'Blade Runner 2049' Review: A Beautiful, Respectful, And Just-Shy-Of-Greatness Sequel

The future that Ridley Scott's cult science-fiction film Blade Runner portended was both grim and fantastical: in the year 2019, Los Angeles seems to stretch infinitely and is now a mélange of cultures anchored by building-long advertising, a handful of monopolistic corporations, and replicants, humanoid robots that do the dirty work humans don't want to perform. The vision crafted by Scott, designer Syd Mead, and special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull was mysterious, astonishing, lush, singular, and dark. The real 2019 isn't likely to line up nearly as much to the original film's dystopic future. So it's fitting that we now have Blade Runner 2049, a massive follow-up that offers an extension of that vision, a frequently beautiful, awe-inspiring, enigmatic, if somewhat hollow piece of filmmaking.

The mysteries of the original Blade Runner, itself based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, persist in 2049. Is it easy to separate human from replicant when they both look the same? How can you even know if you are human, when you are constantly surrounded by reminders that the real and fake blend together easily? The setting for this sequel, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), is the same: California, primarily Los Angeles. Three decades later, our lead is K (Ryan Gosling), another of LAPD's blade runners, agents tasked with "retiring" replicants who would otherwise go into hiding and cause havoc. K's latest quarry leads him to what could best be described as a shocking existential discovery that could upend the order between humans and the replicants they use for slave labor.

That is, you will note, an exceptionally vague way to describe the premise for Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve has requested that critics preserve as much of the film's plot and its inherent surprises for audiences. K's discovery eventually leads him to cross paths, as the trailers suggest, with original lead Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), looking appropriately grizzled and cranky. In his investigation, K also deals with Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), whose corporation makes replicants in the aftermath of the Tyrell Corporation's bankruptcy. Wallace, it can be said, is also intrigued by K's discovery and its potential. To say more would be bad form, though 2049 presumes that its story is perhaps more shocking than it truly is.

Blade Runner 2049 is a good deal longer than its predecessor, clocking in at 163 minutes. That expanded length — it's more than 45 minutes longer than Scott's preferred Final Cut — suggests that there's a lot more story here, which isn't true. Villeneuve matches Scott's exceedingly languorous pacing, letting each moment linger and luxuriating in the jaw-dropping imagery. While Villeneuve and his team deserve credit for making a sequel that largely matches Scott's initial effort in tone and aesthetic, the pacing makes the film sometimes feel overly portentous and plodding. Cutting 20 minutes out of this movie may seem sacrilegious to Villeneuve, but arguably, the same story could fit in a shorter runtime.

The true stars of 2049 are not Gosling and Ford; they're the film's production designer and cinematographer, Dennis Gassner and Roger Deakins, respectively. The world these men have built, that Gosling, Ford, and the rest of the cast operate within, is among the finest work they've ever done. It's not daring to note that Roger Deakins should already have an Oscar. Blade Runner 2049 is akin to a 163-minute explanation as to why he's our greatest living cinematographer. Each image — rain-soaked windows bordering a conversation between K and his boss (Robin Wright), the embers of a nighttime fire transitioning into snowflakes fluttering in the sky, a character quietly breaking down into tears as light refracts and reflects on their face — is a work of art. And each design, from the hazy ruins of a casino to Wallace's empire, is a masterwork of practical effects and genius. Visually, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the year's finest achievements.

As well, both Gosling and Ford are stellar. In the original Blade Runner, Deckard is as much of a protagonist as his replicant prey, Roy Batty. Here, Gosling's K is very much the lead, appearing in nearly every scene. K is a very introverted character, in line with Gosling's characters in the Nicolas Winding Refn films Drive and Only God Forgives. The intense stoicism of those characters is mirrored in K, whose emotional journey is brought to life excellently by Gosling. Gone is the smug charm evinced in La La Land; instead, Gosling's work is internal, communicating more with a glance than a line of dialogue. Ford doesn't have quite as much to do, but he's surprisingly emotional to watch. It would be easy to think that Ford is in Blade Runner 2049 to collect what must be a nice paycheck, but he's got more than a few tender moments here, even when dealing with the eye-rolling nonsense of Jared Leto.

So much of Blade Runner 2049 works so well, to the point where it is largely better than Scott's seminal sci-fi picture, that it's almost heartbreaking that the film isn't all-around great. It's hard to know whether the blame for the film's extended length should lie at Villeneuve's feet or that of the film's writers, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. 163 minutes of Roger Deakins' cinematography is often wondrous, but with a largely laser-focused mystery on display, Blade Runner 2049 feels long to the point of being indulgent. In many respects, this film is aces: it doesn't demean or diminish the power of the original, it's respectful but singular in its own way, and it boasts two very good performances. But in lieu of not repeating the original's various director's cuts, we have a needlessly protracted film in need of trimming.

/Film Rating: 7.5/10