Much has changed in the futuristic world of replicants and blade runners, but as ever in the real world, destructive forces remain the same. Blade Runner 2049 takes up decades after Ridley Scott’s influential vision and gives us something glossier and just as morally intricate. Ryan Gosling’s Officer K discovers a mystery than ultimately puts him on the search for Harrison Ford’s Deckard, with the potential for earth-shattering consequences. This time, in the hands of director Denis Villeneuve, the epic elements are also a bit glacial.
The film shoves unexpected themes into the text that feel adjacent to the plot, but inauthentic to the larger context. It’s as if these elements are the ideas that Villeneuve is actually interested in rather than the larger story or the Blade Runner universe.The result is that it dances around about a half dozen interesting ideas without ever really being able to fully examine them. Consequently, this is exactly what reviewing a film is like when requested to abstain from discussing most of its basic plot points as is the case with 2049.
Villeneuve’s sequel is earnest in chasing its predecessor’s glory while giving a more far-reaching (and personal) story to unfold. While the pacing means the audience is frequently and frustratingly two steps ahead of the reveals, the details of the narrative are both philosophically engaging and thrilling by genre stature. 2049 wisely follows the notion of a sequel living a mostly separate narrative path than its predecessor – only minimal knowledge of the original is required to appreciate 2049’s unfolding, and it is more intimate than your might expect. It’s more about the consequences of the first film for its following generation than being a next chapter.
While much of what makes Scott’s original such an enduring film lies in its aesthetic and mood, this one doesn’t succeed quite as richly on those aims. The visuals from Roger Deakins are simply staggering in their assemblage, but beautiful without aiding or embodying what is at play on the page. Even if it is the most gobsmacking visuals of Deakins and Villeneuve’s long collaboration, it’s the least thematically immersive after the isolating composition of Sicario and the psychological immersion of Prisoners. Deakins powerhouse is matched by immersive production design and a quaking, inventive sound mix to rattle your teeth.
Strangely, the surface is thin with the most substantial being under the surface. But holy smokes if it isn’t an aesthetic feast, even if for just the sake of being so.
The film’s most invigorated element is Ryan Gosling as Officer K caught between the fate of others and himself. The particulars of the character are to be discovered, but they place the actor with the difficult task of incongruent traits that he nevertheless builds into a cohesively realized performance. Gosling has become our foremost artist on stoicism, able to mine outwardly vacant machismo to its full humanity and complexity. Here he delivers a high wire act of subtlety and intellectual exhaustion – a performance that will get nowhere near the affection it deserves because it does so much, but asks so little of the audience. He’s as breathtaking as any visual feat in the film.
An exciting and somewhat unexpected plot stretched out within an inch of its life while its visual world transfixes you, Blade Runner 2049 is mixed bag of strong story told lethargically. The philosophical diversions are intriguing but don’t always sync with the actual narrative. It’s part character study, part musing on technological morality, and part mystery – the pieces of the puzzle assemble into something amorphous, confounding, but wholeheartedly engaging.