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‘Blade Runner 2049’ Is a Stylish but Hollow Spectacle

Denis Villeneuve’s visually compelling update to the Ridley Scott classic starts strong but ultimately reduces a complex discussion to predictable emotional and philosophical beats

Ryan Gosling in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ Warner Bros.

Blade Runner 2049, the booming new sci-fi spectacle by Denis Villeneuve, is a movie about the difference between being born and being made. That’s presumably what distinguishes the humans of this futuristic world from their humanoid counterparts, that fated form of artificial intelligence which, thanks to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, we’ve by now learned are called replicants. The replicants look just like us, the story goes, but they’re stronger. Faster. They need to be. They were designed to be a mass workforce of slaves in a radioactive, industrialized future. As 2049’s predecessors showed us, it didn’t take the replicants long to realize that rebelling against their lowly status might not be such a bad idea. After all, the motto of the Tyrell Corporation, the visionary mass-producer of this AI, openly declared the replicants’ superiority to their makers: “More human than human.” Does wanting to lay waste to your human creators—who are also your enslavers—make you more human than human, or less? I guess if we knew the answer, we wouldn’t need a sequel.

Or does “need” overstate it? I was perfectly content to let Scott’s movie, which has for some time been considered a classic, stand on its own, closing the book on this dark, dank, cynically rendered Los Angeles of the future, in which the sky is suffocated by black smog and there are apparently no taco trucks to speak of. Pretty horrific, honestly, which only makes Villeneuve’s attraction to the project more clear. Villeneuve, a French Canadian director who achieved crossover success in the U.S. only recently, has long been a gloom-magnet of a director. The first two of his movies to really make waves with American audiences were Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), moody procedurals about suburban pathology and the U.S.-Mexico drug war, respectively. Then came last year’s much-heralded megahit Arrival, which was a hopeful romance of interplanetary cooperation shrouded in more morbid questions about who we, the dysfunctional world community, really are.

Villeneuve is a director whose work hews closely to genre—crime, aliens, and now neo-neo-noir—but whose genre movies aren’t offbeat or niche in the way the most memorable of their kind, which rarely aspire to prestige, tend to be. Rather, they’re remarkably, inclusively Grown-Up. Villeneuve bowls you over with a recognizable sense of sophistication. His images are smooth and carefully laid-out; his scripts of choice are neither too pat nor too prickly. Even when they’re good, which they usually are, his movies feel like shrink-wrapped Rubik’s Cubes still safe in the packaging. You want to tamper with them a little. Alongside the likes of Christopher Nolan, Villeneuve is currently one of our most agreed-upon solutions to the problem of how to get moviegoing adults’ asses off the couch and into theaters, largely because his output of late keeps upping the ante on the kinds of smart but traditionally satisfying spectacle you won’t be embarrassed to say you paid money to see.

To that end, Blade Runner 2049 is an ideal match for the director—or at least our vision of an ideal match in 2017. He can get the job done with style. The movie was cowritten by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. (Green also had a hand in two of this year’s other major adult blockbusters, Logan and, of all things, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.) Their script takes us back to a beaten-up, dishearteningly gray L.A., where a new blade runner named Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is on a mission to finish wiping out an older generation of Nexus 8 replicants who, you may remember, got a little too smart for their own good and began to disobey. What set the Nexus 8s apart, what made them realistic, was that they were given memories, an ostensible means of regulating their emotional responses that backfired when the replicants began to genuinely feel. With feelings came questions; with questions came the desire to no longer be gofers for meatbag humans. In 2049, that’s been handled. There’s a new tech boss in town, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who’s made replicants so advanced they’ve been programmed to feel but not to rebel. They’re as lifelike as it gets—but for the fact that they don’t question their status.

Our man K is one such replicant, which, in a way, means he’s killing off his own ancestors. “How’s it feel killing your own kind?” asks the first Nexus 8 (played by a wonderful Dave Bautista) we see K kill. But they aren’t his kind, not really. K exists because, by the only standards that matter to this world, those earlier models failed. He’s the course correction. The difference? “We don’t run,” says K.

Eventually, though I won’t spoil why, K does run, but not for the reasons you might expect. One of the smarter things about Villeneuve’s sequel is that K’s status as a replicant is no mystery: not to him, not to anyone else. He’s unambiguous from the start. Played with subtle but doggedly anti-charismatic attitude by Gosling, K is as fierce and hyper-capable as he is calm and quiet. He’s distinguished by his self-awareness. He already knows his memories are just implants, such that when he’s asked to share a childhood story, he says, “I feel a little strange sharing a childhood story considering I was never a child.” Good point. That doesn’t mean the memory or its associated feelings lack meaning. It just means he knows his limits. Even if he didn’t, real people go out of their way to remind him every day. When he walks into the offices of the LAPD, where he works, a human colleague spits, “Fuck off, skin-job.” Another makes an off-color joke, then swiftly mops up after himself with a politically correct apology. Though they wouldn’t admit it, everyone is concerned with the so-called skin-jobs’ feelings, either because they’re going out of their way to hurt them or, in that last case, the opposite. That means, above all, that the illusion really works: You may know that the man you’re talking to isn’t really a man, but thanks to the verisimilitude of the product, you treat him like one anyway.

A fascinating nexus of questions arises from that premise, all to the tune of human-replicant relations. The movie establishes early on that it will linger here, in fact, because of a discovery that threatens to break down the already slippery wall between human and machine. It starts strong, in other words, because that thick layer of L.A. smog hovering throughout conveniently doubles as a literalized air of techno-philosophical mystery. The L.A. of Blade Runner 2049 feels like a literal no-man’s-land, which, in a movie throwing the meaning of “man” into question, is a welcome bit of subtext. The best parts of the movie embrace that ambiguity.

More often, Villeneuve and his collaborators overexplain themselves. The movie loses momentum when its intentions and the full scope of its ideas become overly clear—and clearly limited. It seems that 35 years after Scott’s initial feature, we’re still wondering about many of the same questions, and we have largely gone about answering them in the same glossy, expensive, corny ways. Our current moment is that of Westworld on TV and Her and Ex Machina at the multiplex. It’s the era of a real-life humanoid robot saying—mistakenly?—that it wants to destroy us all while, on the other hand, a disembodied voice on all of our phones dutifully strives to keep us all informed and connected. Ours is a moment rife with glorified spectacles of humanoid intelligence, in other words. Keyword: human.

Hence: Blade Runner 2049, which purports to be a mindfuck and even a bit of a heartfuck. What mostly got fucked, however, was my patience. I want soaring cityscapes, heady info dumps, and bone-rattling sound design as much as the next blockbuster nerd. I want big movies that entertain and challenge in equal measure—again, like many of us.

What I don’t want is to sit through another two-hour-and-35-minute, $185 million remake of Pinocchio. It seems we can’t imagine AI at the multiplex without imagining that AI would want to become human—that they, who in essential ways surpass us, would have existential crises over how they can’t have existential crises. There are relatively few humans in 2049, and the ones who are here are more or less just ushers guiding plot points to their respective seats. It’s a missed opportunity. The premise of so much recent blockbuster science fiction about AI is that AI aspires to become like its makers. But pulling off that idea entails understanding, on the movie’s part, what being human means in the first place, on its own terms. This is precisely the idea that gets taken for granted. We’re great at weaponizing fictional AI to reflect ourselves back at ourselves; we’ve yet to learn how to ask the same questions, in this context, without all the symbolic pretense. We’re predisposed to reducing androids to petty mirrors of ourselves. We’re prone, above all, to reducing the complexity of this discussion to a handful of predictable emotional and philosophical beats. 2049—despite its beauty, despite its plot twists—is no exception to these shortcomings.

That’s especially annoying given that Villeneuve, the consummate stylist, has fashioned the world of his movie into a stage that’s far richer and more elaborate than his cumbersome plot will allow the movie to really explore. That’s part of the job of making a Blade Runner movie, of course: Ridley Scott, with his monolithic black buildings yawning upward toward unseen horizons and the constant crack and sizzle of commerce lighting up the sides of seemingly every other building, gave Villeneuve a great head start. He laid the blueprint for any director looking to Mad-Libs their way through a sequel. From the outset, one thing must have been clear: make the shit look good.

Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, and Denis Villeneuve Warner Bros.

Villeneuve goes above and beyond in that regard, not that we should have expected anything less. The world of Blade Runner 2049 feels remarkably tactile, an unholy mix of blood and soil, dust and smog, surfaces jagged and smooth. Once again, as per the original, we’re given an L.A. that’s rainy and luminescent with sky-scraping avatars of commerce. In the hands of Roger Deakins, one of the very best cinematographers working today, the way the film looks—the way surfaces seem to breathe with life and intelligence—becomes the star of the movie. Deakins’s images and the film’s overall design make me want to abandon the plot and sail off into my own adventures. Let K go through the AI equivalent of “finding himself,” like a monied 20-something in a Sofia Coppola movie; in the meantime, I’ll be over here, smog-surfing and chilling with the giant digitized ballerinas.

Even as I admire the painstaking care taken to get this all onscreen, it feels a bit empty. Blade Runner 2049 gives us a hyper-realized aesthetic and tries to convince us that it has given us a world. You can only see light bounce artfully off of water and coat every wall in quivering waves so many times, apropos of nothing, before wondering whether the movie’s endgame is worth all these splashy displays of studio money. The texture of every shot seems like it’s saturated in meaning—and it is, but Villeneuve’s capacity for style is the most salient takeaway, honestly. I didn't mind any of this at first, in the moment, but halfway through the movie it all started to lose me. It doesn’t help to have Jared Leto moronically drawing out the movie’s runtime with Villain 101 soliloquizing, nor that the conclusion here is a reversion back to questions Scott’s movie explored with greater mystery and a far livelier sense of suggestion than Villeneuve, increasingly a master of unearned largesse, seems capable of.

There are rich sparks of life nevertheless; they and the mere look of things make the movie worth seeing. Harrison Ford shows up and saves the movie, simply by being human, by putting on a gruff face and knocking Gosling down to size for a few rounds. We know by now what it looks like for Ford to phone it in. This is not that: This is a Performance. Ford taking the movie seriously made me want to take the movie seriously. Unfortunately, though, he’s two hours late to the party. The only lifesaver in the meantime is K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), who’s the part of this world most likely to stick with me. She’s the character genuinely caught in the slippery space between human and not; everyone else, with all their pent-up angst, is more or less just pretending. Joi lacks a body—until she doesn’t. She cannot sense or feel—until she does. When she changes, our understanding of this world changes. Her story is a poignant elaboration of AI’s fixed limits, but remarkably, the movie nevertheless manages to resist making her ruminate outright about these things. It’s not a mystery. She is the way she is because that’s the way she’s programmed to be.

I felt sadder for Joi, an emotionless hologram whose job is to simulate feeling, than I did for K and his lonely need for such a companion. His story is about wondering whether he can really feel, which is a question of how human or not he really is. In her case, that’s unambiguous. She’s the digitized, algorithmically defined girlfriend of a robot cop: a true nobody. Instead of offering up vague, redundant philosophical questions in her case, Villeneuve uses her character to expound—all through action, free of inner torment and soliloquy—upon the answers. She’s the most profound thing in the movie. And that is almost entirely because, per usual with Villeneuve’s best ideas, and contra so much of what’s here, she isn’t trying to be.