Blade Runner 2049 is a lovely piece of filmmaking that isn’t quite so lovely a sequel

(Note: Sorry for the tardiness! This review was originally recorded last week as a podcast between Kevin and myself, but the audio wasn’t very great. Whoops. Anyway, this isn’t a transcription, but it’s the gist of that conversation. Don’t worry; no spoilers.)

Blade Runner 2049 is the latest film to nostalgically look back at a Ridley Scott sci-fi masterpiece, then seemingly miss much of what made it such an enduring classic to begin with. Like the Alien follow-ups (and increasingly so with each diminishing chapter), it takes what was a spare story, elevated by its themes and instantly classic vision of a lived-in future, and blows it wildly out of proportion. The original leads, once thinly sketched and just there to do a job, are given profound, world-changing significance; beats are repeated but rarely quite as well; and all the tacked-on exposition leaves the first film irrevocably recontextualized. Yet Blade Runner 2049 is also such a fantastic piece of filmmaking that it’s often easy enough to overlook its faults. It’s far from a necessary follow-up, but it’s a pretty good one nonetheless.

Intensely glaring his way through another dry, impossibly cool performance, Ryan Gosling stars as Officer K, a Blade Runner gamely betraying his own kind in “retiring” older-model replicants. (While the first Blade Runner beat around the bush about whether its flawed, stone-faced hero was synthetic, 2049 wastes no time in confirming as much.) Echoing Lars and the Real Girl, Gos spends his evenings with with Joi (Ana de Armas), a Her-like AI girlfriend not so fully fleshed out as previously-seen man-made beings—more of a holographic, horny Google Home. Visual echoes of Drive and Only God Forgives (perhaps accidental but hard to miss) also make some appearances as K takes his Peugeot flying car on a case plotty and twisted enough that it’s tough to write much about in a review.

Drawing from yet another bled-dry sci-fi series, the story seems in part intended as the cyberpunk, neo-noir answer to Jurassic Park, going even further than the original into the question of playing God when one’s creations will inevitably escape man’s limited grasp. Just as before, the question is best answered with a big-ass handgun—but to 2049‘s detriment, maybe not as often as it should be.

For as impressively, beautifully ponderous as this is for a big budget film, it doesn’t actually ask its audience to ponder all that much. One may have sat in the theater in 1982 questioning whether Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty was even really the true villain. The same can’t be said for this film’s baddie: Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, who Leto plays with a cartoonish villainy on par with his much maligned Joker. The man responsible for bringing replicants back after Tyrell’s operation was shut down, Wallace speaks wholly in sinister, scenery-chewing monologues. He shares antagonist duties with Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv, a stoic, merciless henchman who’s basically Suzanne Cryer’s Silicon Valley filtered through Goldeneye‘s Xenia Onatopp.

Despite Harrison Ford’s heavy presence in the marketing blitz, we predictably don’t see as much of Deckard as advertised. But the nice thing is, there’s plenty else to look at in there, and it’s all far more visually appealing than a septuagenerian in a Hanes Beefy T. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot by his frequent collaborator, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 may well be the most gorgeous picture of the year. If anything, the film may almost be too beautiful: its ventures beyond the rain- and neon-drenched city streets that defined the original’s aesthetic come with a vastness, brightness, and austerity that can feel at odds with the grit that came before. Likewise at odds is that for all the adherence to the original’s Asian character-filled signage, you’ll be hard pressed to find any actual Asian characters. The result is cleaned up, whitewashed future that’s either an analogy for gentrification or just sort of tone deaf.

Costing a reported $150 million, running nearly three hours, and building to Book of Exodus-tinged consequences that Robin Wright’s police lieutenant insist will “break the world,” there’s no doubt 2049 goes big. Which is weird, because much of what made Blade Runner so successful was its sparseness—a pulpy, noir-scale detective story foregrounding the larger themes and sci-fi spectacle. That the screenplay credit is shared between original screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Alien: Covenant story writer Michael Green may speak to its mix of hitting both 1982 highs and modern lows. It’s taken an important film and retrofitted it with some of the wrong sort of importance (as too often denoted by the many instances of characters shedding a single tear in moments of profundity—a very on-the-nose thematic successor to Batty’s “tears in rain”).

All this to say: it’s a shame that Blade Runner 2049 is so obsessed with piling on its mythos that it necessarily draws harsh comparison to its forebear. Somehow freed from such an impossibly tough standard, it stands up as quite a decent little sci-fi movie—a compelling if imperfect tale, languorous but never boring and frequently breathtaking. It’s just not quite the right successor. For all the obvious craft and love put into it, as yet another belated, off-the-mark sequel calling back to an iconic property, Blade Runner 2049 ultimately comes across as something of an elevated potboiler. In the interest of subtlety, maybe Villeneuve could have left out the lingering shot of an actual pot boiling.

Grade: B

Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 163 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Aremas, Silvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

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