I Know What’s Real
Blade Runner — the original, which is to say whichever of the seemingly endless number of versions that are available thanks to studio meddling and the obsessive recutting of director Ridley Scott — is one of my favorite movies. Ill-received at the time of its release and scorned by some as too ham-handed in its metaphorical craft, it’s come to be perceived as what I felt it was when I first saw it way back when: a brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed work of allegorical science fiction that transcended its origins and combined a breathtaking visual imagination with a depth of meaning that rarely appears in mainstream cinema. Although Scott underwent a perilous decline as a filmmaker, he managed to create, along with a team where it seemed everyone was working at the top of their games, one of a mere handful of movies that deserves the overused adjective ‘visionary’.
Blade Runner 2049 — the long-rumored and long-delayed sequel, handed off by Scott to his hand-picked successor, Denis Villeneuve — isn’t as good as all that. At times, it’s clunky where the original was sprawling; its plot holes are glaring while those in the first film were easy to ignore; and while it matches and even surpasses the visual brilliance of its predecessor, it lacks profundity, managing to ask some of the big questions but never quite getting around to answering them. It’s unquestionably a product of the blockbuster age, an overstuffed piece of work that suffers from the weight of its own ambition and tries to hard at setting up a potential sequel to the detriment of its overall mood and tone. While almost everyone involved with Blade Runner was operating at peak greatness, almost nobody involved with Blade Runner 2049 is, with the possible exception of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who puts in possibly his finest work in a career that consists of one pinnacle after another. It is very possibly a great film, but it is an inferior sequel to an indisputably great film, and cannot help but suffer somewhat in comparison.
So why did I like it so goddamn much?
For one thing, 2049 is simply so aesthetically stunning, so utterly a fantasia for the eyes and ears from the very first frame to the last, that it’s almost bound to overwhelm your intellectual judgment. Deakins outdoes himself (something that hardly seems possible given the excellence of the rest of his work), and as his talents are put into the service of Villeneuve, a director already well-known for his creative visual sensibility, he manages the rare feat of assembling a film in which almost every frame in every scene is an immaculate artifact. Technically, 2049 is almost flawless; everything from the score to the editing to the sound design to the set decoration leaves viewers absolutely agog. Some movies fail on a number of levels, but look good enough to make them difficult to dislike; this movie succeeds as a piece of film art so spectacularly that it’s impossible to dislike.
Beyond that, though, it’s not as if it’s a disaster in other ways. True, the script is inferior to that of the original, but it’s never corny or clanky, and it has occasional moments of real grace and beauty. It manages to retain at least some of the ambiguity of the original, an especially difficult task given the blabbermouth tendencies of Sir Ridley. It throws a weighty red herring at you early on, and skillfully dissects it right at the moment you decide that it’s becoming burdensome in its obviousness. Ryan Gosling is a bit flat in the lead role, though certainly one could argue that the part requires it; and if Harrison Ford alternates between acting goofy and not acting at all, that’s no different from what he’s been doing for the last thirty years of being one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Meanwhile, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, and especially Sylvia Hoeks are tremendous, and Villeneuve pulls off a near miracle in coaxing a good performance out of human meat slab Dave Bautista. The story incorporates callbacks to the original film that always seem organic, never forced or labored, and if it is thematically short, especially in comparison, at least it tries, which is more than can be said of a good 90% of what’s come out of Hollywood in the last decade and a half.
None of this is to say that it doesn’t do anything wrong, or even that it doesn’t do a few things pretty egregiously wrong. Blade Runner 2049 is overlong in the way that only windy modern blockbusters can be; it’s never boring, but some scenes go on so long that it’s obvious even to the most inattentive, and none of them need to be as long as they are. The decision to introduce the character of Niander Wallace is a huge mistake; he’s ineffectual, overdone, and obvious to the point of stupidity as a villain. He adds nothing to the story except sequel-bait (the clear reason his story receives no closure), and as if all that weren’t enough, he is played by Jared Leto. Casting Jared Leto in anything at this point in history has to be considered a deliberate act of hostility rather than a simple mistake. At the very least, the movie has the smarts to give him all the worst dialogue, so it’s not as if his ridiculous lines are ruining a good performance.
Blade Runner 2049 is a hard movie to judge, because it simultaneously can’t help but suffer in comparison to its famous father and can’t help but shine in comparison to the overpriced, overrated garbage that Hollywood has been affixing gigantic price tags to of late. But I honestly believe that it is a thing of greatness on its own — flawed greatness, to be sure, but greatness just the same. It offers a vast sea of pleasures for the mind, the senses, and the spirit, and if that sea is not as deep as it seems, it is vast just the same. Or perhaps I am like its protagonists, convinced that I know what’s real, but forever subject to the trickery of someone else’s creations.