Blade Runner 2049 – Film Review

There’s an impression of importance surrounding the release of Blade Runner 2049. It clearly suggests that the studio thinks it has something special on its hands. Evidently, so does director Denis Villeneuve, the man who accepted the task of delivering a sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott directed cult favorite.

Before the press screening, where names were carefully checked, arm-bands were handed out, then re-checked upon entrance to the theatre by those who had just insisted that you wore them in the first place, a notice was read to reviewers in attendance allegedly written by the director himself. It politely asked that writers refrain from giving away key moments of the story in their articles, allowing the audience to enjoy the film in the way preview reviewers would see it. A fair request, even though if you look, most of the spoilers are already out there.

But then there was an added call for everyone to remain seated throughout the lengthy end-credits for something else, which is what the reviewers did, silently sitting there, all the time wondering if perhaps there was some extra final scene to come with a reveal worth the wait. But there was nothing, just the never-ending list of names for technical and eventually catering positions that mean little to most, except to those who actually negotiated a credit. Instead, what came was a second, more detailed request that was read to the critics, this time asking for something that amounted to a laundry list of things not say, which, frankly, smacked of studio hypocrisy, particularly when the studio itself was already guilty of doing that very thing. The marketing gives away what should have been the film’s best kept secret. Consider the following.

Blade Runner 2049 is essentially the search to find Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, from the first film. He’s been missing for thirty years. Is he still alive? Was he ever really a replicant, as the final moments of director Scott’s fifth version, The Final Cut, suggested? And if he really was a replicant, wouldn’t he have expired after the in-built, limited, four year life span concluded? How great the surprise would have been when, in the final act, just around the two hour mark, Ford’s aged and weathered features suddenly stepped out of the shadows and shocked us all. But we already know what’s going to happen. Does Ryan Gosling’s character find him? Of course he does. He’s on the publicity stills, he’s on all the late-night talk shows where he’s helped promote the film, and he’s prominently displayed on the poster with equal billing, standing back to back with Gosling. Demanding the best of all worlds by asking reviewers not to indulge in plot-spoilers when, for the sake of business over art, the studio has given away the biggest, is a dangerous precedent. It’s one thing to politely request refraining from given away too much in a synopsis, it’s another to list them out, one by one, as if dictating how to write a review.

Present-day audiences tend to forget that when the ‘82 original was released, it wasn’t that well received. And it wasn’t just because of the so-so reviews; audiences stayed away due to the lackluster word of mouth from those who did attend. And to blame the lack of appreciation on the late addition of Harrison Ford’s dead-pan gumshoe, Dashiell Hammett style of voice-over narration, later removed on subsequent director tweakings, is wrong. That was always the director’s idea, not studio interference. Over the course of the film’s thirty-five years, calling it a masterpiece is something that has developed mostly by those who were not around in ‘82. It’s not and never was a masterpiece, but it was good and certainly under appreciated. Repeated viewings helped that reputation grow, like a new album that when first heard is only okay, but repeated plays makes it sound better.

Interestingly, the time-date for the original was 2019, just two years from now. As the new title states, it’s 2049, and the world (that is to say, America) is more polluted than ever. In fact, the whole of San Diego is one large trash dump, the film’s only laugh. Unlike Scott’s dark, yet colorful looking future of a smoky, densely populated metropolis, director Villeneuve’s 2049 appears somewhat closer to the color scheme of his 2016 sci-fi adventure, Arrival. Skies are a depressing gray. With the exception of the rusty looking glow of some later desert scenes in what used to be Las Vegas, colors are mostly drained.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is beautifully framed and shot. It looks enormously impressive on a large, wide screen, but its general, somber appearance underlines the burdensome weight of the film’s overall form. With a running time nearing three hours, its slow-burn, deliberately leaden style of story-telling, where dialog is often spoken in single sentences and responses come only after lengthy pauses, is taxing; it’ll test the patience of many. To his credit, director Villeneuve is doing things his way without compromise, the studio is letting him because of past successes, but for those hoping for a retread of the original, this sequel may prove a slog.

There’s also major differences to the interiors. Where Ridley Scott’s designs had that intentional shards-of-light-reflected-through-shutters look, where everything seemed shadowy, smoky, and in need of a good feather duster, Villeneuve favors a clinically clean, anti-septic appearance. Jared Leto’s blind Niander Wallace, the man who invented the new line of replicants, appears to operate in a spacious, empty, futuristic spa with running water pouring down the walls. It looks anything but practical; there’s space to waste.

That same look of emptiness appears throughout on Ryan Gosling’s inexpressive face. Never one for depth but good at appearing blank, Gosling plays LAPD officer K whose job as a Blade Runner in 2049 is to hunt down early model replicants and kill them. Had he cracked even a modicum of a smile, there might have been a glance of something vaguely resembling a living being, but Gosling’s portrayal sticks to long, cold stares, with eyes that are simply dead. His runner is always thinking while silently looking around, taking inordinate amounts of time, soaking up the atmosphere before either responding to a question or making his next move. Is this really acting, or was he just blocking his moves and Villeneuve used the footage, knowing that with Gosling he wasn’t going to get anything more?

The best and most interesting roles belong to the female supports. Robin Wright plays Gosling’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi. She shouts at him, and that brings a moment of life to the proceedings, plus the scene where Wright faces murderous bad girl, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks in a black wig) has some effective tension. But, as revealed through holographic advertising, in-house adult toys with a remote, and with the young women Gosling meets on the streets, the future has not only preserved the role of females as servants, play things, or sex-objects, it enhances it. When Gosling treks through a derelict desert setting, he’s passing over-sized, weather damaged sculptures of enormous naked women while walking between shapely legs spread apart, with feet in giant-sized stilettos. What these busted, amazonian statues are doing there has no relevance to anything. And just to prove there’s no real life to Gosling’s character, he doesn’t even bother to stop and take a look.

The score by Benjamin Walifisch and Hans Zimmer occasionally echoes the synthesized atmosphere of the original Vangelis score, in fact, part of that haunting soundtrack is actually used, but here there’s a lot of pounding, pulsating beats, and like Zimmer’s Inception and more recently Dunkirk, there is an overload of those notes where things sound less like music and more like explosive, speaker-blowing, electronic farts.

The dedicated Blade Runner fan, the ones determined to enjoy themselves at all costs, will take it all in, seduced perhaps by influential marketing, and by the film’s size, its epic 163 minute length, the volume, the excellent photography, and its faultless visual effects. But for others, Blade Runner 2049, will be a passive experience with a not altogether interesting story consisting of plot-points not worth revealing; a film of some action without thrills, and a spectacle without real heart or feeling. Perhaps director Villeneuve should take that replicant character test himself. The results might explain a few things.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length: 163 Minutes   Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

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