Review |

Blade Runner 2049: Impressive and Intelligent, but Lacks the Original's Sense of Wonder

'Blade Runner 2049,' Denis Villeneuve's sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 classic, is worth seeing but doesn't have the philosophical and theoretical depth of the original

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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'Blade Runner 2049,' starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.
'Blade Runner 2049,' starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.Credit: Stephen Vaughan/AP
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

When Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” was released in 1982, critics were divided and it was a box-office flop. Its only Oscar nominations were in the categories of visual effects and sound design, and it lost in both. It’s hardly possible to imagine another movie that has had such an extreme historical reversal. Less than a decade later, not only did “Blade Runner” become a cult film and appear on every list of the best futuristic films, but it also leaped the strictures of genre to enter the pantheon of the best movies made in America in recent decades, and overall.

Scott helped cultivated the movie’s cult status by introducing structural and formal changes over the years that fans followed with growing curiosity. In 1992 the “Director’s Cut” was released, which among things removed the studio-imposed “happy ending,” and in 2007 “The Final Cut” came out.

Nobody could have imagined in 1982 that 35 years later a sequel, “Blade Runner 2049,” would arouse so much curiosity and excitement. Direction was entrusted to the French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose “Prisoners” (2013) and “Sicario” (2015), both of which earned critical praise. His first venture into science fiction came in 2016: “Arrival” received eight Oscar nominations, including for best picture and best director.

New world order

In the 30 years that passed in the Blade Runner world between the end of the original movie and the start of the second, the Nexus-6 series of replicants has reached its expiration date. It is being replaced by a new generation of human-like androids, created by the company of Niander Wallace, a blind savant (Jared Leto). Tracking down and eliminating replicants was at the foundation of Scott’s film. Some of the new replicants are tasked with finding and eliminating the remaining earlier replicants, while the rest of the new series supplies the United States with the cheap labor on which its economy is based.

Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright in a performance that borders on caricature) is the human in charge of the separation between human beings and replicants, whose job is to maintain the class order. All her fears focus on the possibility that this order will be upset, leading to a revolution.

And this order really is likely to be upset because of the main character, a replicant called Officer K, from the Los Angeles Police Department (Ryan Gosling). In the first assignment of his that we see, K eliminates Sapper Morton, a replicant from the past (Dave Bautista). In Morton’s home, K finds an object that challenges his identity. The narrative arc of the movie — whose running time, at two hours and 43 minutes, is very long — is to solve the mystery of the main question posed in the original, as well: What does it mean to be human?

The structure of the new film is connected to one of the basic differences between it and Scott’s film. While the original film had a plot, it seemed as though the film was circling around itself within the unsolved mysteries, Villeneuve’s film moves forward in a much more linear manner, perhaps because it was produced in a cinematic reality in which the public has become accustomed to futuristic films with a linear plot.

The story itself is interesting, even moving — especially when K meets Rick Deckard, the hero of the previous film, who is hiding in an abandoned hotel in ruined Las Vegas, where there are holograms of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Harrison Ford, now 76, reprised his role as Deckard in the original, and no effort is made to conceal his age.

This linear presentation is somewhat disappointing, it lacks the depths and darkness of human existence that characterized Scott’s film; the plot is full of scenes and images, some of which really are very impressive, but they also subject us to an almost incessant cinematic attack, which can excite us with its mysteries but exhaust us as well (the bombastic music that accompanies the film adds to this exhaustion).

However, as was also true of Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” the film also leaves room for quieter and more intimate scenes, with overtones of internal contemplation, which tries to balance the excess of plot and form — and do so with some success. Involved in some of these scenes is Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram that serves K as a guide, and the scenes with her produce several of the loveliest, most original and most moving scenes in the film (she too wants to experience human emotion, but her ambition is interrupted).

Moments of lyricism

There is no question that “Blade Runner 2049” is intelligent, very impressive and often even moving. But it doesn’t have the philosophical and theoretical depth of the original. Scott’s film even touched on the essence of cinema itself, in which the actors also serve as replicants of sorts, who represent human beings. While the original film moved agitatedly within the mystery of itself, and therefore Scott also had the option of changing its structure, the plot of Villeneuve’s film, which deals with the origin of man, is more conservative and more subject that Scott’s film to the values that guide the United States.

The excess that characterizes Villeneuve’s film is reflected not only in the way in which it corresponds with the original film, but also in the way it corresponds with other texts. When the hero of the film has Joe added to his name, the connection between Joe (like Joseph) and K cannot help but remind us of the hero of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” Joseph K. The film also makes use of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel “Pale Fire,” written as a poem of 999 lines composed by a fictitious poet (a replicant?) named John Shade. Do these references enrich the film, or burden it and emphasize its pretention, from which Villeneuve was unable to escape?