Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista
Running Time: 163 minutes
Release Date: Oct 6
*This review contains mild spoilers.*
One of the many reasons why Blade Runner endures some 35 years on is because it allowed – nay, challenged – its audience to wonder beyond themselves, and what they believed they knew. Debate rages to this day about the ultimate status and fate of its battered, arguably useless protagonist Rick Deckard, with the two men who respectively envisioned and portrayed the character still at cross-purposes.
Blade Runner 2049 may well provoke post-match discussion and far-flung theories of what it means to be, but you’ll be binging some average Netflix show before the weekend is out. This isn’t to suggest that Denis Villeneuve’s sequel is poor, for it ought never to be described in especially derogatory terms. It’s more that it simply cannot step out of the shadow of its father, which is rather fitting when you take Rutger Hauer’s doomed Replicant leader into account all this time later.
To his credit, and his detriment, Villeneuve tries. The union of the Canadian director and the great cinematographer Roger Deakins continues to bear compelling, glorious, utterly mesmerising fruit. You won’t find a better-looking motion picture in 2017. You are unlikely to discover much to rival it in all of recorded cinema. And yet, this is also part of Blade Runner 2049’s eventual downfall. Beauty this pure and rich is undoubtedly hypnotic, but remove heart, warmth, and good conversational skills and you’re left with little more than a hollow pleasure model.
Perhaps that’s unfair. 2049 has big ideas, many of them clever, others quite thoughtful. It shouldn’t come as a surprise than Ryan Gosling is playing a Replicant – he’s named ‘K’, come on now – and frankly the film is wise to unveil this knowledge early doors so as to avoid repetition and walk tall as its own perfectly-formed creation. K is a Blade Runner, hunting his own kind while shrugging off abuse from colleagues and neighbours. His boss (Robin Wright in a mostly thankless role) notes that he’s doing just fine without a soul, but one glance in the direction of Gosling’s destined-to-be-iconic baby blues tells a different, not terrifically compelling story.
Much like Pinocchio before him, K longs to be a real boy. His closest companion is Joi, a downloadable app in the form of Ana de Armas, whom you suspect was hired based on appearance rather than ability. That’s no slight; the Cuban actress does her utmost, but Joi rarely evolves beyond the deliberate sketch she inhabits. There are flashes – a love scene involving a surrogate that’s genuinely transcendent despite coming close to outright absurdity, and there’s something highly intriguing about a robot and a subservient mirage attempting the generic motions of a real human partnership – but the material just isn’t there.
K’s quest has all the trappings of grand film noir, but his movements feel oddly perfunctory when compared to Deckard’s dogged stumbles. Spurred on by a violent encounter with the ever scene-stealing Dave Bautista, K eventually tracks down – emphasis firmly on ‘eventually’ – a familiar, grizzled face, and an oddly anachronistic plain grey t-shirt. Finally facing off, both men are swallowed by the epic scope around them, but their quiet moments together have weight. Blade Runner 2049 could have used a little more of this, and, strangely enough, a touch less world building.
Case in point – a rebellious faction that materialises out of, and goes, nowhere. What’s to rebel against in this manufactured dystopia? Jared Leto’s blind antagonist Niander Wallace, who is evil, maybe? Because… reasons? It’s hard to tell, for most of his dialogue is ponderous by design and his screen time is so small in the overall scheme of things that you never quite get a read on him. For what it’s worth, the increasingly-maligned Leto is decent value here; occupying his slowly sermonising sovereign with a God complex he likely didn’t need to do much prep for.
Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece of production design – if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once again shut Deakins out at the 14th time of asking he has every right to take it personally – and every now and then the kernel of a mind-blowing concept darts into focus, only to melt away like the falling snowflakes that accompany an overly sentimental, tonally off denouement. The great big mystery at the heart of everything is rote and uninspired. In an undertaking where we’re asked, often, to search behind the eyes, the overwhelming gloss just isn’t enough.