Director Denis Villaneuve is nothing if not supremely ambitious, a word that will circle around and around any attempt to discuss the successes and failings of Blade Runner 2049. Set some 36 years after the original, the film follows the story of replicant blade runner K (Ryan Gosling), who stumbles onto a mystery that will lead him to Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired former blade runner himself. The film is a laborious 165 minutes in length, and yet for as much as it seems to dwell at times, it also has the extraordinary benefit of not feeling like a film of its length. Villaneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins drench every frame with breathtaking shots, from sweeping vistas of a futuristic Los Angeles to intimate moments in a tiny apartment. Ultimately, though, it is this gorgeous attention to detail that also undoes the film, as the narrative at times seems lost within the decadent photography. Some mild spoilers to follow, none related to the plot.
It needs to be reiterated throughout the review that the film is utterly breathtaking. Even in making arguments to trim the length down- which this review will do- it’s hard to decide where to compromise and cut out the utterly brilliant photography. Like Mad Max Fury Road, this film is just visually outstanding through every single frame. Villaneuve and Deakins use light and color so magically throughout the film, from the cold, washed-out feeling of a futuristic Los Angeles to the hot, vibrant splash of orange colors in a ruined Las Vegas. The bright futuristic advertisements starkly contrast against the dark cityscape, such as a neon advertisement for Joi, a gigantic nude billboard selling the Wallace Corporation’s AI companion. The lighting in the film is similarly effective, visually representing K’s journey and at times, plunging him into darkness to help represent how he- and the audience- are still lost and looking for answers.
For his part in the film, Gosling is definitely up to the task. His K is extremely stoic at first, slowly transforming over the course of the film as he becomes further embroiled in the mystery that is central to the film’s plot. His home life is extremely isolated and cramped, living in a tiny apartment where his only companionship is the aforementioned Joi, an AI companion with whom he shares an emotional relationship but with whom he is unable to have a physical one. This leaves his home life feeling rather cold and disconnected, which Gosling delivers on perfectly. As a replicant he feels exactly designed for this purpose and is content to fulfill that purpose until he is drawn into the film’s central plot, which makes him question everything he knows about his life. As he goes through the story his existence is tossed into chaos, drawing an increasing emotionality out of Gosling’s K as he realizes not everything may be as it seems. Of all of his scenes, those that he shares with a character that ultimately isn’t real- Joi, played by the sensational Ana de Armas- are the most engrossing. At times like this in the film it is never apparent that scenes are staged for as long as they are, as they are so visually and emotionally investing as to have fully immersed one into them.
It is sad, then, that most of the rest of the characters in the film- while largely excellent in their own performances- are essentially set dressing. Dave Bautista shows up as an older series replicant at the beginning of the film before disappearing; Harrison Ford returns to one of his most iconic roles as Deckard very late in the film and largely acts gruff and chews scenery before the character and his part in the story become engaging. Jared Leto is similarly wasted as Niander Wallace, owner of the Wallace Corporation that engineers the replicants, who barely shows up in a couple scenes in the film spaced out over the course of the colossal runtime, mostly leaving one to believe that the film completely forgot he existed. Many of the characters in the film get this kind of treatment, showing up for the briefest of moments before disappearing for the majority of the runtime or from the story entirely. It’s a testament to the actors in the roles that they end up being as memorable as they do when they are given such a small piece of the whole to make their own.
The plot of the film won’t be spoiled here, but for its part, there are times when it grinds to a huge halt and there are moments of exposition that simply don’t work. For instance, one moment in the trailers that is oft-mentioned is Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi referring to “a war” that the revelations in the plot will lead to, but there seems to be no logical foundation for this or reference point on which to base it. The film never really focuses on the place of replicants in society that maybe it believes it does, so it seems really out of place to suggest that the revelations the script makes will lead to some kind of war. There are no stakes spelled out in the film on which any war would be predicated and this seems like throwaway dramatic writing to try to increase the tension and make the plot apply beyond K and his story. It doesn’t work and frankly could have been excised entirely, saving a good bit of runtime that could have focused more on other characters or just tightened up the exploration of K’s character and his relationship with Joi and to the larger plot of the film. Either the film wants to focus more specifically on replicants as a whole and to some “revolution” and brewing war, and even if it succeeds in using K as a vehicle to tell this story, the audience never gets any more than the briefest suggestion of some larger plot. In a film this long it is a woefully under-developed plot point that either needed more fleshing out (which would have ballooned this thing to three hours) or to be ditched entirely.
Still, though, even given its over-long runtime and mis-directed attentions at times, the film is simply breathtaking, beyond the performances or photography but also including the music by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, which booms in contrast to the deliberately slow burned pace to keep the audience’s investment in the film. Heavy praise has to be given to Villaneuve here, who directs the film with a specific intent, never too quick to rush from one scene to the next to really allow the audience time to invest not only in Gosling’s K, but also to become immersed in 2049 Los Angeles and the world of the film. Moreso than many films, the audience is meant to feel like they are a part of this world, moving through it with every step that K takes. As much as the runtime could easily be trimmed by twenty minutes or so, there are many, many shots and scenes in the film that need to be this deliberately paced, and ruining that pacing would ultimately be a detriment to the excellent work done by the production designers, CGI artists, and by Deakins and Villaneuve to create a film world more immersive and real and tangible than other films could only dream of accomplishing. In this regard and many others, Blade Runner 2049 is a fantastic film that is best experienced in the largest format possible and for repeat viewings. There are so many incredible layers to the script and to the film’s visual aesthetic that make it a world worth revisiting again and again and again. Eight out of Ten Stars.