Poster by Paul Shipper
That a sequel to Blade Runner exists is both a movie miracle and a curse. The road to Blade Runner‘s status of an undisputed monumental classic has been a strange one. Initially met with a cold reception, the film became not only the most influential sci-fi film, but one that inspired an entire generation of filmmakers. As great of a film as it is (in my top 10 all time), it’s not one that’s accessible to all audiences and it’s a film that almost requires multiple viewings. In an IP/Franchise business model, everything with name recognition has value, and Blade Runner has seeped into pop culture enough over the years that it’s been continued. Here director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Enemy, Prisoners) teams up with legendary DP Roger Deakins, and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott (here the executive producer), to take us into 2049 Los Angeles.
The original’s mysterious magic, its elusiveness, existed not in plot but in textures, mood, peripherals, and sound. Its abstractions consumed the noir plot and drowned us in a melancholic world. The questions it asked are never stated outright; they breathe underneath the world and emerge in quiet reflections. 2049 is, for lack of a better term, “dumbed down” from the original. I don’t entirely intend that as an insult. 2049’s storytelling is different from the original in that its mystery IS the plot. This provides a level of accessibility to viewers that may feel alienated from the original’s opaqueness. In 2049, Ryan Gosling’s Detective K navigates a Fritz Lang-esque Los Angeles underworld like he’s Philip Marlowe. He wanders through the gargantuan architecture of this maze-like city searching for clues about a missing child who hold secrets to the future of A.I.
Taking over for the Tyrell corporation is Wallace corp. Niander Walace, played by Jared Leto exactly how you’d expect, has interests in this missing child because they represent proof that replicants have evolved to reproduce. 2049’s focus shifts from the original’s interest in human mortality to A.I.’s. Early on K says “to be born is to have a soul.” 2049 is an investigation of this statement. Gosling’s always had an idiosyncratic charisma that makes for a unique screen presence. I can’t think of a modern movie star that fits better in the strange dystopia of Blade Runner. Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard but to describe his involvement is a major spoiler. It’s a while before he appears, but perhaps unexpectedly, he gives one of his best performances. It’s full of worn-down emotion that helps to give the film’s sterile storytelling a much needed emotional heartbeat.
In broad strokes, and in certain moments, 2049 is a solid successor to the original and earns its existence. The story here similarly asks existential questions about identity, memory and mankind that are thought provoking. To me, Blade Runner‘s immaculately crafted dystopia was in service of a feeling. That feeling is one of being trapped in a time and place while the rest of the world — and here a species — lived on outside of it. Allegorically this is about grappling with one’s existence and the time limit we’re bound by. 2049 shifts this quarrel with time to A.I.’s quarrel with a search for existence — a search for a soul. K’s story is a Pinnochio one. Visual motifs throughout blur lines between performance and reality, between the organic and handmade. This is a film about a man on a quest to become real. A man who wants to believe he’s the center of the narrative.
Mirroring K is Sylvia Hoeks giving a great performance as Luv, Wallace’s henchman replicant who is also sent to find the child. She’s the Batty to K’s Deckard. These are compelling anchors for the story, but compared to the original it comes off as a robotic imitation, and only sparks with the moody intellect that the original was soaked in. If the first film was a breathing organism, this film is a machine systematically entering data and trying to recreate the original’s magic. In a way, the attempt is endearing, but it’s more of a tribute than a fully realized film.
2049 is a consistently interesting picture, but where it falters in the shadow of its predecessor — and why it never fully coalesces — is in its explanations and text. The script overtly states its subtext and lets little bubble underneath. Niander Wallace rambles on about existence and explains what the movie’s story is about. The mystery of this film exists on the surface and in plot that the characters talk about, which undercuts its own mysteries and makes it feel less like noir and more like a great CSI episode. Villeneuve has adopted the surfaces of the original Blade Runner, but that language was for a different type of story, and this film doesn’t adjust for its own (think of how Fury Road used language compared to The Road Warrior). Even simple actions like K walking through beautiful environments feel overly choreographed. I think of the great sci-fi films that have come since 1982 and how they took cues from Blade Runner to create their own unique worlds and aesthetic. 2049, ironically, doesn’t.
This imitation leaves the pace feeling stunted instead of intentionally languid. I like Villeneuve’s films generally but frequently his film’s plots lack momentum between scenes (he’s yet to direct a great script). This is why Enemy, an abstract mood piece, remains his best film, and in a way, more Blade Runner-ish than Blade Runner 2049. At 2 hours and 45 minutes it’s not that it feels slow, it’s that it feels disconnected. If anything, it’s told too fast and the many sub-plots feel like pit stops instead of peripheral appendages to K’s quest. Villeneuve has great visual control but the set-pieces here are underwhelming and tacked on. Forgive the continued comparisons, but the original’s moments of violence had a calm, penetrating pathos. Here it’s just punches and a few explosions. Though, to be fair, they’re minimal and the characters are dimensional enough to make us care.
Roger Deakins’ work is stunning as always, but it’s unfortunately bound by imitation. It’s gorgeous but not transportive; beautiful but not haunting. This film was always up against an impossible task. It’s like trying to recreate a Tarkovsky or Malick film; like taking a picture of a picture. The major story update and linchpin of this film is that now the replicants potentially may be able to pro-create, but this strikes me as a forced attempt at furthering this story and a re-write of the original’s rules. The intent is to create a blurrier line between human and A.I. but it ends up making it simpler and less emotionally engaging. The ideas of this film are intriguing but the “find the missing child” narrative doesn’t quite have the creativity to express them. The first film asked what the difference between AI and Humans is while 2049 asks what if AI could reproduce like humans? The former is vastly more elemental and interesting than the latter.
This is a good film, more interesting than 95% of studio fare, but it’s always chasing the shadow of a legendary one. And yet, even with my disappointment, I’m surprised that this film was green-lit. Its pieces and overall vision are idiosyncratic enough that I’m sure the studio execs were scratching their heads when they saw what was made. There are genuinely fascinating ideas at play about what it means to be alive. And I’m sure I missed some of the subtext and literary connections. While the overarching story may be too expository and plotted out, the vignettes that K walks into carry the intrigue of a 1940s detective tale, and the way that the “chosen one” narrative is subverted is the one element that feels like the original. If it briefly comes close to the original, it’s in K’s arc which is full of allegory, yearning, and literary depth.
So, what is this film’s purpose or intention? Why does it exist? In its second weekend it’s already making way less than expected at the box office and presumably has alienated average moviegoers. 2049 as a movie seems to exist in a space that feels not unlike the one that K wanders in the film itself: lonely, hollow, programmed, searching for meaning. I think of that line from the original: “I need the old Blade Runner.” The filmmakers themselves grasp for the ghostliness of the mythic classic, but it can’t be conjured again. My reservations about this film are mostly about its relationship to the original and the way it tries to imitate it while forcefully trying to update its mythic stature. I can’t think about it without writing about how it doesn’t live up to it. Now I wonder if on some level this film is ABOUT being a replicant of the original. And then I think of an image towards this film’s ending that elicits a feeling of acceptance that you may not be what you had hoped. It’s a marvelously stirring moment that I keep coming back to. I need the old Blade Runner, but it can’t exist anymore.