Much is borrowed and polished in Denis Villeneuve's highly anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, right down to its bones. The screenwriting duo of Michael Green (Logan) and Hampton Fancher (whose writing CV is pretty much the '82 Blade) do a respectable job of dovetailing events some 30 years out into the future (the original took place in 2019), even if it strains reason at turns. It's both homage and departure — the "scan left, zoom in" image enhancement scenario, a punked-out pleasure model, and a haunting techno score that resonates in your chest are all in there and teasingly so.
At over two hours, Villeneuve paces the film effectively, smartly holding back and ever ratcheting it up — a feat the director didn't quite master in his last sci-fi outing Arrival (2016). As you should expect, the action takes place in 2049. Los Angeles is a lot more crowded but still a dark, rain-slicked Gotham with shocks of neon blooming above the drab cityscape. Opening info tells us the Earth's been beset by overcrowding and famine. There's nothing green anywhere anymore, so protein farms where mealworm larvae are harvested to feed the masses Soylent Green-esque pap in ramen bowls have popped up. Not to mention there's the great "Blackout of 2022" where scads of data files and historical records were lost. Gone the way of Lehman Brothers is the old Tyrell Corporation. The manufacturer of "replicants" (biorobotic androids for those unfamiliar with the earlier film or the Phillip K. Dick novel it was based on), are made by Wallace Industries who make the new line "skin jobs" more obedient, yet still physiologically superior to humans, and all imbedded with memories, even though they are self aware they are implants — which seems somewhat illogical and superfluous given the implant process is an arduous one.
The unenviable job of blade runner (cops who hunt rogue replicants) hasn't changed much over three decades. K (Ryan Gosling) heads out to a protein farm to look for an old Nexus class model — one akin to Rutger Hauer's rebellious blond badass in the '82 version — and stumbles upon mysterious remains, an unearthing that threatens the dystopian world order. On one side you have LAPD honcho Joshi (a steely Robin Wright who steals every scene she's in) who wants K to burn it down and cover it up. On the other, you have an underground network of replicants waiting for their messiah to lead them to freedom. In the middle looms Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the gonzo godly creator of replicants and his sidekick, Luv (Sylvia Hoek), a comely replicant with sartorial style who can orchestrate a drone strike while getting her nails done and is even more skilled at matters of bloodshed with her bare hands. (Many other subplots drive the film — too many perhaps — and lead to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the protagonist of Scott's film, and a profound birth that becomes a game changer.)
Visually, the pallet that Villeneuve, his set designer Dennis Gassner, and cinematographer Richard Deakins create splashes across the screen, a never-ending sea of wonderment. There's never a frame to avert your gaze. If it weren't for Scott's timeless vision preceding it, Blade Runner 2049 might register as the most mind-blowing cinematic feast since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Where Blade Runner 2049 loses its footing is in the same familiar miscue Villeneuve has made in other films such as Prisoners and the aforementioned Arrival. The assured narrative cleverness and depth of character never quite rise to the level of the scrumptious visual renderings and foreboding atmospheric mood. Substance over style is a much more forgiving imbalance.
Early on in the film, there's a deep philosophical exchange about what constitutes a soul. Much is made of it — who has one, what's personal identity, and so on. Ironically, had that ideologue been adopted heartily by the filmmakers, Blade Runner 2049 might have registered more of a lasting bite. As it is, Gosling, so good at quirky nonchalance with a tint of sociopathic malevolence in films like Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), seems unnaturally restrained here. Even as things come out of the woodwork or knock K's cruiser from the sky, the actor maintains a stoic straight-ahead countenance as if he were passively enjoying the tepid tedium of a dull golf match. To show us K cares about something, he's given an A.I./virtual reality girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas) who's more an abstract entity with a soul, not so different from Scarlett Johansson in Her (2013). It's all good and neat in construct, except Joi is the possessor of the deeper internal plumbing. Luv and Wallace don't offer much personality zing either. They're stock garnish, caricatures with skin. Where Hauer and his replicant crew were created with complexity, conflict, and regret, the rebel plight of those shackled by bio-engineered chains here, feels hollow and tacked on.
"It's too bad she won't live," Edward James Olmos' cop says at then end of the original, but it seems that Scott's punk-noir darling just might.