"Blade Runner 2049" Fails To Build On The Magic Of Ridley Scott's Original

Whereas Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of 1982 science fiction noir masterwork “Blade Runner” remains a cleansing rain of esoteric audiovisual immersion, Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” is a fire hose; a forcible stream of a sequel that climaxes not in a sparkling soliloquy, but in a fight scene with roundhouse kicks. The ultra-talented “Sicario” director capably traces the broad strokes of Scott’s hard-boiled, mostly action-free original, but he bungles the buttoned-up postmodernism. The strain of sweeping sentimentality that worked so well for the filmmaker in last year’s “Arrival” is an unwieldy fit here; emotionalism as an endgame rather than a side effect.

Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”) headlines as K, a replicant (bioengineered human) going about the same business as Harrison Ford’s Deckard did in the original film: retiring (i.e. killing) replicants. Deckard was, of course, nominally human at the outset of “Blade Runner,” but the starting point of “2049” is effectively the same: an austere thirty-something male traverses a misty, neon-lit Los Angeles dystopia, searching for elusive truths he’ll never be able to grasp. Even if he finds them.

Robin Wright (“Wonder Woman”) co-stars as K’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Joshi, effectively standing in for screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the 1982 film) and Michael Green (“Logan”) as a compass for our protagonist. Joshi puts K on a path through the story’s central mystery, a puzzle that involves a replicant who apparently – miraculously – expired during childbirth. Joshi orders K to locate and dispose of the resulting child, unsettling K as much as an android can be unsettled. Moreover, his mind, or central processing unit, visibly runs wild at the thought of a replicant giving birth. A reality-shattering notion. Even for a robot.

The former Tyrell Corporation, now the Wallace Corporation, led by the menacing, monologuing Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) figures into the mystery, and ultimately Deckard does, too, with Harrison Ford featuring heavily in the pic’s final hour. But the crucial sense that we’re flying blind never comes, with Fancher and Green’s increasingly pat screenplay holding our hands through each reveal of information. Little is left up to the imagination or interpretation. Supporting characters are introduced and then discarded, only useful as far as moving our hero along in his inevitable voyage towards Deckard.

The attendant love story between K and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) gobbles up screentime like a wayward Pac-Man, its digital mawkishness coming off as quaint in a post-“Her” world. The unreal Joi is an all-too-obvious halo around the not-quite-real K, their doomed courtship not even half as impactful as that of Deckard and Sean Young’s Rachael in the original film. And the admittedly impressive technology that went into bringing Joi to life underscores the CGI-ness that envelops the movie, flying in the face of the seemingly hand-made world from whence “2049” came.

At first, the sights and sounds of “2049” are absorbing, covering over a dearth of moral ambiguity. But by the hour mark cinematographer Roger Deakins seems to be crying out for our approval. His and Villeneuve’s are aggressive images that largely exist apart from the story being told, perhaps overcompensating for the lack of discovery inherent in a sequel. Ridley Scott’s film remains pure intoxication not because it bombards the senses; to the contrary. It unveils itself methodically, rarely peacocking, allowing us to drink in Jordan Cronenweth’s photography and Laurence Paull’s production design at a steady pace. Conversely, “2049” assails our senses throughout, the worst offender being Hanz Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s dreadful orchestration.

Even today, sitting down with Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” musical score and a good pair of headphones is a transporting experience, conjuring for the listener both images from the film and all new ones. What Zimmer and Wallfisch have dreamt up for “2049” is, at best, a pallid ode to Vangelis’ original work, at worst, a mockery of it. Indiscriminate blasts of sound and occasional Vangelis quotes comprise ninety percent of their score, the other ten percent nearly indiscernible from the pic’s equally, laughably forceful sound effects.

For all of its pageantry, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” endures as an inordinately refined film – almost impossibly so by 2017 standards. Its aim was not to move us, but it did anyway, on the back of its technical artistry and disarming moral relativism. Villeneuve’s version is loud, both figuratively and literally, its distended 163-minute running time exacerbating the pacing issues that often crop up in film noir. The cumulative effect of “2049” is reverberation instead of immersion, functioning well enough as its own thing but poorly as a “Blade Runner” sequel.

The ending of Ridley Scott’s Final Cut, in all its glorious ambiguity, nearly required that there never be a sequel. That “2049” doesn’t even seem to grasp the full magnificence of its predecessor is no help at all. Its ending is faded facsimile, a surprising “Tears In Rain” moment of its own well out of reach. There is consolation in where K and Deckard end up, but almost none in how they got there. Only the chalky outline of a classic.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 6, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, Alcon Entertainment
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, some sexuality, nudity, and language)