Blade Runner 2049 Review
Everything old is new again, and so it is with Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the recently released sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner.
The two films are separated by decades, but in their fictional world much remains the same: as in the original, a menacing tech corporation controls interplanetary politics, biorobotic androids called replicants are used for slave labor, and Los Angeles is enormous, dystopian, and filthy. However, while the first film transformed the text of Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into a dark meditation on humanity and consciousness, 2049 is primarily an aesthetic film that at best flirts with substance.
2049 tells the story of K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant serving as an LAPD blade runner – officers tasked with hunting down and dispatching rogue androids. During an assignment, he stumbles across the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth; as replicants are not designed to reproduce, K’s superior officer Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) tasks him with finding and killing the offspring. K’s tracking mission is complicated by the involvement of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a powerful replicant manufacturer eager to co-opt android reproduction tech.
K’s path eventually collides with that of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the now gray-haired protagonist of the original Blade Runner. As it turns out, they both have a vested interested in finding the missing replicant, and in evading Wallace’s bloodthirsty android henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). As the stakes rise, both K and Deckard are presented with questions about their own pasts that force them to reexamine the natures of their existences.
Although Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green create supporting characters with immediate, sympathetic struggles, such as Ford’s Deckard and K’s artificially intelligent holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), the core of the film is ultimately its hero, and while Gosling gives a passable performance, K is a cold, distant protagonist. At times, K appears to be conflicted about his assignment to kill the replicant child, and later in the film, he seems genuinely driven to see the case to its end after he learns more about the child’s backstory. However, both motivations are fleeting, and for the most part K seems to be a passive participant in his own life, a specter far removed from the struggles around him. K is a lonely creature mired in isolation and meaninglessness, yet his story fails to thoroughly investigate the nature of his pitiable existence, leaving the viewer with little to enjoy or analyze.
The most interesting characters in 2049 are given far less attention and respect than K is, unfortunately. Ford’s Deckard, de Armas’ Joi, and Wright’s Joshi are all excellently portrayed and, to the film’s detriment, only shallowly explored. Joi is especially given short-shrift by Villeneuve and the writers; her growth and her struggle with existence as a holograph limited by both sensory and spatial restrictions is fascinating and offers the potential for a feminist reading of the film; yet, as the film progresses, she is treated as a mere object designed to highlight K’s crippling alienation. At great cost, 2049 prioritizes K’s hollow journey; worse, it grants heaps of undeserved screentime to Leto’s caricatured performance of Wallace and to Hoeks’ hyper-campy Luv.
Smaller characters like Joi make the movie a somewhat alluring experience, even if they are undervalued and underutilized. K encounters dozens of the wretched souls affected by the collapse of Earth’s atmosphere and social infrastructure during his travels, from the erratic head of a child-labor sweatshop (Lennie James) to a street scientist and contraband dealer (Barkhad Abdi). While these performances usher some life into the film, they are also a reminder that although 2049’s world is expansive and idiosyncratic, we are only permitted to see it through the eyes of its least engaging inhabitants.
K’s quest around the apocalyptic wasteland of California in 2049 is at least visually stunning. Villeneuve and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins craft a darkly beautiful world, gradually crumbling to pieces yet blossoming with color and magnificence. The towering tenements of future Los Angeles, the irradiated ruins of Las Vegas, and the sprawling city of refuse that was once San Diego are all awe-inspiring playgrounds for K and the desperate, hopeless characters he encounters on his hunt for the replicant progeny.
Still, aesthetics alone cannot substitute for the soul that 2049 is noticeably without. While bit players hand in superb performances, and a tragic, futuristic dystopia is artfully brought to life, the film is without a necessary humanity. Despite their plot similarities, 2049 is bereft of the heady questions of human consciousness and artificial intelligence that were asked in the original Blade Runner, instead presenting us with a frigid, aimless hero that lacks both philosophical and commercial appeal. If sheer sensory beauty and hints at a deeper ideology are enough to make a masterpiece, then Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece; if not, then it is little more than a breathtaking bit of well-painted cinematic wallpaper.