Blade Runner 2049 Goes Everywhere at Once, With Mixed Results
It has been thirty-five years since the original Blade Runner first graced the big screen, and with the steady supply of sequels, prequels and reboots that Hollywood continues to churn out, it was only a matter of time before Ripley Scott’s groundbreaking sci-fi classic was exhumed for an expansion of its complex, dystopian universe. Under the direction of Denis Villeneuve, whose repertoire includes such critical hits as Sicario and Arrival, and with a bevy of talented actors both old and new, Blade Runner 2049 employs arthouse aesthetics and poignant philosophical quandaries in an attempt to rival the legacy of the original film while functioning as a potential blockbuster science fiction film, and while the film can oftentimes be breathtakingly beautiful, its attempt to be a bit of everything at once prevents it from being consistent.
The story starts steadily and powerfully: Set thirty years after the events of the original film, 2049 follows Ryan Gosling’s K, one of the bioengineered humans known as ‘replicants’ around whom the film’s universe is centered. K, as a blade runner, a title that is still unexplained, is tasked with tracking down and capturing or killing rogue replicants who defy their nature as glorified slaves and servants. The original Blade Runner tended to remain neutral in the face of the obvious sociopolitical provocations of its world, provoking questions as to the deserved independence of replicants without ever seeming to really answer them. 2049, by comparison, skips the debate altogether within its opening minutes, as K grapples with and promptly murders, or ‘retires’, as they call it, one of his own kind who chides him for carrying out his purpose.
It is in its opening act that 2049 truly excels: Villeneuve favors wide cinematography and gorgeous sets and CGI backdrops, creating beautiful, immersive scenes that the audience already feels familiar with before the characters of the film begin to interact with it. The plot, though oftentimes moving at a snail’s pace, is packed with enough intrigue and suspense to keep its viewers captivated. The film’s most interesting subplot by far unfolds here, as well, as we are shown the relationship between K and his partner, a hologram named Joi, played by Ana de Armas. The process of these two synthetic personalities attempt to navigate the emotional turbulence of an everyday love life is the most human the film gets.
As the film goes on, however, it begins to lose its initial momentum: the plot begins to feel as though it is meandering instead of baiting its audience, and the set pieces begin to blend together into the surly monochrome of a stereotypical dystopian city; by the time we are treated to the surreal image of Joi as an interactive holographic billboard the size of a skyscraper, Blade Runner 2049 has managed to thoroughly over-saturate our demand for stimulating visuals. The central drama of the film begins to feel particularly strained and begins to branch out into several different plots instead of one concise, complex mystery. The film even goes as far as to set itself up as yet another run-of-the-mill, war-between-races action movie, and then immediately, inexplicably drops the issue entirely. Ryan Gosling’s performance, while an exceptionally elegant version of the tight-lipped, morally disturbed protagonists he has made a career playing, fails to conjure any sort of chemistry with the other characters, who range from frustratingly unambitious to nonsensically out of touch with the events of the film. Jared Leto’s antagonistic Niander Wallace, creator of the present generation of replicants, is a particularly sour note, being nothing more than a needlessly edgy plot puppeteer who maneuvers characters from confrontation to confrontation while spouting scripture and brief acts of gratuitous violence in an apparent attempt to get a rise out of the audience. At the end of its 163-minute runtime, it is astounding the Blade Runner 2049 barely manages to tie up more than a single loose end, and by that time even solving the initial mystery of the film seems inadequate.
2049’s biggest handicap has to be the reputation of its predecessor: attempting to satisfy an existing audience while simultaneously garnering new fans is a tough endeavor for a franchise. Villeneuve has taken great care to create a piece of big-budget cinema that stands out in a line of its peers, never shying from its arthouse, uninhibited ambitions. Yet for a film which tries so hard to be original in spite of its nature as a sequel, it’s frustrating that Blade Runner 2049 can’t figure out who it wants to impress.