In many ways, the genetically-engineered replicants of the Blade Runner universe are better than the humans they are meant to emulate. Smarter, stronger, and as pretty as Ryan Gosling, they lack much of the degenerative qualities that result from messy acts of procreation. Yet underneath the slick exteriors, the facades meant to help them blend in with the ones from whose heads they have sprung, there can be detected a sense of the manufactured — a void of soul. Life is more than existence; born from inspiration, it has crawled out of the nothingness and fought its way into being. Blade Runner 2049 does its best to outwardly act and feel like a piece of soaring science fiction full of living notions — and is so convincingly sincere that it nearly pulls it off — but though visually and aurally stunning in its superb craftsmanship, a feeling of emptiness permeates the rich falling snow and thick orange fog that eventually makes the film’s artificial origins clear.
Taking place 30 years after the 1982 original film, Blade Runner 2049 follows K, a new-and-improved model of replicant that supposedly is less likely to revolt. He works as a blade runner for the LAPD, tracking down some older models that went rogue long ago. When one of his missions results in a discovery that could upend mankind’s perception of their own superiority and dominance, K is tasked by his boss to track down any evidence, inanimate or otherwise, and effectively torch it.
Over the years the cold mythology surrounding the original cinematic story has perhaps overshadowed the brilliant cosmic questions it attempts to raise as it reaches for the stars, feeling its way through the universe for answers as to what it means to be alive, to be human. The is-he-or-isn’t-he discussion of Harrison Ford’s noir-ish detective is (or was) a fun distraction that can enhance how the themes are perceived, but its actual significance to the film is merely surface, of little importance. Yet 2049 seems to have forsaken what many believe really made Blade Runner so seminal, instead doubling down on those guessing games, believing that complicated plotting is the real draw of science fiction.
This simple premise is evocative of the straightforward bounty assignment given to Rick Deckard those many years ago, but whereas that story maintained its basic structure as a frame around which to drape layer upon layer of philosophical trappings, Blade Runner 2049 gets lost in the twists and turns, more concerned with doling out tidbits of exposition and intrigue than exploring underlying meaning. Things may not be as they seem, people/non-people might have hidden pasts, and short lines of dialogue are spoken in ways as to reveal as little as possible as if a big reward is somehow coming at the end of the outline’s alphabet. Yes, there are bones thrown to the whole ‘what is real’ debate, and even some replicant love scenes (they’re just like us!), but it’s all half-hearted lip service that essentially mimics better scenes from other films. No, it’s the expanded lore that matters most here, and with so much time spent on teasing clues, the mystery loses ultimately significance and falls flat.
Mesmerizing design may have something to do with the disappointment though, as director Denis Villeneuve has concocted an awesome vision that aesthetically rivals its predecessor, giving off the impression that audiences should pay closer attention than they really need to. That Blade Runner 2049 at times feels like it has something important to say can almost solely be attributed to visual compositions that flat-out dazzle, portraying barren farmlands, a snowy metropolis, and the remnants of a desert civilization with the kind of wonder and reverence that implies Big Things are happening in this universe. They aren’t, but damn if I didn’t want to believe. Those hoping for the lived-in, murky grit of Ridley Scott’s neo-Los Angeles might be a tad let down by the arid sterility of this new version, its silky-smooth imagery slickly alluring instead of smoky and depressing, but the skin-deep beauty fits perfectly for a modern skin-job trying its best to simulate a more organic creation — and doing a hell of a good job.
Callback shots abound, evoking memories that most certainly were not implanted (I think), from swooping cityscapes to the starkly-lit replacement for the Tyrell Corporation, and the movement of the police cruisers is spot-on. The fakery is so appealing that had the film been shorter (it runs 160 minutes), it may have pulled the warm associations off without these reminders of a better film eventually wearing out their welcome. The references end up overly relied upon during the last act, as if desperate to connect — desperate to enjoy the same kind of life its maker had, but mistaken in how to do so. The pieces are all here, but they fit a little too perfect, as if shaped by a machine. Real personality is gone, replaced by facsimile. Ryan Gosling’s K should be the eyes and ears of an imperfect audience, a shaded vessel through which we relate, but his stoic demeanor comes off as more robot than replicant, a boring Galahad in pursuit of his Grail. Jared Leto’s megalomaniac industrialist lacks any of the misguided brilliance of his forerunner as he prances around like a supervillain. The film is populated with one-note characters; perhaps no one is truly alive.
Still, Blade Runner 2049 draws the viewer in, seducing them into a false sense of depth with widescreen pictures lovingly crafted to convey a stark setting. The mist of the unknown permeates every frame, suggesting there is something out there to be discovered, while Hans Zimmer’s score blares a mix of pulsing synthesizers and what sounds like the revving engines of hovercars. It’s a sensory experience rivaled this year only by Dunkirk, one to be absorbed by sinking back into a soft theater seat and letting the experience wash over. The awe cannot be sustained, but it’s intoxicating while it lasts.
The best sci-fi tends to have a reach that extend their grasps, but Blade Runner 2049 is content to fixate on its own gorgeous world rather than look to the heavens. There are points when it shows potential, such as a conversation with a young woman sequestered from a world she can only now imagine, and the appearance of a scraggly Harrison Ford does get the blood pumping briefly, but like the rest of the elegant nothingness, these fleeting moments are destined to be lost in time, like tears in the rain.