There is so much to say about Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner sequel, which toddled into theaters last month a full 35 years after the original. First of all, the film has been a massive bomb at the box office. Maybe that is because the marketing campaign sucked, or maybe it's because audiences aren't interested in adult sci-fi these days. Maybe the film is a swollen, pretentious faux masterpiece, echoing the bones of its predecessor but confusing slow and atmospheric filmmaking with thematic depth. Maybe it's because nobody but die-hard nerds were really clamoring for a $150 million sequel to Blade Runner. Maybe, like the original, Blade Runner: 2049 will only gain widespread acceptance after dwelling for many years in cult purgatory. I am just a man, so I do not have the answers to these questions.
I do know that I was excited about this film (falling, as I do, into the aforementioned nerd category). Director Denis Villeneuve has been on fire lately, and with last year's Arrival he showed he had a solid mastery of high-concept sci-fi. 2049 dredged up Harrison Ford and cast Ryan Gosling, who is one of America's top acting talents. And from the promos, it looked great, as $150 million is enough to score the services of super-cinematographer Roger Deakins. Critics loved it, for the most part.
And yet, the movie was not as satisfying as it should have been. Probably this is because there is an inherent difficulty in following in the footsteps of a true-blue sci-fi masterpiece like Blade Runner. Half of the original film's genius was its production design, so any sequel is just going to look like an imitator, grasping for the visionary brilliance of the original. They got around that problem, somewhat, simply by employing Roger Deakins to shoot the hell out of the film, so even though it does look familiar, and it borrows the neon advertising, and the urban bleakness and the alienating retro-futuristic 1980s vibe, it looks fucking beautiful doing it.
The movie is truly excellent when it tries its hand at world-building. In the original Blade Runner, we spent the whole film limited to the slums of Los Angeles - although, contained within those slums was a small universe of interesting and vividly imagined locations. This film, with its muscular budget, takes us all around the world of 2049 and hints at humanity's poor decision-making in the past, and its poor prospects for the future. Las Vegas is a nuclear wasteland, immaculately rendered in dust-choked red. Snow falls softly in Los Angeles, while giant flood gates hold back the Pacific Ocean, suggesting that nobody ever really did get around to addressing climate change. Every thing is filmed in a way that teases out the lonely bleakness of this world, and it's a thrill to see that world more fully imagined.
Which should create the perfect atmosphere for exploring heady themes of creation and humanity, while resurrecting Harrison Ford for a small but significant part. But the movie never really seemed to get its teeth into that material. The plot is about Replicants that can conceive children, which is meant to raise the specter of whether artificial life is still artificial if it can reproduce. But that idea didn't seem that interesting to me. It didn't really stick. Indeed, it was like the writers just took the ideas developed, teased and kicked around in the original and said "What if we add a pregnancy to this?" which is usually what writers do to revive sitcoms sitcoms when they run out of ideas.
This kind of makes you think this movie is trying a tad too hard to be deep and masterpieceful, to do justice to its roots. This is evident in the film-making itself which is very, very slow. Sometimes the film with just frame a foot or the back of someone's head for a seemingly interminable period of time. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with languid, indulgent filmmaking (and virtually every image is breathtakingly beautiful) but there didn't seem to be any real purpose behind this approach. It was almost as if Villeneuve was letting the camera linger because he wanted to force the audience to believe that this indeed was a deep, thoughtful masterpiece of a film.
So, in the end I left the theater divided. There is nothing that even comes close to the famous Rutger Hauer speech from the original, one of cinema's all-time great monologues. The film spends an inordinate amount of time trying to dupe us with a fairly shallow and obvious MacGuffin. It is ponderously slow for no real reason, other than to show off and revel in a visual aesthetic invented 35 years earlier. Ultimately I was left to wonder as I was watching it - why does this film exist? If you are going to take a powerful, meditative, groundbreaking property like Blade Runner and add to it, there ought to be some compelling reason, some idea or previously untapped emotion that you want to convey. It shouldn't be so you can resolve a 35-year-old nerd debate about whether Deckard is a Replicant or not. And it should probably add more to the existing body of work then simply to ask: what if these robots could have babies?
So all in all, the film was a mixed bag. It was beautiful to experience, but fell somewhat short of justifying its own existence. Maybe there are layers and depths I have yet to fully grasp, and maybe the greatness of the film will only reveal itself as the eternal blackness of time stretches out into infinity, as the original's did. But when we stand on a roof, splattered with rain and cradling a dove, we may rightly ask the question - is this sequel a masterpiece, or does it just look like one? And the answer will be lost forever, like tears in rain.