel, but they have to be mined for.
Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of android LAPD Blade Runner ‘K” is steady if not great. His default position is simply to be. He does ramp up to basic moping and eventually achieves simmering angst. His best scenes come across not with his synthetic, projected girlfriend but with his superior, Lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright. The pair exchange deeply “noir” quips that are almost certain to end up sampled on future industrial and death-metal albums. The testing process Gosling undergoes when returning to LAPD is masterfully constructed, recalling both the original Voight-Kampf test from the original Blade Runner and the work of Stanley Kubrick. K begins to question his work as a killer of rogue replicants after stumbling onto a case that forces him to consider the nature of his existence. (Sound familiar?) His hologram girlfriend, “Joi,” accompanies him on the psychological and physical journey. His nemesis, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant servant of blind billionaire messiah Niander Wallace, is both terrifying and captivating.
The best performances in Blade Runner 2049 are short and sweet. Believe it or not, Dave Bautista hits all the right notes as a replicant farmer with a heart. Jared Leto plays Wallace as a slinking, serene tech genius with a serious god complex. They could have used more screen time than Harrison Ford, who arrives late in the film and nearly sends it veering off the rails with his hammy delivery.
The film’s end sequence comes together in a rush, with heaps of references to the smallest details of the first film and an appearance by Sean Young. The audience is primed for a grand conclusion involving an epic clash of replicants and humans, but instead, the ending is small, contained, and requires a bit of thought to appreciate. Rather than Rutger Hauer’s “Tear Drops in the Rain” speech we get a battle at an ocean wall, a drowning and then a character left to ponder his actions as he’s covered in snowflakes.
While Blade Runner left audiences wondering whether Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was a replicant himself, Blade Runner 2049 should leave audiences wondering if the world of the film and the world we inhabit are so hopeless that memories and fleeting moments of pleasure are worth more than the future.
Blade Runner 2049 should be celebrated, not only for allowing the audience to live in an amazingly realized world with a wonderful soundtrack but also for asking the audience to think. It goes wrong when it plans for a future–when it tries to lay the groundwork for a cinematic universe. Blade Runner 2049 manages to live on in the mind, and these days that is a feat worth celebrating.