Blade Runner 2049 may be breathtaking cinema, but it isn’t great storytelling. I’m not even sure it’s good storytelling. It falls into a small category of films whose scale and inventiveness must be savored on the big screen but are something of a chore to sit through.
The director Denis Villeneuve, whose Arrival was my favorite film of 2016, has advanced down Christopher Nolan’s path in setting out to make a brainy, sober blockbuster with no frivolous or meretricious aspects. Yet he errs in the direction of being too ponderous, too serious, too slow. When the first moment of levity arrived — 110 minutes into this 164-minute film — I reacted like a man given a drink of water after crawling across the desert for a week. Ordinarily I scoff a bit when people say that the main business of a film is to be “fun,” but Blade Runner 2049 is anti-fun, such a joyless slog it suggests what Ingmar Bergman might have gotten up to if you had ordered him to spend $200 million on digital effects.
Don’t get me wrong: The texture of Blade Runner 2049 is spellbinding. My guess and hope is that this will be the movie that finally wins an Oscar for Roger Deakins, the sublime British cinematographer who has been nominated for the Academy Award in that category 13 times, for such films as The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Sicario. Deakins, like all the best directors of photography, is a show-off: He can’t resist casting the interiors of an evil corporate headquarters in an eerie, wavy light suggesting reflections from a swimming pool. His fertile imagination is an excellent match for sci-fi, where, visually speaking, anything goes.
Villeneuve takes up the original Blade Runner’s mantle of a rainy, trashy future Los Angeles overrun by seedy outdoor advertising (this time adding the startling effect of snow) and adds to it sterile, geometrically patterned spaces of massive scale, suggesting dehumanization has so overtaken the landscape that robots have as much soul as anyone. These images are staggering. Digitally speaking, we’re at the opposite pole from, say Avengers: Age of Ultron or X-Men: Apocalypse, in which the CGI was deployed as artfully as a toddler uses a mallet. Villeneuve paints, rather than bludgeons, with CGI, producing images of magisterial beauty.
Continuing the plot of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, which was a box-office flop and mostly dismissed by critics at the time, the sequel set 30 years further into the future finds a replicant (an uncannily realistic, bio-engineered android) named K (Ryan Gosling) assigned by his LAPD boss to track down the few remaining older models of replicants, who turned homicidal in the first film and were thus targeted for extinction.
Blade Runner ended with the replicant-hunting cop Deckard (Harrison Ford) discovering that he himself was a replicant. Now Deckard, fearing that he will be terminated, has gone into hiding (it is he who gets that first funny line), but we don’t meet him until deep into the story. Instead, things get rolling when K learns via evidence from a 30-year-old case that a woman who died years ago in childbirth was a replicant. So the androids have reproduced and in so doing breached the last important barrier between them and the humans, which greatly displeases the evil corporate titan (Jared Leto) who engineers the replicants.
A few lines of dialogue press the point that this news item “broke the world,” that it’s a “revolution” in the making, but to me there was no sense of excitement or even much drama attached to the development, any more than there is much reason to be emotionally invested in the fortunes of K or anyone else. To make him a bit more approachable, he has a girlfriend (Ana de Armas) who exists as a hologram he takes with him on a kind of flash drive, but their love affair is too tepid to warm up this chilly movie. Gosling and everyone else (Robin Wright plays his human boss) are boxed in by the demands that their characters be lacking in affect, and the script is so sparse and elliptical that many of the story elements are fuzzy.
If the score is the only thing that makes us feel the momentousness, the script is too thin.
Because of that determined subtlety, the film may (like the original) sharpen with multiple viewings, but upon a first look it seems to me that the universe Blade Runner 2049 envisions — with a sinister corporation colonizing many planets — isn’t well defined, and that its philosophical points (about, for instance, the nature of what makes us human) aren’t particularly well considered or new. Filmmakers today long to be taken seriously, but the writers of this epic (Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) are unwilling to commit to saying much of anything.
It’s the thundering, synth-heavy, end-of-the-world score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer that supplies most of the urgency: When in doubt, Villeneuve turns up the volume. I call that a cop-out, or maybe even cheating. If the score is the only thing that makes us feel the momentousness, the script is too thin.
The filmmakers seem content to join the crowd that “raises questions” (though answering them is the hard part) and has a “dark vision.” These days, who doesn’t?