Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner has inspired countless amounts of dystopic art across a range of mediums over the past 35 years, so why not a sequel? That seems to be the thinking behind Blade Runner 2049, a visually voracious, narratively nattering follow-up produced by Scott and directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s a “why not?” given all the delicate handling and careful attention generally afforded a priceless artifact that might crumble if looked at sideways.
The world-building on display here is overwhelmingly detailed, a smart fan’s rendering of an old future given new life. Everything from a cluster of buildings in rain-battered Los Angeles to cleverly cramped living quarters that come complete with virtual companions to the geometrically generous open spaces of one god-like character’s personal temple has been designed for maximum “ooh and ahh” effect.
If the shape of a skyscraper doesn’t get you drooling, then surely a misty-hued shot of a flying cop car perfectly centered in the expansive frame will do the trick. And if not that, the funky clickety-clack of various objects floating around or the general roar that fills the air at any given moment in street-level L.A. will surely be music to your ears.
Villeneuve is banking on this amazingly ambitious sensory overload being enough to justify a thin story stretched far over an excessive running time. It’s not a bad plan on paper, especially since the technical work is so sumptuous, but Blade Runner 2049 has to contend with the existence of 1982’s Blade Runner (2019). That’s as obvious a statement as any and yet it’s a fact that Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green never quite seem to know how to handle.
Scott’s original movie is prime proof of how patiently a lean story can be grafted onto extensive world-building without sacrificing momentum. The template for what Villeneuve appears to be attempting already exists and even shares the same title and world as the one that is being revived here. But the only lesson that seems to have been learned is that dystopias are really cool and modern technology makes them far easier to explore.
The first Blade Runner said all it had to say with a simple plot about fugitives who risk everything to prolong their lives and a poetic monologue that beautifully summarized the themes of human emotion and the meaningfulness of a synthetic life. It was slow, but it always seemed to be inching ever closer to a poignant truth, interspersing the languid, iconic world-building with intriguing pieces of plot and pairing its hero with a formidable villain that proved to be the kind of guy who trades brawn for brains in his final moments.
For all of its glacial pacing and overly exaggerated establishing shots, Villeneuve's movie feels more conventional than its predecessor. It's a movie eager to introduce a mystery and solve it via straightforward clues, always with an eye on the inevitable twist ending that means little overall. The sequel is also convinced that there's no conflict that can't or won't be resolved with fisticuffs. It's as though Villeneuve's response to studio fears that the audience might get bored for stretches is to simply have two characters punch each other for a minute or two every now and then.
There’s an interesting idea regarding replicant evolution that threatens to further blur the line between man and machine, but while it’s a cornerstone of the movie’s mystery plot, it still manages to feel oddly undercooked, at least from a thematic perspective. Much is made of the investigation that stone-faced replicant cop K (Ryan Gosling, broodier than ever) has been tasked with, except his drawn-out journey never truly lifts off, despite an eventual effort to steer the plot into emotionally engaging territory.
This allows Harrison Ford (acting not entirely bored) to reprise his role as Rick Deckard, which later leads to a beautifully handled surprise cameo. Some of these moments far into the movie’s outer reaches work well and all of them are visually exquisite, but in the end, Blade Runner 2049 never overcomes the persistent feeling that it's a story that doesn't need to be told.
The sequel works hard to nestle into a place where it can both stand apart from the original for viewers new to the franchise and drop several flourishes of familiarity for fans. It’s not enough that K takes the opportunity to meet retired cop Gaff (Edward James Olmos) as a nod to the ’82 pic; Gaff also has to quickly fold and place on the table an origami animal. Whether you get the reference or not, it adds nothing to the proceedings.
This connection to the past is impossible to shake and a constant issue that plagues Villeneuve's vision. Reverence for the original and a desire to go beyond it force the director into an always gorgeous, though often clunky juggling act. It seems unfair to hold a new and ambitious movie like this one to such a high standard, but a decades-later sequel to a landmark genre picture finds itself in rare company.
Blade Runner 2049 employs enough exposition for the uninitiated and enough deep-detail references to please the faithful. It's as safe and carefully considered an approach as any, one where the concessions are sensible and no one in the audience risks feeling alienated. But for all of its noir touches, mythology expanding, and answers to questions that either didn't need to be asked or were essentially already answered, this sequel operates best as a reminder of how brilliant the original movie is instead of a justification for this follow-up's existence.
It's a reminder that seems ultimately unnecessary, despite how easy the extravagant visual and aural artistry on display is to appreciate. Also appreciated is how Villeneuve fills nearly all of the new supporting roles with women, be it Robin Wright as K's human boss, Ana de Armas as K's adoring hologram lover, or Sylvia Hoeks as a cold-blooded henchwoman. They're all far more welcome presences than Jared Leto, whose wealthy, blind, zen-like replicant maker is try-hard nonsense personified.
None of the new additions manage to be as curiously innocent as Daryl Hannah's Pris or as philosophically complex as Rutger Hauer's Batty from the first movie, though, which causes the sequel to lack the haunting emotional resonance that the original had. This new story is centred on parents and children, a fitting focus for a follow-up arriving more than a generation later, but for all of the clever concepts and pointed parallels, this flawed future can't quite outrun the past.