Early critics have raved about “Blade Runner 2049,” the highly anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, but it’s not great. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every second of the 163-minute film, but when it comes to re-upping a science fiction classic of both film and literature, the standard is quite high.
Above all, “2049” gives the impression that it is expensive. And visually, the $300 million or so sunk into the movie pays off as director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins guide the audience through the world of titanic billboards, interactive 3D projections, drone garbage trucks the size of houses dump waste in city-sized landfills, and the ruins of skyscraper-sized statues of women in erotic positions in an irradiated Las Vegas.
It’s a breathtaking visual spectacle and the producers put in intense amount of creativity to bear in crafting the expansive world, but the fundamental existential questions introduced in Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” didn’t receive the same attention.
Without spoiling the the plot — which stripped down is a detective mystery where bounty hunter K (Ryan Gosling) attempts to solve a murder and a missing persons case — the film has a bit to say about finding connection in an age of actual sex robots and over-advertised all-digital companions, as makes a compelling particularly human point about viewing oneself as a messianic figure only to realize that you’re at best a bit part in someone else’s revolution.
In many ways the film matches the stunning visuals with engaging storytelling, compelling characters and fine writing, but it never delivers the weighty philosophical commentary that characterized the original film and Dick’s novel.
“2049” stays blessedly committed, even if it fails metaphysically, to showing what it means to be human through androids who may or may not have souls. The producers could easily have tied it to the contemporary political zeitgeist and hammered environmentalist messages. In 2049, Los Angeles is protected from rising ocean levels by an enormous wall, and the man who controls earth and the to some extent the off-world colonies owns an industrial farming empire.
The reappearance of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, whose career almost exclusively consists of rebooting his characters from classic cinema franchises), dangerously approaches Hollywood’s nostalgia trap, where filmmakers try to recapture the sparkle of 1980s characters with sometimes cute (“Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens”), sometimes ridiculous (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) effect.
If “Blade Runner” had to be reborn at all, one can at least be grateful that the Villeneuve (who brought new life to the alien arrival sub-genre with 2016’s “Arrival”) was at the helm for “2049.” Imagine how much worse it could be.
Perhaps it’s best to view the film as a chapter in an expanding Blade Runner universe. If one compares it to other installments to an endless franchises (I know of no plans to turn Blade Runner into the next Marvel universe, but it’s positioned to go that way), “Blade Runner 2049” will stand out as particularly good. But it offers little as an extension of the philosophical questioned raised Dick’s novel, Ridley Scott’s film, and by other iconic science fiction.
John Podhoretz puts it best in his Weekly Standard review of “2049” when he asks if a film can be great without leaving the audience satisfied at the end.
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