Blade Runner 2049 is a film built on faith – in the 2017 moviegoer.
The 1982 original starring Harrison Ford – fresh off launching the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises – is a cult classic, which is a nice way of saying it underperformed upon initial release but gained cultural cachet later in life. This also means that Blade Runner lacks the widespread familiarity that would make a quarter-century sequel understandable. The film is banking on fans of the original to at least be intrigued by the concept, and newer audiences to turn out to see Ryan Gosling kick ass. Considering the sorry state of the Hollywood box office this year, it’s a tremendous, expensive gamble to take. Speaking as a newcomer to the Blade Runner universe, I can’t say that it paid off.
For the uninitiated: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in a world of bioengineered humans called replicants, whose purpose is to serve those of natural birth. Periods of rebellion led to a new and improved class of replicants who were tasked with getting rid of the older models. K (Ryan Gosling) is one of these “blade runners” for the LAPD, busting through walls and “retiring” his own kind at the orders of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). He lives a meager life outside of his job – a young AI-powered hologram of a woman is his only companion and love interest. His world is thrown into disarray when he discovers the remains of a pregnant, replicant woman while on a retirement mission. Replicants aren’t supposed to be able to conceive, and evidence to the contrary would be catastrophic to the re-established world order, so K is sent down the rabbit hole of tracking down the natural-born replicant child and “retiring” them.
The complicated yet intriguing lore probably makes sense to a well-versed Blade Runner fan, but newcomers will be left scratching their heads, a lot. Much of K’s world is an abstraction. Replicants are supposed to be lesser beings, but we don’t see enough of their interactions with natural humans to understand how or why. Lip service is paid to danger and revolution and other grand dystopian themes, but K’s perspective is too narrow to properly reflect them. Context is just one of the issues with the film’s story; the more damaging one is pacing. Despite its title, Blade Runner 2049 is a slog to get through, feeling overlong before even crossing the 30-minute mark. The film’s first third is so lacking in excitement or tension that you could be forgiven for checking your watch or dozing off multiple times (I did).
2049 does eventually pick up some narrative steam, but then those other issues rear their heads, like hollow characters and plot holes that question the whole purpose of the film. Without spoiling too much, K’s investigation leads him to his own past, kicking the story into medium gear and giving K some much-needed shades of deep conflict and focus. Here, Ryan Gosling gets to convey more than stoicism, tapping into the existential dread of an upended life that the story only skirts by. Just as things are really getting interesting – around the time Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard finally shows up – the film offers up a tenth-hour twist that undercuts K’s story and makes him a bit player in a largely undefined tale of redemption and reunion.
It’s unfortunate that 2049 is such a narrative clunker, because it also happens to be a technical marvel. Director Denis Villeneuve serves up one eye-popping frame after the other, toying with color, perspective, and the physical/digital blend in ways that are instantly iconic. The intricacies of building this dystopia – the dusty orange-red wasteland of Las Vegas, the monochrome megalopolis that is Los Angeles, the semi-transparence of K’s AI lover – are staggering. Maybe the film is too visually splendid: there were times when the film felt distracted by its own aesthetic appeal, lingering when it should’ve moved along. The screen time would’ve been better spent with Ford, who delivered his most affecting work in years despite his glorified cameo, or Wright, who continues her stellar year of playing ass-kicking women.
Blade Runner 2049 could’ve been the Mad Max: Fury Road of 2017 that it so obviously wanted to be. They may match up in technical and visual excellence, but 2049 falls short with its unfulfilling plot, laborious pace, and weak characters. Again, OG Blade Runner fans will probably gain more from this sequel than the rest of us, and that’s fine. A great sequel, however, shouldn’t have to rely so heavily on the original; it should stand on its own to appeal to fans old and new. Blade Runner 2049 just doesn’t cut it.