Caution: This review makes mention of two key plot points of Blade Runner 2049 that may be construed as “spoilers,” even though both are pieces of plot information that are introduced early on in the film. Either way, Denis Villeneuve reportedly asked critics not to reveal any plot points of the film, so I guess you’ve been warned.
It has been 35 years since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a dystopian urban image of a world in which people are hired to hunt down and “retire” artificial beings known as Replicants. Based on, if only in its philosophical quandaries, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film questioned where the line between humanity and artificiality is.
The script of Blade Runner 2049 from Hampton Fancher and Michael Green continues this existential exploration. The film, directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose cinematic visions have only grown in terms of visuals and heady ideas, follows a new Blade Runner code-named K (Ryan Gosling) as he stumbles upon the potential existence of a Replicant who not only possessed the ability to give birth, but did.
Blade Runner 2049 extends Scott’s initial film, if only by a foot or two. As a visual spectacle, the film is endlessly engaging. Roger Deakins, who proves time and again that he is not only the best cinematographer working in Hollywood today, but that he may be one of the best of all time, captures the landscapes and colors of the dystopian world in awesome ways. The film, as a result, does not have the same dank, gritty neo-noir feel of Scott’s vision, but it is much more appealing to the eye.
Narratively, however, the film does not reach very far. The story is simple and easily traversed, which could suffice for an average science fiction film. But for a film that lasts for almost three hours, it rings hollow during multiple stretches. It even doubles back to show us things we have already seen when the plot point that is emphasized by doing this is already crystal clear.
Akin to this flaw of hollowness is the shallow performances from a segment of the cast. Gosling and Robin Wright, who plays K’s human boss, both come off as stilted in ways that further the thematic question of humanity, but that also dull scenes that are otherwise visually resplendent.
On the flip side, Harrison Ford, who reprises his role as Agent Deckard, brings out one of his most heartfelt and earnest roles in the latter half of his career. And the closest thing to Rutger Hauer’s emotional density is Ana de Armas as K’s love interest. Their relationship wearing shades of Spike Jonze’s Her, the amount of humanity that Armas brings to a character who exists only as a hologram is fascinating.
This is also where the film flexes the only thematic contribution that is not otherwise aping the original. What Blade Runner 2049 adds is a layering of reality and artificiality to the question of what makes one human. Armas’ Joi is a hologram product designed to always say the right thing, to be the perfect companion. There is a giant hologram poster advertising her in the middle of the city. Yet, the Joi that exists in Ryan Gosling’s home feels so potently real.
Armas provides this level of real passion that the character has for the Blade Runner, but this relationship is the only really intriguing aspect of the film on a thematic front. Neither party is human, yet their existence together is the most tangible point of emotion in the universe of the film. Adding on top of this the notion that perhaps a Replicant character was born as a human would be, and the blurring of the line becomes all the more interesting.
Not to mention that the scene most reminiscent of Her, in which Armas and Gosling try to physically connect through a surrogate, is the most emotional moment in the film, and in fact has more emotional weight than every other scene combined. The beautiful CGI work of the two actresses “syncing up” while Gosling attempts to touch the hologram that he loves is the only image in the film, save for perhaps the final image, that elicits a true emotional response.
Beyond this continued exploration of Dick’s idea, Blade Runner 2049 is not particularly fascinating from a narrative standpoint. The characters feel more like pieces in the art exhibit that is this universe, as painted by Villeneuve and Deakins. It is immense and technically crafted with grace (aside from the score, which is needlessly overbearing. Hans Zimmer continues to blast us with blaring noise in his scores, and it takes you fully out of scenes in the film.), but it lacks a poignancy that could justify resurfacing the property in the first place.
Blade Runner 2049: B
For people my age, the movie theater is perhaps an archaic concept. But for a film of this technically-enhanced nature, Blade Runner 2049 is a film that demands to be seen in a theater. It is a film that certainly will not be as enjoyable on a small screen.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)