Let’s get an unpopular opinion out of the way first: I don’t care for the original Blade Runner. We can all agree that it is a pretty looking movie. Its impeccable production design has obviously proved hugely influential in the science fiction genre, and there is a lot of pleasure to be extracted out of Jordan Cronenweth’s neo-noir cinematography and the tingly electric score by Vangelis. So the movie’s got style. But in matters of substance, it leaves a lot to be desired. This new Blade Runner 2049, a sequel set thirty years after the original, follows in the footsteps of its predecessor almost identically. These are two and a half hours of stylish but empty images. Two and a half hours of oppressive dullness. Two and a half hours of oppressive boredom. Does the movie have anything interesting to say? I wouldn’t know. By the time it got around to explaining itself, I simply didn’t have the energy to care.
A lot of effort has been put on part of the studio not to reveal even the most basic plot elements of this movie, but it’s been a couple weeks since it opened and it’s not doing particularly well in the box office so I will go ahead and give a broad outline of what this story is about. The hero is K, a robot (or replicant) played by Ryan Gosling, who has been especially programmed to obey orders. Previous replicants weren’t so good at following orders, and so K’s job is to travel the galaxy and hunt down runaway robots. If you remember the original movie, you’ll know that people who do this kind of job are called Blade Runners. Now, the big difference of course is that the hero of the original movie was a human, and K is a robot. K’s obedient nature is put into question when he discovers a dead replicant who was apparently pregnant at the time she died. A robot? Pregnant? Existential questioning ensues.
That short synopsis should be enough to give you a broad idea of what the movie is about. Most movies about robots are about one of two things, and this movie is about both. One: it’s a movie that portrays robots as the members of an oppressed servant class. They’re practically slaves, designed to do whatever humans want them to do. Jared Leto even says so at some point in the movie, in a rambling monologue about “slave labor” and “civilization” and that kind of thing. Two: this is a movie that asks what makes a human a human. Is it consciousness? Because if you think about it, if a machine thinks it is concious, isn’t that practically the same as having a consciousness? So robots are oppressed, and they are conscious. So it’s actually not cool to oppress robots.
That might be a reductive way of thinking about the philosophy behind the Blade Runner saga, or it might just be all that the Blade Runner saga has to say about humanity. I lean toward the latter, and personally haven’t been convinced by any other arguments that try to make the themes of these movies sound more interesting than they are. But a movie isn’t its themes. At least not exclusively. Good movies have been made out of worse ideas, so we all know it’s not a matter of what you have to say, but how you say it. I’m afraid I’ve already spilled the beans about Blade Runner 2049′s mode of operation.
The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) who has proved to be a rather good filmmaker when it comes to setting an oppressive mood and building lots of tension. Somehow, neither of those talents transfer to Blade Runner 2049, which is simply dull from start to finish. Cinematographer Roger Deakins -largely considered one of the best living cinematographers in the world- is along for the ride, and while he works hard to make everything look as striking as he can, there is very little he can do when the pretty images he creates are in service of such an empty script. Considering the talent the people involved have shown in other ventures, I’d have to put the bulk on the blame on the movie’s atrocious script.
The biggest problem about the screenplay -and this is something that is a huge problem in the original Blade Runner as well- is that it confuses vagueness with gravitas. Practically every scene in this movie has the characters talk in vague terminology, going in circles around a subject without really saying anything about it. Everything that could be said simply is said in obscure poetic terms. Nobody refers to anything directly and nobody talks like people, regardless of whether the character is an android or a human. Harrison Ford enters the film towards the end, and he seems to be trying really hard to bring some emotional truth to the proceedings (which is unusual for Ford at this late stage of his career). Sadly, he is let down by the movie. And so are we.
What else can be said about Blade Runner 2049? I try to find something nice to say about it, and I come out empty-handed. Its most interesting moments seem to be cribbed out of other movies (like Her), or have been explored in better detail and more efficient fashion elsewhere (Ex Machina and World of Tomorrow come to mind). The design is pretty, but feels like it’s a lot of flash in service of very little substance. The score (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish) abandons the delightful luminosity of the original Vangelis in favor of boring drones of the kind we hear in every single blockbuster nowadays. And the less said about Jared Leto the better. Whatever purpose his character was supposed to serve, his scenes are the best example of how many people’s heads can fit inside this movie’s butt.