“Blade Runner 2049” is, first and foremost, a cash grab. That does not mean that it’s a bad movie — it simply means that the film’s raison d’etre is something to overcome as opposed to something to live up to. And “Blade Runner 2049” tries very hard to overcome, with a visual style and deliberate pace that at least suggest a film of serious artistic intention. But it never quite comes up with a satisfying answer to the question, “Why am I not watching ‘Blade Runner’ right now?”
Maybe that’s unfair, but the film invites the comparison, conceived as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Theoretically, “Blade Runner 2049” deserves to be taken on its own terms, but try and watch it without thinking of — and pining for — the original.
“Blade Runner 2049” picks up 30 years after the events of the first film. The Tyrell Corporation has gone bankrupt and has been co-opted by the Wallace Corporation, which itself has gotten into the replicant game. Some of Tyrell’s old replicants, or bioengineered androids, are still around — the Nexus 8S models, specifically — and these replicants are being retired, i.e. executed, by government agents known as Blade Runners.
The film opens on a blade runner, a replicant known as K (Ryan Gosling), tracking down Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue Nexus 8S. K travels over depleted landscapes in his flying car — a Peugeot, in a surprising bit of product placement — before landing at an isolated farm where he finds his target. Morton resists retirement, to put it gently, and director Denis Villeneuve shoots the ensuing fight with a bracing physicality. But more important is the box K finds buried beneath a tree outside the house. Upon forensic investigation, the box’s contents are revealed to be the bones of a replicant woman who seems to have given birth. This possibility — a procreating replicant and the existence of the resulting child — drives the rest of the film.
After K completes his mission, he returns to Los Angeles, and the film reveals its vision of the city Scott rendered so strikingly in “Blade Runner.” On all counts, Villeneuve’s version suffers from the comparison. Whereas Scott’s Los Angeles was a marvel of visual texture, a crowded, gritty urban jungle bathed in neon light and constant rain, Villeneuve’s is cold, clean and anonymous — it looks like countless other futuristic cities we’ve seen on screen.
Back at K’s apartment, we meet Joi, K’s holographic girlfriend, or servant, or something. Whatever her role is, it’s one of subservience and mindless devotion, and it’s a letdown. In the original film, Deckard — Harrison Ford’s character — had a strange, disturbing relationship with a female replicant, Rachael, in which romance and abuse uneasily commingled. K and Joi’s relationship is fraught with no such complications, and the film never bothers to interrogate or develop it — instead content to make an Oscar play for “Most Interminable Sex Scene of the Year.” Also, without giving too much away, “Blade Runner 2049” interprets Deckard and Rachael’s relationship in the least interesting way possible, erasing its complications in order to serve the demands of the plot.
Other characters soon emerge, including Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), K’s boss at the Los Angeles Police Department and Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), head of the Wallace Corporation. Wallace, who seems to speak only in vaguely biblical expressions, is dissatisfied with the pace of replicant production at his company and sees the replicant child as a potential solution to his problem. He sends Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), his servant and a replicant herself, to find the child.
K’s mission, given to him by Lieutenant Joshi, is to destroy the child. Joshi believes the separation between kinds must be maintained, and such a creature threatens that order. Eventually, this mission takes K to Rick Deckard, the former Blade Runner who left the force and ran away with Rachael 30 years ago. Now, he’s living alone in a Las Vegas high-rise. Ford is game as ever, unexpectedly touching but equipped with a powerful snarl. And cinematographer Roger Deakins, likely to receive his 14th Oscar nomination for this film, conjures some breathtaking images in the empty, orange-hued Las Vegas.
As for Gosling, he’s good when the film lets him be, but his role is essentially that of a hot, brooding Pinocchio, and it can only sustain our interest for so long. The film takes familiar questions of humanity, inhumanity and the fine line between the two as its thematic focus, and, though thought-provoking, it has little new to say and never feels as profoundly alive as the original “Blade Runner” still does.
“Blade Runner 2049,” clocking in at a hefty two hours and 43 minutes, ultimately comes off as a one hundred minute movie stretched beyond its means and turned into a turgid pseudo-epic. What could have been a spare, thoughtful film is instead a ponderous, philosophizing and fitfully-entertaining slog. As Villeneuve struggles to impart meaning and grandeur to his film, and the plot begins to pile up before him, it becomes clearer and clearer that “2049” just doesn’t have the electric, artful genius of “Blade Runner.” But then again, what does?