Murky but compelling, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ poses more questions than it answers, but does so in high style

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The most recent time I saw the original film Blade Runner was a few years ago on cable, but I wonder if anyone can honestly say they have seen the original film … or have any meaning to that phrase. Blade Runner was a notorious flop when it first hit theaters in June 1982, plagued by production problems and a then-huge budget that was not recouped theatrically. It received two minor Oscar nominations, but lost both (visual effects to E.T. and production design to Gandhi, both of which seem laughable choices today). But despite its ambivalent box office, the movie lived on in the minds of fans and filmmakers alike. It developed a loyal cult following on the then-still-newish home video market. It was taken away from director Ridley Scott, gained a voice-over, was reedited, rereleased, and got at least two “director’s cuts” over 25 years.

It also set a style for sci-fi that endures to this day: The wet, dark, neon cityscapes; the industrial but shabby futurism; the bleak wastelands of the country; and a tone that exudes sadness. But it also looked backward for inspiration. The much-despised voiceover narration conjured the hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; the loner title character, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, might have been foisted on Humphrey Bogart in the ’50s: He’s a cop-slash-bounty hunter, or “blade runner,” tasked with tracking down and killing rogue “replicants” — artificial lifeforms who resemble humans in every way … except they are aren’t human, are super-strong and are in rebellion against their meat masters. It’s film noir with anti-gravity vehicles and sexy androids.

It was not in need of a remake. But a sequel …?

Which is, of course, what we have in Blade Runner 2049, set 30 years after the original (which was set in June 2019, or roughly 20 months from today). A new version of replicants has been designed that don’t rebel, but a few of the older models still need to be hunted. I’m not sure why that’s a priority in the film, and I seriously doubt the filmmakers know, either — ageing android anarchists who are no longer organized and living quiet lives are like cold case files, or feeble Nazis living in South America: We’ll arrest them if we need to, but nobody should be losing sleep over it. So how does Officer K (Ryan Gosling), himself a new-model replicant (you learn that in the first 10 minutes — don’t throw a fit) keep busy sniffing out old robots for decommissioning? (He doesn’t really seem to, but that might be giving more away than you need know.)

Like the original, 2049 is a somber but not overly-reflective rumination on the nature of identity. It’s based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a title which itself sets up its moral dilemma. Think of it like a new take on veganism: What creatures have souls — androids, even those with bones? How about holograms and VR programs? Clones?

Frankly, these are issues that have been raised in other productions like HBO’s Westworld reboot and Spike Jones’ Her, the recent Marjorie Prime and even The 6th Day, with varying degrees of success. And 2049 director Denis Villeneuve has already established himself as thoughtful on the issue of what and who we are in last year’s Arrival. But this film is more action than essay… or at least, it tries to be. Clocking in at two hours and 43 minutes, it’s a bit of a slog at times, considering how little actually happens. And when you add that the screenplay is not exactly a model of clarity, you can imagine they could have trimmed an easy half-hour if they’d had a mind to.

And yet, despite being a bit too in love with its own technology, I didn’t hate it. In fact, it was perpetually compelling. There’s not much by way of mystery, but there are blind alleys, and red herrings, and mood-setting moments that create a woozy meta-reality. I was reminded at times of flawed-but-engaging sci-fi films like Children of Men as well as Her, but also The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. It’s not boring, though it should be.

A major problem is the diffuse and jumpy screenplay (co-written by the original’s co-writer, Hampton Fancher), which introduces, and then largely abandons, several characters, including Jared Leto as the Evil Corporate Overlord a la Guy Pearce in Prometheus, a “dream creator,” Dave Bautista as a replicant on the run, a hoard of outlanders, and even Harrison Ford himself, who doesn’t appear other than as a voice until two-thirds into the film. That lays a lot on the square-jawed-but-implacable face of Gosling, a pretty boy who has always had the chops for Methody character parts (like Leto himself). Even replicants aren’t entirely machines — they cry and bleed and respond to memories, even if implanted. Gosling plays it cooler than he needs to, registering little. But he also grounds the humanity (ironically) amid all the eye-popping visuals, especially as relate to a major holographic character. It’s like a sizzle-reel for the Oscar votes, spread out across a late evening.

Is Blade Runner 2049 the movie sequel we’ve all been waiting for? Heck, it’s not even the sequel-to-a Harrison-Ford-sci-fi-classic we have most wanted (we got that with The Force Awakens). But not for nothing, it could be considered a step forward from the original. And hey, at least there’s no voiceover.

Now playing in wide release.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 6, 2017.