If I never see Blade Runner 2049 again, it’ll be too soon.
It feels strange saying this about the long-awaited sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner, a movie I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of times in its various forms. Director Ridley Scott’s hugely influential “future noir” was neither a critical nor commercial success when it initially hit cinemas; the compromised cut featured a studio-mandated voiceover narration that spelled out far too much and a literally sunny conclusion that flew in the face of the rain-soaked dystopia that preceded it. But in the 35 years since, no fewer than seven different versions have emerged, and most observers agree that Blade Runner is a masterpiece. That’s something I’ll never accuse its sequel of, despite the warm critical reception that it has received.
I’m in the extreme minority, but Blade Runner 2049 flat-out angered me. Produced by Scott but directed by Denis Villeneuve (Oscar nominee for last year’s equally overpraised sci-fi Arrival), this new film is bloated and self-important, while the original was ponderous yet subtle. Time has been kind to Scott’s expressionistic triumph of production design, pioneering electronic music, shadow-laden cinematography and story about the very human urge to fit in, but Villeneuve’s overlong sequel is very much a product of 2017, despite its 2049 setting. The small-scaled intimacy of the ’82 picture has been replaced by nearly everything that’s wrong with contemporary filmmaking: Who needs ambiguity when Hollywood studios are in the franchise business? This two-hour-and-44-minute film greatly concerns itself with world-building, moving beyond Blade Runner’s lone location of 2019 Los Angeles and laying the groundwork for more theoretical sequels. It also finds the time to crib from Spike Jonze’s vastly superior Her, a sci-fi romance that centered on a lonely writer whose mobile operating system doubled as his artificially intelligent, self-learning girlfriend.
In Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s version of an A.I. character, Joi, leaves little to the imagination, having been granted a lithe holographic body courtesy of Cuban actress Ana de Armas (of last year’s War Dogs and Hands of Stone). And her relationship with this film’s protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling), a second-generation blade runner—a cop tasked with hunting down and “retiring” (i.e.: killing) rogue replicants—lacks the complexity and, most damningly, the passion that fueled the relationship between Harrison Ford’s earlier blade runner and Sean Young’s unique replicant in Scott’s original. Part of this is due to the booming, wall-to-wall white noise of the score by Hans Zimmer (Dunkirk) and Benjamin Wallfisch (It), which relies heavily on electronic percussion in place of Greek composer Vangelis’ iconic and dreamy synthesizer themes that are just as responsible for the ’82 production’s smoky romantic mood as its visuals. With such a tough act to follow, it seems Zimmer and Wallfisch (who replaced Villeneuve’s longtime collaborator, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) didn’t even bother to try.
However, there are a few bright spots in the film beyond the sumptuous cinematography by 13-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (whose work would match the late Jordan Cronenweth’s on the original if it weren’t so sterile). I’m speaking about Ford’s much-hyped return to his role as Rick Deckard. Ford’s often been unfairly criticized for delivering wooden performances, but when he eventually shows his face during the film’s final hour, the warmth he brings to his old role not only shames Gosling (who rather fittingly is introduced asleep at the wheel), but also deepens the long-standing mystery of whether or not Deckard is a replicant himself.
Few such mysteries exist in the screenplay credited to returning writer Hampton Fancher and newcomer Michael Green. The script is predictable when it’s not spelling everything out in synthetically expository dialogue delivered by the pretty young performers who have mostly replaced the lived-in faces and engaging eccentrics who populated Scott’s much dirtier vision of the future.
When it comes to the future, I’m happy to stick with the past. ◆
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Hiam Abbass, Barkhad Abdi, Wood Harris, David Dastmalchian, Tómas Lemarquis, Jared Leto, Edward James Olmos and Sean Young. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, from a story by Fancher and characters from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Directed by Denis Villeneuve. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.