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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Review by Sean CW Korsgaard


Love it or loath it, Blade Runner has gone on to become one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made, shaping a generation of cyberpunk literature and influencing dozens of movies, from Ghost in the Shell to Dark City to Ex Machina. Entire books have been written about Blade Runner, so I won’t spend too much time talking about it here. Instead, my attention is focused on answering another question: can Blade Runner 2049, a sequel green-lit almost 35 years after the original, hope to be as good as Blade Runner?

As it turns out, the answer is a resounding, “No.”

Thirty years after Rick Deckard retired his last replicant, a new generation of Blade Runners have taken up the task of putting an end to any rogue replicants running around Los Angeles. One of them is a replicant named K, who while working a case for the LAPD uncovers a dark secret that, should it get out, might start a war between humans and replicants. With each clue, he comes closer to finding the truth, and closer to coming into conflict with the various forces that want that truth for themselves.

One of the strong points of Blade Runner is that it had a number of simple elements—a straightforward cat-and-mouse sci-fi actioner about a cop hunting down rogue cyborgs, the budding romance between Deckard and Rachel—to balance out all the subtext asking what makes us human. You either can enjoy a mostly straightforward action movie, or dive into any of the dozens of masters theses that have been written about the movie’s themes.

The biggest weakness of Blade Runner 2049 is that it doesn’t do simple, or for that matter, subtext. It dives straight into the deep end of exploring what makes us human, wrapped around the core mystery of the movie. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you, but the issue is that Blade Runner 2049 all but spells out the big twists of the mystery as they’re happening, and that it has about 90 minutes of plot stretched to the breaking point over almost three hours. The result is a movie that moves at a brutally slow pace, and insists on holding your hand the entire time. The harshest critics of the original Blade Runner dismissed it as a self-serious slog with a handful of pretty scenes, and Blade Runner 2049 has fallen into the trap of becoming just that kind of movie.

Despite its almost three-hour run time, the worst thing about Blade Runner 2049 is the number of open-ended questions it leaves, not for ambiguity’s sake, but because by the end of the movie, you have the sneaking suspicion that they’re setting things up for sequels.

The best thing I can say about Blade Runner 2049 is that nearly the entire cast brings their A-game, and they come admirably close to managing to drag the sagging story to the finish line. Ryan Gosling more than carries the film on his shoulders as the protagonist, K; no small feat for a part that demands handling a range of emotions with subtlety. Ana de Armis gives what is likely a career-making turn as his holographic girlfriend and personal assistant, Joi, as does Sylvia Hoeks as the misleadingly named replicant henchwoman Luv. Meanwhile, Robin Wright elevates what could have easily been a disposable character, K’s handler at LAPD, into one of the movie’s liveliest highlights.

Now, you’ll notice I said nearly the entire cast brings their A-game. There are two major weak points, and sadly, one of them is Harrison Ford. Don’t let the top billing fool you. Ford’s return as Deckard is essentially a glorified cameo: he has maybe 20 minutes of screen time in an almost three hour movie, at most. Worse, the return of Rick Deckard falls flat, with Ford looking bored for the most part, aside from an extended sequence where he beats up Ryan Gosling as a holographic Elvis croons in the background. Those expecting a turn like the return of Han Solo, or even Indiana Jones, dash those hopes now.

Even that pales to the painful turn we get from Jared Leto, whose very presence drags down Blade Runner 2049. In a movie full of subdued performances, Leto gives a distractingly campy turn that ruins every scene he’s in, delivering monologues of lazily written religious symbolism that just destroy whatever momentum there may have been. Worse, as the primary antagonist, CEO Niander Wallace, he just doesn’t have an ounce of menace, and has such little impact on the proceedings he probably could have been cut from the film entirely with no loss.

If there was ever any doubt that Rutger Hauer’s very presence elevated Blade Runner, it’s long gone after watching Leto come close to wrecking Blade Runner 2049 single-handedly. Blade Runner gave us the tragic Roy Batty, with Rutger Hauer improvising speeches of C-beams glittering off the Tannhauser Gate and of teardrops lost in the rain. Blade Runner 2049 gives us Jared Leto with stupid-looking contact lenses, flubbing spiels about Adam and Eve, and we’re so much poorer for it.

Lastly, we come to the direction of Denis Villeneuve, and credit where it’s due, you can tell this was a labor of love for him. Blade Runner created this smoky fever-dream of a cyberpunk Los Angeles where skyscrapers and neon billboards peek through a constant rainstorm, and it’s a joy to see Blade Runner 2049 revisit it, and build upon it with a number of new touches, my favorite being a clear Russian influence to the city. Visually, the film is breathtaking, and while thirty years of cyberpunk cinema has lessened the newness of everything somewhat, Blade Runner 2049 is still stunning. If cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t finally take home an Oscar for his work here, he’s been robbed, again.

That’s not to say there aren’t some flaws or missteps from the production end however. The biggest is that Villeneuve is not a good action director, and Blade Runner 2049 suffers for that during the movie’s few action beats, which is a shame given those were such a high point of Blade Runner. The score from Hans Zimmer is an unremarkable imitation of the original from Vangelis, and in true Zimmer fashion, undermines several key moments of the film by having the score crescendo at that very moment.

Doing a sequel to Blade Runner was always going to be an unenviable task, but strong performances and stunning visuals aside, Blade Runner 2049 just isn’t quite up to the task. Strong visuals and a couple of breakout performances are no substitute for good storytelling, and Blade Runner 2049’s greatest failings are that it flubs the basics in nearly every level. The mystery that forms the heart of the plot both drags its feet and holds your hand. The antagonist lacks any menace or presence in the proceedings. There isn’t an ounce of tension in the entire film, barely any action, and the pacing is glacial, even in its best moments. Worst of all, though, it never leaves much of an impact, and even at its best, it is entirely unremarkable.

Blade Runner redefined a genre and influenced a generation of both science fiction and filmmaking, and we’re still talking about the movie today. Blade Runner 2049 leaves such a little impression I doubt we’ll even remember it in five years.

Blade Runner never needed a sequel, but the idea of a Blade Runner sequel isn’t a bad idea in and of itself. The issue is that Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t do much aside from offering a shallow imitation of the original, and that simply isn’t good enough. We live in an era when long-dormant franchises like Star Wars, Rocky, or Mad Max get sequels that not only thrilled audiences and revitalized old brands, but have ended up being some of the decade’s best movies. Blade Runner 2049 does not—it’s a pretty, but ultimately disposable entry. There are lots of things a Blade Runner sequel needed to be, and disposable should never have been one of them.

If you’re a diehard Blade Runner fan, or looking for some awesome cyberpunk visuals, you’ll find a lot to like about Blade Runner 2049. Otherwise, wait a couple weeks for a matinee, as there simply isn’t enough here to warrant rushing to theaters. Blade Runner 2049 is little more than an expensive looking replicant of the original, and not even one that can pass the Voight-Kampff test at that.




Soldier, scholar, writer and freelancer, Sean CW Korsgaard is a US Army veteran, award-winning journalist, and freelance writer. Read more at: www.korsgaardscommentary.com

2 comments:

Pete Wood said...

I think the reviewer is overly harsh. I liked Ford's performance just fine. He didn't deserve second billing, but any more screen time would have just been a distraction.
I appreciated that the film tried very hard to be different than the original. Thank God, the film did not have the tired sameness of such movies as every sequel to the Terminator after the first. And, hats off for creating a world even bleaker than that in the original.
Spot on with Jared Leto. He's a great actor-- see Dallas Buyers Club-- but I have no clue what he was trying to do in this movie. He reminded me of Joaquin Phoenix when he was doing his uni-bomber impression while promoting a film a few years ago. HE showe d up on talk shows with a heavy beard and sunglasses and seemed almost catatonic. Leto dragged the movie way down. Just awful. Edward James Olmos was thoroughly wasted, though.
The four central women were outstanding, though. And, what a great performance as the lover interest AI. Wow.
I was very happy with this movie. Like the original, some wonderful visuals and philosophy.

Slothrop said...

Agree with Korsgaard and Wood.

Movie could have been tightened. Harrison Ford was good. But great they tried to add depth to the themes of the original....