Blade Runner 2049 Can’t Match Its Predecessor

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Blade Runner 2049. Photo: Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros.

At the early screening of the breathlessly awaited Blade Runner 2049, a publicist asked the assembled press on behalf of the director, Denis Villeneuve, to reveal nothing about the plot, so that audiences could be surprised in the same way we were about to be. All right, then.

Good night, thank you, be sure to tip your server.

Well, I can reveal that it’s quite long: two hours and 43 minutes, and you feel every one of them. Villeneuve (Arrival) maintains a deliberate pace, with every revelation a long time coming. He likes mist and fog more than the original Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott, did, so the look is less hard-edged, with figures melting slowly out of yellow smog. The corroded downtown L.A. cityscape — with its giant, beckoning Japanese female holograms — seems more like San Francisco here. San Diego, meanwhile, is depicted as a waste-dump for L.A. with huge flying garbage scows. The Central Valley is monochromatic and de-vegetated. The Golden State has gone gray.

I can quote the IMDb synopsis: “A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.” I obviously can’t disclose that long-buried secret, but can say that it has something to with Deckard (Harrison Ford) and someone else you’ll recall. And it’s big, so big that the officer running the LAPD blade runners, Lieutenant Joshi a.k.a. Madame (Robin Wright), thinks this “world built on a wall” will lose said wall and the subsequent war could wipe out their society. She’s concerned.

Let me tiptoe a little further into the plot. I’ll be careful, I promise.

Ryan Gosling plays the new blade runner, “K,” a hunter of artificial life forms — replicants — who is himself a replicant, only a more advanced model than in the 1982 film. He hunts the old models. You’ll remember the problem with those replicants was they’d developed feelings, which made it difficult to enslave them and also made them conscious of — and pissed-off about — their built-in expiration dates. Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in particular was angry enough to take down his creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) of the Tyrell Corporation. Batty’s subsequent demise was traumatic enough to leave the bloodied Deckard in a blue drizzle, feeling blue. Disgusted with the world, he flew off with his replicant girlfriend.

Just a few more details about Blade Runner 2049: When K laments his childhood memories are implanted and that he doesn’t have a soul, Madame says, “You’ve been getting along fine without one.” But one look at Gosling’s melancholy peepers and you know she’s way, way off. (Gosling does a lot of eye acting. He can make his orbs look soft and moist and innocent, and he can make them smile.) If K doesn’t have a soul, he certainly has the accoutrements of one. In his apartment, he plays Sinatra’s “A Summer Wind” while his holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), leans on him, reading Nabokov. They have deeper conversations than most married couples I know.

Jared Leto is in the film and he’s even more repellent than as the Joker. That’s not necessarily an insult. I mean, it is from my perspective, but Leto’s nature is to want to make audiences uncomfortable, at which he’s a roaring success. He plays the new and much crueler Tyrell figure, Niander Wallace, who has ragged holes instead of eyes. He longs to know the secret of the aforementioned secret and turns to his glamorous female replicant aide, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who’s good with a knife and lethal with her hands.

It’s permissible to answer the question, “Does Blade Runner 2049 have any more connection to the paranoid visionary Philip K. Dick and his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than Blade Runner?” A bit. It’s a little less noir, a little more philosophical. Dick didn’t think Blade Runner was very Dick-ian. He didn’t live to see the movie (he died of a stroke at 53 in 1982), but he got hold of the script after Ridley Scott said in an interview that he’d found the novel too difficult to read.

Dick’s approval of the screenplay had more than a touch of irony. “It was terrific,” he wrote. “It bore no relation to the book. Oddly, in some ways it was better. What my story will become is one titanic lurid collision of androids being blown up, androids killing humans, general confusion and murder, all very exciting to watch. Makes my book seem dull by comparison.” He added, “As a writer, though, I’d like to see some of my ideas, not just special effects of my ideas, used.”

I think Dick would have liked the character in Blade Runner 2049 whose origins are, indeed, in his ideas. She’s a sad young woman (Carla Juri) living in a climate-controlled holo-chamber whose job is to manufacture memories for implantation. K travels to see her to determine if one particularly nagging orphanage memory of his is real or comes from her head. I can’t reveal the answer, but the scene slots neatly into Dick’s conviction that all memories are questionable and all identities mutable. He thought that humans were losing their empathy and becoming more mechanical while machines were evolving to meet them halfway.

Dick probably wouldn’t have liked the film’s heavy dose of sentimentality, especially the ending, which is also unsatisfying. But maybe he’d have been happy to see old Harrison Ford looking so fit. I think he’d have hoped, along with the audience, that this wouldn’t be the second iconic Ford character in the past year to get skewered.

What more will Denis Villeneuve let me say? Dave Bautista has an affecting scene — it’s the movie’s first, actually — in which K comes a-calling. Barkhad Abdi has a nice bit as a vendor who can maybe help K keep ahead of the police state. People will be talking about the three-way inter-dimensional sex scene. The sound mix is very detailed and very, very loud — the metallic groans make your eardrums quiver.

I imagine most audiences will like the film, though it has nothing as striking as Hauer’s morbid majesty or the screaming-dervish demise of Daryl Hannah’s Pris. There’s nothing close to the shock of seeing Blade Runner’s Tokyo-influenced futuristic dystopia — a dismal mix of high-tech and corrosion — for the first time. I thought it was okay.

Blade Runner 2049 Can’t Match Its Predecessor