Denis Villenueve’s vaporwave remix of Ridley Scott’s seminal and divisive sci-fi classic will no doubt end up being the best looking movie I’ve seen in 2017, or any other recent year for that matter. Stunningly realised by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins and augmented by Dennis Gassner’s production design and the work of the art direction team, the film’s colour palette and plethora of textures provides an overwhelming feast for the eyeballs. This is a vision. You have to wonder when marketing teams are going to come to their senses and start plastering the words “From director of photography Roger Deakins” on trailers. His visual stamp has become a brand and badge of honour in itself. On that level, Blade Runner 2049 more than lives up to expectations set by the original. As a sensory experience, this does not disappoint in the slightest. It is breathtaking.
On the other hand, the 163 minute run time often reduces the film to a plodding, droning bore. I usually don’t have a problem with Villenueve’s penchant for slower pacing. Prisoners, for example, put its admittedly unnecessary 150 minute running time to good use by lending the film more breathing room and silence for added tension and atmosphere. The same thinking is applied here but with only the thinnest of plots holding it together, the extra baggage ends up weighing the film down. Between endless repetitive scenes of Gosling’s K in his shabby apartment looking forlorn with his holographic girlfriend, heavily dramatic conversations overcooked with ominous ambiguity or extended sequences featuring Gosling looking at his environment before…slowly…looking…at…something…more…specific; the film’s continuous throbbing presence soon becomes a tad tiresome. At a certain point, you just want the thing to get going. Before long you begin to wonder if an accelerator pedal is even a part of the film’s inventory. I’ve honestly never seen so many people checking their watch in an IMAX screening.
For all the visual razzle dazzle, the narrative is frustratingly un-engaging and unremarkable. At many points I found myself wondering “okay, why is he doing this again? Why am I supposed to care about that?” There’s a lack of immediacy and stakes that is completely at odds with the grandeur of its Very Important Presentation. The film seems to believe it’s staying afloat on some deep and complex thematics that, honestly, I just didn’t find as potent or thought-provoking as the filmmakers clearly intended. No matter how loud ZImmer and Wallfisch’s score became or how dramatic a performance would be, the movie never emerged as an emotional experience. For so much of the running time, I was willing the film to take it up a notch and wow me. I wanted more. Why couldn’t I connect?
Now there’s a silver lining to all of this frustration. Once upon a time, I would level a lot of these same criticisms at Scott’s original Blade Runner (as would many critics in 1982 and onwards) making me suspect that 2049 could be far more of a success than I initially perceive it to be. Ridley Scott is one of my favourite filmmakers and I consider Blade Runner his greatest achievement as a world-building stylist, but it is a movie that I didn’t connect with for the longest time. Even today I admire it at an arm’s length, finding it far more rewarding as an immersive aesthetic showcase than a heady sci-fi trip, but I am constantly returning to it, always wanting to engage with it on a deeper level to the point where it has now become a movie I have a lot of history with and affection for.
In that sense, my experience with Blade Runner 2049 mirrors my initial experience with its predecessor perfectly. The mix of awe at the technical bravura and frustration at the lack of emotional core is pretty much how I felt after seeing Blade Runner for the first time. The aesthetics of 2049 have an equally alluring quality, to such an extent that I’m already itching to see the film repeatedly if just to take in the sights over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly a lot of things I do like about the movie and the reason this review is so hung up on my reservations is more to do with my need to articulate and reckon with them in order to arrive at a more coherent verdict than my desire to write a hot take or takedown.
I can’t say enough about the design and cinematography and Villenueve’s direction is really in tune with my own tastes for how I like this kind of material to be shot. I also enjoy the way 2049 strays from the Scott’s film as much as it compliments it. The re-purposing of the original’s unused opening for this film’s inciting incident, for instance, is a nice gift for fans. How Villeneuve focuses on a more de-populated neon dystopia compared to the cramped overpopulation of the original is a sly twist too, making this one spare and ambient in a way the 1982 film isn’t. The entire cast is strong and even though it might feel like Harrison Ford showed up to do five days of work in his goddamn pyjamas, he is totally present and engaged with this character that is refreshing and endearing from the famously curmudgeon superstar. Surprisingly though, it is newcomers Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks who make the most impact by instilling their potentially thankless roles with much needed complexity and flavour. And yes, despite the contemplative pacing not entirely working for me, I can appreciate it as an intentional artistic choice that stubbornly goes against the chaotic plotting of most modern blockbusters. For a tentpole studio product this is about as singular and cerebral as something that cost $150+ million can possibly be. It’s Beyond the Black Rainbow writ large. This isn’t an action movie. It’s a a goddamn drone album.
Perhaps the rest of Blade Runner 2049 will deepen and resonate the more I return to it. Perhaps my admiration will grow into a proper connection that already has many viewers declaring it a new classic of its kind. I’ve got to be honest though, I have a deep, niggling suspicion that the programming in this particular machine is inherently flawed and hollow in a way that the original film wasn’t. By the end there isn’t a sense of a bigger picture achieved or a grand statement settled on that makes it all worthwhile, nor does it raise any heady questions you want to mull over post-viewing. It’s one of those films that seems to immediately fade (like tears….in rain?) as soon as you begin to scrutinise it in hindsight. “What was the villain’s plan, exactly?” “What was the point of *insert any number of moments*?” In many ways it’s certainly a worthy successor to Blade Runner for reasons I stated above. But an essential one? Hmm. Only time and revisits will tell, and I welcome both with open arms.
Watched at the cinema.