Produced by Andrew A. Kosove, Bud Yorkin,
Broderick Johnson, Cynthia Yorkin
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Story by Hampton Fancher
Based on Characters from Do Androids Dream
of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford,
Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright,
Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James,
Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
The original Blade Runner has long been my Desert Island Disc, a film I’ve watched many, many times in all its different versions. It’s as close to “sacred” as a movie gets for me.
So I can with absolute certainty that this long-in-the-making sequel is not the masterpiece that Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir is.
However, it has moments of stunning grandeur and a visual scope that is every bit as worthy as the original film — and delivers its own emotional wallop by the end. It’s much like the old piano that figures in the film: It can still play a magnificent tune, but there is the odd, off note that is unexpectedly jarring.
The film is far more bleak than the original, with grimmer landscapes. And it can’t help but lack the dazzling newness of the first film’s vision.
The production design, as well as the gorgeous cinematography and Vangelis-inspired score, effortlessly recreates the same futuristic world in loving detail that dovetails beautifully with the first film. Fans of the original will smile that the same digital ads are still running, even for defunct companies like Atari and Pan Am.
It is, in its own way, a deeply philosophical film that expands on the first movie’s (and Philip K. Dick’s) musings about what it is to be human. Which is, after all, the essential question of all science-fiction, especially in a world where lifelike replicants live and work among humans.
In this sequel, the replicant rebellion in the first film led to their being outlawed. Decades later, a newer more obedient line has been introduced and it is the Blade Runner’s job (including Gosling’s Agent K) to hunt down the older, dangerous models.
Agent K is not as world-weary as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, but he is as conflicted about his job, even if he is completely clear-eyed about his role in society. Like any classic noir protagonist, including Rick Deckard, he is battered and bruised by film’s end as he fights his way to the truth.
If he doesn’t have the same noir ennui (there is no voiceover, by the way), then he has a modern kind of numbness and despair. K. does his job, then goes home to his virtual girlfriend, who feels more like something out of Spike Jonze’s “Her.”
Without getting into spoilers about the film’s plot, I loved how it honored both noir and sci-fi tropes: K’s latest assignment sets him on a course in which he may or not be hunting himself. If sci-fi’s biggest question is “What does it mean to be human?” then noir’s essential conflict is often one of personal guilt. And in this film, those are almost the same thing.
The film’s most obvious weakness is its villains. There is no one as memorable or as hypnotically compelling as Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. Although the key female villain, Sylvia Hoeks, is also Dutch, her butt-kicking replicant has far more in common with countrywoman Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp — and she’s every inch as cartoonish as a Bond villain.
Everyone’s favorite critical punching bag, Jared Leto, is suitably sinister and elegant as Niander Wallace, who has taken over for Tyrell in manufacturing replicants. He’s unfortunately handed some of the film’s most clunky dialogue that drives home the theme’s just a bit too heavy-handedly.
There is also the fact that we were rooting (at least a little) for the replicants in the first film, who, understandably, only wanted to live. That same desperate, sympathetic impulse isn’t there for this film’s bad guys, so we never feel the same moral dilemma as the Blade Runner ourselves.
When Harrison Ford finally shows up (more than halfway into the movie), he’s the same gruff guy we know and love. Although, older Rick Deckard isn’t really much different from older Han Solo at this point. But he brings the emotional connection and continuity that the film sorely needs and doesn’t always manage to achieve without him.
I’m still deciding how I feel about the plot that connects the sequel to the first film. With both Blade Runner director Ridley Scott and co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher on board, it’s clearly as close in spirit and intent of the original as one could hope. And yet… I never got fully on board with the “secret” that K unearths.
(I can’t help but note, of course, that a character named “K” and later dubbed “Joe” is a tip of the hat to Kafka’s “Josef K,” who is a small cog vying against a giant, dehumanizing bureaucracy.)
The lengthy running time was not an issue for me, apart from a fight scene that goes on far too long and the unnecessary scuffle when Rick and K first meet, that is also needlessly drawn out.
With the film’s finale appearing near, I was saddened that there apparently wasn’t going to be a moment as beautifully poetic as Roy’s “tears in the rain” rooftop farewell. And then, in the final moments, there was something that came close enough for me.
In the end, I was left in tears and a little breathless. I will doubtless see it again. Although it can’t match the original Blade Runner, it’s a stunning film on almost every level.
Villeneuve was absolutely the right director for this challenging task, but, for me, Blade Runner 2049 didn’t match his brilliant Arrival, a dizzying intellectual film with a real emotional impact.
Still, this is a movie we will be talking about for a long time. And one that I hope finally wins cinematographer Roger Deakins an Oscar.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars