Thirty-five years after the release of the original Blade Runner, its long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049, hit theaters Friday. With a $185-million budget and a 164-minute runtime, 2049 is an ambitious sci-fi epic that pleases the eye as well as the mind. But mostly the eye.
Denis Villeneuve is one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, riding the successes of Prisoners, Sicario and last year’s megahit Arrival. Last year’s Oscar-winning blockbuster saw Villeneuve exemplify his love for shots of his protagonists slowly approaching large imposing buildings and objects. So it makes sense why he was chosen to take over this expensive and beloved project.
With Arrival, Villeneuve started to become a Christopher Nolan clone. Following the formula that Nolan popularized of turning a movie into a magic trick that wows audiences, Villeneuve made Arrival into a Rubik’s Cube. He does the same thing with Blade Runner 2049. But here he also continues in Nolan’s tracks by creating a mammoth science-fiction film with an intimidating runtime of nearly three hours. Nolan and Villeneuve are both visceral, expert technicians who enhance what they are given without completely transcending it. And they both managed to take on beloved source material and make it their own.
Co-written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, 2049 transports us back to the smoggy Los Angeles that was first introduced in 1982. It may be 35 years since the original came out, but it has only been 30 years in screen time. Here we follow a new blade runner named KD6-3-7 or K for short, played by Ryan Gosling. K is on a mission to retire the older generation of replicants, the Nexus 8s, who began to rebel against humans. Nexus 8s are no longer getting produced. Niander Wallace, portrayed by Jared Leto, has started creating new subservient replicants who are programmed to feel but not rebel.
K is one of these newer replicants. He’s lifeless as he kills off the first Nexus 8 we see in the opening scene. It’s a great performance from Gosling. He paints himself in the same anti-charisma he showcased in 2011’s Drive. In both performances, the audience finds Gosling in a conundrum of regret: in Drive he is a conduit to the death of his neighbor’s husband and in 2049 he is killing off his ancestors. His ability to display a quiet sense of self-awareness makes him one of the most talented actors working today.
Leto, conversely, has no self-awareness at all. He completely overacts and makes a fool of himself in his role as the villainous Wallace. As years pass, it has become evident that winning an Oscar in 2014 was the worst thing that could have happened to Leto. He was so good in Dallas Buyers Club that he not only tricked viewers into thinking he was an elite actor but he fooled himself too. Leto overlooks all of the nuances that constitute being a frightening and well-made villain. In 2049, he delivers goofy monologues with ridiculous gravitas. He’s a caricature of a villain. Or, rather, a soulless replicant of one.
Replicants having souls and emotions is a central theme of the film. This concept of robots gaining sentience and feelings has been explored countless times over the past five years with movies like Her, Ex Machina and even Westworld on HBO. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t dive deeper into the idea more than any of these other works. With its bloated runtime you’d expect 2049 to say something new about humanoid robots, but it fails to challenge the viewer.
The film is just another story about Pinocchio artificial intelligence wanting to be a real boy. This is a hackneyed and flawed concept. Why would AI want to be a human if they surpass humans in so many ways? We are told that replicants are stronger and faster than us and we know they are smarter than us — they shouldn’t be having existential crises about how they can’t have existential crises.
This is not to say 2049 has poorly written characters. In fact, these characters are much deeper than those in the original. Almost no one in the 1982 film had an interesting character arc because director Ridley Scott has apparently never met another human. Villeneuve, on the other hand, is capable of creating emotionally rich films like Arrival. 2049 doesn’t quite reach those heights but it has flashes of sensitive brilliance. This is mainlined through the relationship between K and Joi, played by Ana de Armas, his holographic love interest.
2049 is full of philosophizing dialogue, and Joi is the only character who gives the audience a break from that. Joi is the most interesting character in the film because she is one of the few we can gain sympathy for. She transforms from just a voice into a physical being. Her character has reason to explore what it means to be “real.”
The relationship between K and Joi climaxes with one of the worst sex scenes ever captured on film. Or is it? It’s tough to determine whether this scene was good or bad. Initially it is just weird, but as it goes on (and it goes on for awhile) it becomes clear what is happening. In this moment, Joi is given the illusion of freedom, a feeling she is void of as a commercialized hologram. Her individuality stands out in this scene as she doesn’t quite sync up with her surroundings. And this is all done in a certain visual flare.
And this can be said for every second of the movie. Production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Roger Deakins firmly send the audience into a new world. This dystopic world is one of the most beautiful places you will see on the silver screen. It’s evident why this movie cost so much to make. They have to stay true to the look of the iconic classic, and they do just that. But they also reinvent it to give audiences a look at transcendent beauty. Continuing in the original’s path, 2049 has bird’s eye shots of Los Angeles’ neon skyline, as well as dusty wide shots of a tangerine Las Vegas wasteland. It’s a deeply immersive experience that makes the audience want to taste the rainbow on the fulgent screen.
These mouthwatering visuals hold over the audience during the slow-boiling plot until Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard to kick the movie into overdrive. Ford has grown prone to phoning in his roles. Luckily, he does not do that here. He takes the movie seriously and in doing so makes us want to along with him. While we learn that Ford still has some acting chops left in the tank, we still don’t get a definitive answer to the lingering question of whether Deckard is a human or a replicant. And we get even more questions on top of that.
These questions make for an enjoyable theatrical experience that echoes the original, making this a successful spiritual successor. And it can’t be stressed enough that this needs to be seen on the big screen. Blade Runner 2049 is the ambitious science-fiction adventure that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, and they won’t make them anymore if nobody sees this movie. Just like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, this is a beautiful painting, a great movie and an unfinished puzzle that needs to be seen.
Contact arts writer Joseph Mason at firstname.lastname@example.org.