Here you go – a review you don’t need, for a sequel to a film that didn’t really need a continuation. If you’re a fan of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, you probably got your tickets as soon as they went on sale, right? And if you’re not, well, the hype might just sweep you into the nearest cineplex for this multilayered sequel with a reach that does not quite match its ambition.
Director Denis Villeneuve, who gave us the chest-constricting Prisoners and Sicario and the brain-bending Arrival – excellent films that defied studio conventions – takes the original’s “what is it to be human?” question further, exploring the qualities of the soul and what defines it, against a noir backdrop splashed red with blood.
The plot has LAPD blade runner “K” (Ryan Gosling) investigating a decades-old mystery that – in his starched superior Lieutenant Joshi’s (Robin Wright) words – could “break the world”.
As he digs deeper, he starts to believe that he has a strong link to the case, too. And yes, the trail does inevitably lead to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner of the original.
If Villeneuve’s earlier efforts defied studio conventions, then here he seems unfortunately bound by certain dictates – only to be expected, given the huge budget and enormous expectations of this project. The most constraining of these seems to be: tell a good story, but leave enough stuff open for a possible sequel.
So we have hints of rebellion among the Replicant ranks – what are they after all but a parallel to slave labour and/or exploited migrant labour? – and unsatisfying encounters between the leads and the slimiest corporate titan this side of RoboCop’s Dick Jones.
That Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is both ruthless and heartless is demonstrated early on in the film (and in one of the prologue short features available on YouTube), yet throughout 2049, he merely drifts in and out of K and Deckard’s point of view. Most of his dirty work is done by Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), his right-hand Replicant, who is as unfeeling as her boss towards both human and Replicant.
She is one of the on-screen “bots” for Villeneuve, working from a script by Blade Runner writer Hampton Fancher and Logan’s Michael Green, to use as point-counterpoint to the film’s themes.
Another quite literal bot, and a far more interesting one, is Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic “personal companion” like Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha from Her mixed with, uh, a mid-21st-century state-of-the-art Siri.
While we know Joi has been programmed to be “everything” to K, the expressive, pixie-like de Armas makes her the most human of the film’s characters in trying to stay true to her programming by any means possible – even taking what amounts to a leap of faith for her owner/true love.
These little side examinations of what defines an individual and soul – memory, purpose or even programming – are well and good. But it’s in telling the central story itself that 2049 stumbles.
For one thing, it tends to meander in the middle third, only picking up a bit of focus (and steam) once Deckard enters the picture. His confrontation with K is not exactly how you’d picture it, interspersed with some amusing moments involving celebrity holograms, and it serves to anchor our attention for a little while.
For another, the fact that several elements are left unresolved means this one is not as satisfying as the original, even with its open-ended alternative cuts. The most jarring thing about the film is its discordant and obtrusive soundtrack. Overused deep bass notes that rattle your tailbone and tooth fillings are what mostly pass for a score here, and I’m not sure if it was the collaborators’ intent to keep the viewer in a state of constant agitation.
This is rarely a good thing, as it gets in the way of appreciating the wide vistas of urban sprawl on display, and especially from thinking about the very ideas that the film is intent on raising.
Oh, for a Vangelis soundtrack again – but that was an elegant score for a more civilised time.
Yes, civilised; whatever was wrong with the 1980s, they sure seem a lot more idyllic now than the 20teens. The sheer human disconnect of today (look at recent human-inflicted tragedies both domestically and abroad) surely makes you wonder how much worse it can get.
The film touches on some aspects of that detachment within society, as we become increasingly focused on our own personal bubble-universes with electronic opiates to numb senses that we readily deny.
But in its exploration of humanity, it adds little to the conversation. Since the original Blade Runner, we’ve had some excellent big- and small-screen science fiction that sparked the imagination, from Star Trek: The Next Generation to Terminator 2 to Battlestar Galactica. And yes, warts and all, even Prometheus and Alien Covenant.
Still, 2049 does echo the notion previously explored elsewhere that the evolution of artificial intelligence to the point of developing humanity is on a sliding scale with humanity’s own devolution into an inhuman state.
We may not know conclusively if androids dream of electric sheep, but we can now say that a hologram’s tears stand out, even in the rain.
Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, Lennie James