Blade Runner 2049 hinges on faith in the 2017 moviegoer.
The original Blade Runner, released in 1982 when Harrison Ford was at the height of superstardom, is considered a cult classic. What that means is that, despite its critical acclaim and cultural cachet, the film lacks the widespread familiarity that typically empowers movie studios to green-light sequels. Blade Runner 2049 is banking on fans of the original – a presumably small constituency – coming out to support it and casual moviegoers buying tickets to see Ryan Gosling kick ass. Given the sorry state of box office this year, Warner Bros. is making a tremendous, expensive gamble that I can’t say paid off.
For the uninitiated: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in a world of bioengineered humans called replicants, whose purpose is to serve the naturally born. Rebellion has led to a new and improved class of replicants who were tasked with ridding of older models. K (Ryan Gosling) is an LAPD “blade runner” who busts through walls and “retires” his own kind, on the orders of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). His life outside of work is meager: a young AI-powered female hologram is his only companion. His world is upended when he discovers the remains of a pregnant replicant while on a mission. Replicants can’t conceive, or so this world believes. Evidence to the contrary would be catastrophic to the re-established world order, so K is tasked with finding this replicant child and retiring them, ultimately falling down a rabbit hole of intrigue and chaos.
Blade Runner 2049’s lore might make sense to a someone well-versed in the original’s universe, but newcomers will be scratching their heads, a lot. K’s world is too abstract to fully register. Replicants are declared lesser beings, but it’s difficult to understand why without seeing how they interact with natural humans. K’s narrow perspective leaves the film’s grand dystopian themes feeling hollow. The film’s lack of world-building context is frustrating, but its glacial pacing is a near-fatal flaw. It’s a slog to get through, wearing out its runtime before the reel even crosses the 30-minute mark. The film’s first third is so deficient in excitement or tension that could be forgiven for checking your watch or dozing off (I did, multiple times).
Blade Runner 2049 does eventually pick up some steam, but then other issues arise, like its hollow characterization and several plot holes that undermine the film’s existence. K’s investigation leads him to his past, kicking the plot into medium gear and giving him some conflict and focus. Ryan Gosling is finally allowed to perform something other than stoicism, tapping into the existential dread of an upended life that the script only skims. Just as things are really getting interesting – around the time Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard makes his long-awaited appearance – the film offers up a final-act twist that undercuts K’s story and makes him a bit player in an undefined tale of redemption and reunion.
Blade Runner 2049 is a narrative clunker, but at least it’s a technical marvel. Director Denis Villeneuve serves up one eye-popping shot after another, toying with color, perspective, and the physical/digital blend in ways that are downright 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 lover – are overwhelming. Maybe the film is too visually splendid: there were times when Villeneuve gets distracted by his aesthetics, lingering on scenes when he should’ve moved along. The screen time would’ve been better spent on Ford, who delivers his most affecting work in years, or Wright, who continues her stellar year of playing powerful, ass-kicking women.
Blade Runner 2049 desperately wants to be the Mad Max: Fury Road of 2017. They might compare in technical and visual excellence, but Blade Runner 2049 falls short with an unfulfilling plot, laborious pace, and flat characters. Again, original Blade Runner fans will probably appreciate this sequel than the rest of us, and that’s fine. But a truly great sequel shouldn’t have to rely so heavily on the original: it should stand on its own to appeal to both old and new fans. Unfortunately, Blade Runner 2049 won’t win any new converts, which renders its existence moot.