Sumptuous 'Blade Runner 2049' mesmerizes, despite its flaws
Dazzling and austere, "2049" is a viscerally visual sequel to the science fiction classic. Here's our spoiler-free review.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
I want to live inside "Blade Runner 2049." I don't want to live in its nightmarish vision of an alternative 2049, even if it is full of flying cars and really cool outerwear. I want to live inside the film.
I want to see how every frame was created. I want to pore over the concept art. I want to know where the sets end and the CGI begins. I want to linger over every sumptuous image conjured by director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins. It's always nerve-wracking seeing a sequel to a beloved story, but "Blade Runner 2049" delivers an intense and intensely cinematic experience.
Set 30 years after the events of the first film, "2049" draws us back into the world of Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic. Los Angeles of 2049 is a concrete and neon circuit board. Separated from a raging ocean by a vast wall, the seething metropolis is bordered by lakes of genetically modified protein, rusted seas of twisted scrap metal and scorched deserts of radioactive dust. Between these nightmarish landscapes stalks Officer K, a blank-eyed cop hunting replicants, bioengineered androids made from flesh and bone, virtually indistinguishable from human beings.
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Investigating his latest case, K uncovers a potentially world-changing conspiracy that points in the direction of his predecessor: the Blade Runner called Rick Deckard. The stage is set for K, played by Ryan Gosling, to hunt Deckard, played with weary authority by Harrison Ford.
Like the first film, "Blade Runner 2049" is a visual marvel, a succession of meticulously composed signs and symbols and dazzling trompe l'oeil imagery. It asks questions about humanity, souls, memories, birth and death, offering only hallucinatory hints, literary allusions and tantalizing enigmas in response. It harks back to the original film in its esthetic and concerns, while adding modern preoccupations like genetically modified food, climate change and the human cost of the technology we carry in our pockets. The story explodes gumshoe noir tropes and plunges into allegory.
The austere, jaw-dropping visuals mesh with a similar score. Extrapolating from Vangelis' hugely influential sweeping synth dreamscapes heard in the first film, the sequel's score is a pulsing, pummeling, discordant assault, filled with the deafening noise of steel and silicon grinding against the future. Hans Zimmer composed the score with Benjamin Wallfisch, and as with Zimmer's pulse-racing abstract score for "Dunkirk," sound draws you into the moment.
Like the original "Blade Runner," the sequel has its flaws. The original began with a human whom we began to slowly doubt, giving rise to the age-old debate about whether Deckard was an android. By contrast the sequel makes clear from the start which of the major characters are replicants, and the experience suffers for that. In the first film you couldn't help but sympathize just a little with the replicants even though they were killers, because they were raging against the limitations cruelly imposed on them by their capricious creators. In the world of the sequel, replicants freely wander the Earth with no worries about aging or death.
That freedom -- give or take a bit of racist abuse from snarling humans -- undermines the emotional stakes, especially as stars including Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks play their roles with dead-eyed humorlessness. There are moments when you realize you're watching a robot, his drone sidekick and his hologram girlfriend and wondering why you should care.
Still, the first film was dazzling but austere, and the sequel is at least consistent with its source. The slow-burning pace never exactly drags, but it does meander at times. In the slower moments, your enjoyment may depend on your capacity for gazing at Gosling frowning under neon light.
In that sense the film is remarkably similar to "Drive," another movie that sees Gosling driving around a sterile city in a cool jacket and that alternates between troubled stillness and brutal violence. If you came out of "Drive" annoyed there weren't enough car chases, you might struggle with the deliberate pace, oblique narrative and willful lack of easy answers in "Blade Runner 2049." For all its open-ended philosophizing, one person's tantalizing ambiguity is another's gaping plot hole.
Gosling and the other male characters spend a lot of time soulfully exploring their emotional depths. The women characters? Not so much. Apart from icy top cop Lt. Joshi, played by an excellent Robin Wright, four of the five major female characters are created to service men. Not only are the female stars presented by the filmmakers as objects of the male gaze, but within the story, they play machines explicitly designed, manufactured and programmed to service the desires of the male characters.
Perhaps the filmmakers are trying to say something about the treatment of women in this stark future and the way it reflects our own time. Yet they wheel out one of the most common and distasteful tropes of violence against women, not once but twice. There comes a point when examining gender-related stereotypes tips over into perpetuating them, and the amount of violence against women on display here may leave some viewers feeling "Blade Runner 2049" has passed that point.
And despite the film being set in a future that's painstakingly constructed as a globalized melting pot of different languages and nationalities, I can recall only one woman of color in the film, and not many men of color either.
Ultimately, though, this gobsmacking vision is just so beguiling I can't help wanting to immerse myself inside it, flaws and all.
"Blade Runner 2049" is in theaters from Oct. 5.
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