I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for a film to be laudably ambitious, resolutely intelligent, clompingly obvious, and archly indifferent at the same time. But here we have Blade Runner 2049, a distant sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction thriller of the same name, sans the date. A middling performer in its day — critically and commercially — the original Blade Runner has had an unimaginably long reach. It can be reasonably that it stands collectively with Scott’s Alien and the first Star Wars trilogy as the most influential cinematic works of the latter half of the twentieth century. It probably should have been left alone, free from both Scott’s cranky tinkering and any stab at extending the story. Of course, that’s not the way the entertainment world works.
Blade Runner 2049 at least insists on being complicated, even more than was the case with the first film. Returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher teams with Michael Green to craft a script dense with heavy topics of futurecasted humanity. Based, loosely, on a Philip K. Dick novel, the first film outing of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was enamored with the task of visioning the urban landscape of the future, but the replicants driving the plot were largely just robots, there to give the hero something to shoot at. Looking at it now, there’s remarkably little weight giving to the plight of the machines invested with simulated spirit. Artificial intelligence is convenience for the narrative, not a topic to be pondered.
The sequel inverts the priorities. As realized by director Denis Villeneuve, the sequences in which the film gives way to action are half-hearted and overlong. They play like set pieces that someone meant to circle back around to and instill a little purpose. When the story turns to the particulars of programmed existences — best realized by Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram-based romantic companion, and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant engaged in fierce competition for superiority — the film vividly engages, even as it sometimes introduces more ideas than it can reasonably contain.
It also isn’t quite as mysterious and twisty as the filmmakers seem to think. The main plot concerns a quest to find a unique replicant, one who came into the world in a manner so unique that, as characters sternly explain, it will change everything. In pursuit is a replicant known familiarly as K (Ryan Gosling). The discoveries he makes are obviously seedlings that will sprout up to plot twists aspiring toward mind-bending shock. But there’s no stealth to the storytelling. Plot points are signaled as such, and it’s easy to see which theories are being wheeled into place just to be toppled down one act later.
When the film’s narrative mechanics start to grind, redemption is found in the smashing visuals. Villeneuve deserves credit, but the clear MVP is cinematography Roger Deakins, delivering yet another glorious treatise of the power of light, shadow, and color. Even at its most rickety, astonishing expertise in on display in Blade Runner 2049, which is perhaps the clearest resemblance it bears to its ancestor. Like the earlier film, it is as striking in its imperfections as in its achievements. Call it legacy.