Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a towering sequel to the science fiction classic. It is visually spellbinding, a dark odyssey that flirts with greatness; but doesn't quite reach the lofty peak of sci-fi masterpiece status. Some parts are beyond exceptional. The exploration of artificial intelligence, what it means to love, and be loved, is handled superbly. It is a thoughtful treatise on the most basic tenets of humanity. The film's weakness, surprisingly, is the mystery at the core of the story. The reveal is severely drawn out. The characters motivations are clear, but the journey to understanding is overblown. At two hours and forty-three minutes, Blade Runner 2049's pacing is somewhat uneven. The third act needed to be as good as the build up to it.
The story picks up thirty years later in Los Angeles. LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a replicant tasked with hunting down fugitive models of his ilk. He is good at his job, but shunned by human officers and treated like a tool by his commander (Robin Wright). His only companion is Joi (Ana De Armas), a holographic program for the lonely. A routine recovery operation uncovers a secret of world changing magnitude. K must unravel this mystery, while keeping a powerful businessman (Jared Leto) at bay.
Blade Runner 2049 swallows you utterly in the setting. It is a soup of bleak technology wrapped in lurid fantasy. We've seen dystopian futures a plenty on film, but Villeneuve's vision is truly remarkable. The film moves very slowly. We see K explore his environment in tremendous detail. Nothing is glossed over. His investigation is meticulous. Villeneuve places great emphasis on light transitioning to dark and vice versa. This is coupled with the constant presence of water in some form. There are scenes, particularly with Jared Leto's Niander Wallace, where all of these elements are combined to great effect. Roger Deakins, his Oscar winning cinematographer, takes his craft to the stratosphere.
The characters are unfortunately hit or miss. It pains me to say this, but Ryan Gosling may have been miscast here. It feels like his character from Drive was helicopter dropped in. K shows little emotion. The character spends a lot of time walking around, in slow motion, with Hans Zimmer's synth soundtrack blasting away. The irony is K's struggle for connection is better realized by the program. Ana De Armas steals this film, on a performance level, as Joi. The interactions between her and K are sublime. Mind blowing special effects sells their high tech relationship. This is the best part of Blade Runner 2049 and a keen look at the future of artificial intelligence. I'll remain mum on Harrison Ford, who returns as Rick Deckard and Jared Leto's involvement in the plot. Let's just say these characters do not get a lot of screen time.
Blade Runner 2049 has a very similar feel to Villeneuve's previous film, Arrival. It's hardcore sci-fi that moves at a measured pace. Fans of the genre and the original will be totally enamored. It goes deep into the lore, has substantial existential questions, and looks damn spectacular. The rub is that in a world of the ten pages and a bang modern script, non sci-fi fans may get bored by the length of the film. From Warner Bros., Blade Runner 2049 needs to be seen in the best possible venue. Shell out for the IMAX, or Dolby Atmos theaters. You'll be doing yourself a disservice to watch this movie in anything less than state of the art.