Thirty years is a long damn time, but I suppose it’s still better late than never for the sequel to 1982’s science fiction classic, “Blade Runner.” The sequel, “Blade Runner 2049” is both a faithful imagining of what might have taken place 30 years after the events in Ridley Scott’s original, and a piece of fan fiction that somehow doesn’t quite ring true. It’s hardcore sci-fi, a film of ideas as opposed to non-stop action. If it isn’t as great as the first film – or even a great film in general – well, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t try.
The director this time is Denis Villenueve, who also helmed 2015’s excellent and terrifying “Sicario.” That film was set in the violent world of the Mexican cartels and has many scenes of shocking violence and gripping intrigue that make it one of the best action films of the decade. I don’t know why the Powers That Be decided Villenueve would be the right man to direct “Blade Runner 2049,” but he brings his cold, detached eye and talent for framing just the right shot to the project. Just as its visuals made the original “Blade Runner” a classic, the look of the sequel is absolutely crucial. Villenueve nails it, but in a different way.
The first film, based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, imagines a future that has gone to hell. Set in Los Angeles 2019 ( yep, it’s right around the corner), the first “Blade Runner” has cars that fly, constant rain, grimy city streets, ubiquitous neon, and humanoid Replicants (a term the film invented) fleeing from a grim, determined robot killer named Rick Deckard. Deckard, the LAPD’s top “blade runner,” is a violent man whose very humanity is at stake. After killing most of the renegade Replicants, in a series of brutal showdowns, Deckard finally squares off against their leader, Roy Batty, a Nexus 6 powerhouse whose impending death gives him a philosophical bent. Roy ends up saving Deckard from certain doom, then delivers a moving soliloquy before dying. Deckard collects his girlfriend, Rachel – also a Replicant – and flees LA.
This basic story has been put to the test over the years. Originally released as a hybrid film noir/science fiction epic, “Blade Runner” presented eye-popping visual effects that changed the way movies would look and feel for the next 20 years. Scott’s decaying, neon-lit 2019 would influence tons of filmmakers and give the film its classic status. (Who can forget the shot of the flying police car, a Spinner, soaring through the rain past that building-sized, electric Coke sign?) It originally had a much-maligned voiceover by Harrison Ford, who played Deckard. I always liked the voiceover, as it humanized Deckard and lent the film even more of a noir feel (isn’t this supposed to be partly a detective story?), but Scott, in later versions, removed it. No big loss, really.
Scott did more, however, than just kill the voiceover. He also scrubbed up the special effects, added and subtracted scenes, and made clear that, in his opinion, Deckard himself is a Replicant. This has been the subject of intense debate for decades – is he or isn’t he? (It depends on which version of the film you’re talking about. In the original 1982 version that was released to theaters – the one with Ford talking over the scenes – Deckard is most emphatically human. In the 1993 version most people have seen, well, the question comes up.)
Deckard’s status as either a human or Replicant is questioned in an added scene in which the drunk, tired blade runner dreams of a unicorn (actually just an outtake from Scott’s 1986 “Legend”). What’s up with the damned unicorn? Was it an implant? How could any human dream of such a creature? Is Deckard a Replicant?
So, OK, flash-forward a couple of decades, and we have “Blade Runner 2049,” the sequel to the most legendary film of the late 20th century. We don’t have flying cars or Replicants (yet), nor do we have answers to the most burning questions raised by the original film. “BR2049” doesn’t offer much in the way of help. Villenueve has made his own film, raising its own issues. It is set in roughly the same world as the original movie, but is its own animal. Maybe it’s a unicorn.
Here we find Ryan Gosling as K, a blade runner 30 years down the line. There’s no question about whether K is human. He’s not. He’s a Replicant designed to hunt down older-model, presumably defective Replicants. Villenueve kills any suspense or mystery about K’s identity early on. Never mind that in the first film, Replicants were so intolerable that a whole new class of police officer was created to destroy them. In 2049, robots will hunt and destroy other robots. That’s grim, indeed.
Los Angeles – indeed, the whole Earth – has changed much in 30 years. The city is wracked by environmental catastrophe. Where Scott depicted constant rain, Villenueve envisions a host of weather conditions, all occurring seemingly at once. There’s rain, snow, fog, storms – anything but sun. It is a poisoned, poisonous atmosphere, probably post-nuclear, dominated by incomprehensible technology. The flying cars are still around, and so are all the old corporate slogans from 1982 – there’s a miraculous shot of an Atari billboard that looks as cool as shit. As with the original film, “BR2049” is fucking spectacular to look at and is a masterpiece on that level alone. I doubt any other film will ever look as good as this one. (Lauded cinematographer Roger Deakins won his first Oscar for his work here.)
The movie nails its cold, bitter, post-apocalyptic setting – this is the most physically impressive science-fiction film I’ve ever seen – but in the story department, things aren’t so great. The story is interesting, and all, but it takes too much time – way too much – to spin out.
K, in the course of murdering an older Nexus 6 Replicant played by the awesome Dave Bautista, discovers a secret in the desert wastes east of Los Angeles. His chief, the tough-as-nails Robin Wright, orders him to destroy all evidence of what he’s found, which is this: proof of a baby born of a Replicant. The mother was Rachel, Deckard’s girlfriend. Where’s Deckard? Who the hell knows. And what of the child? Also a big unknown. K’s first order of business is to find Deckard, who’s been missing for 30 years.
And that’s kind of it. The film is a detective story, yes, and K is a good one, tracking down leads, overcoming obstacles, encountering a host of shady characters, and uncovering a massive conspiracy that could spark a war between humans and non-humans. The problem is that there is absolutely no urgency to his quest. The movie takes a long time getting anywhere, with K bogging down in conversations that don’t add up to much, and Villenueve spending perhaps too much time demonstrating how he gets from Point A to Point B. It’s a beautiful trip through hell, but I’d say a good 15 minutes could have been trimmed to make a leaner, faster, more intense film.
Also, there’s a section in the middle of the second act where K makes a discovery that’s so small and obscure as to be almost meaningless. We’re not quite sure what we’re looking at, or what he thinks about it, or how it fits in with the overall scheme of things, but it has to do with his childhood – or what he thinks might have been his childhood (he knows he’s a Replicants, and so understands that all his memories are implants) – yet I felt very little emotional impact. Villenueve makes the mistake of bathing the scene in absolute darkness, holding on Gosling’s stone expression for too long, and rattling our ears with overly-revelatory music. You just kind of tune out.
In other words, this is a Serious Movie with Serious Ideas, and it runs the risk of Taking Itself Way Too Seriously. I like Gosling and everyone else in the movie, but Scott had a way of making everything visceral and immediate, and Villenueve has made a bit of a self-conscious art film.
Almost nothing left over from the original movie is dealt with, though certain characters are revisited, in certain forms. This brings us to Deckard himself, again played by Ford, whose performance brings up a whole new level of review. He’s almost from a different movie, and that movie would be the first “Blade Runner.” He’s grizzled, mean, angry, spiteful, violent, cagey, crafty, and, from a story standpoint, utterly useless. K finally finds him in a blasted and blown-out Las Vegas (which we spend far too much time exploring), and we finally get an action scene that shows Ford still knows how to sling a punch. But Ford, as good as he is – and he is very, very good – is wasted. Deckard has no part in the overall story. He should have been cut, or given a bigger, more meaningful role. It’s like a visit from an old buddy you always wondered about, but that’s it – we’re not even told whether or not he’s human! The mystery and debate continue!
I haven’t even mentioned the Big Bad in this film, Niander Wallace, played well enough by Jared Leto. Niander is where the movie creeps into fan fiction territory. He fulfills the same story role as the earlier Eldon Tyrell in the first film, but is different in that he’s trying to … well, I’m not sure what Niander’s overall goals are. He wants to create a better class of Replicant by making them breed, I think, but given that Niander only gets two scenes, the character is a bit of an enigma. His big moment with Deckard is a letdown; Deckard is not even allowed to speak.
Niander’s right hand is a brutal Replicant called Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who goes around killing people in pursuit of Deckard’s love child. She’s a cold character who’s not given any memorable lines – certainly none to rank with Roy Batty’s closing speech about tears in rain.
Nor have I mentioned that K has a love life. His “girlfriend” is the film’s most fascinating and tragic character, Joi, who’s not even a Replicant, but a hologram controlled by a small device K carries in his pocket. Joi, played by the lovely Ana de Armas, is a bit of a fairy tale creature who just wants to be free. Unfortunately, she’s just an electronic projection. There’s an astonishing moment where a version of Joi that’s nude and 50 stories tall visits K at a crucial moment in his journey. If nothing else, the visuals make the film riveting even when the story seems to be on hold.
Everything culminates in a scene filmed in total darkness, with rain and heavy waves battering the combatants, who beat each other to a pulp. It’s a depressing end to a film that has been light on humor and humanity. No philosophical questions have been discussed; there’s only a battle between two indestructible humanoids, with Deckard waiting to drown in the background. The final scene at least provides one of the characters some closure, or at least, a chance to start again.
I waited a long time to see this movie – longer than any other long-awaited sequel. I still remember the first “Blade Runner” in theaters (I was too young to be allowed in); a relative of mine went to see it, and came back describing it as dark, violent and weird. I finally saw the original on cable and was blown away by it. Since then, it’s been a constant in my viewing experience. I might have seen Scott’s original “Blade Runner” more times than any other movie, and yes, that definitely includes “Star Wars.”
I doubt I’ll be able to say the same of “BR2049.” As gorgeous as it is, and as gripping as its few scenes of action might be, it just doesn’t have Scott’s signature storytelling style. Villenueve takes too long; his film is opaque, inscrutable. Physically, it’s a masterpiece – the technology, sets, practical effects, costumes, lighting, sound effects, music, etc., are all top-shelf, worthy of every Oscar there is – but the screenplay raises and answers topics I was never all that interested in to begin with. Couldn’t Deckard have gotten more than a guest role? Wasn’t there room for Rachel? Couldn’t they have done more with Bautista’s Sapper Morton? If I sound disappointed, I am. I’ve watched this movie maybe three times, and feel like that is enough, at least, for now.
Maybe one day, I’ll come back to it. I don’t dislike it; I admire it for its grand visual and imaginative accomplishments. I just can’t say the same about the screenplay. Fan fiction can only go so far … and this feels like that.