“A thought experiment, with beautiful visuals.”
That’s what the friend next to me in the theater said as the final credits rolled over Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” The guy sitting on the end of the row gave the film a Platonic reading on the car ride home. Another person I ran into at the radio station the next day compared the plot to John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a poem that whirls in a series of complex images until whipping into clarity in the last two lines.
“Blade Runner 2049” fits all of these interpretations. The film is a puzzle, a feast for the eyes, meant to be discussed and disputed as much as its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner,” was after its release.
In the first movie, we met Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a cop who lives in a dystopian Los Angeles where he has to “retire” human replicants made by the mysterious Tyrell Corporation. It’s a tightly wound neo-noir thriller, similar to Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” or Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” both in its pessimism and interest in the limits of human cruelty.
But on first watch, “Blade Runner” appears to be just a film about a guy who has to kill four people. It’s only upon repeated viewings that it reveals much larger questions about humanity and our parricidal relationship with the Creator.
“Blade Runner 2049” has a similar conceit, but in Villeneuve’s L.A., God is actually dead, and his assassins have taken control. We meet Josef K (Ryan Gosling), a cop who holds the same job Deckard once did. K is a replicant, no question about it. He lives an empty existence, pretending to make love with a hologram and passionlessly reciting lines from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” (“cells interlinked within cells interlinked”) when he goes into the police station after field exercises. He’s a good worker bee; his boss (Robin Wright) tells him he’s doing just fine without a soul.
But when K finds a box full of bones buried beneath a tree, he stumbles on a whole world beyond the sexy billboards and flying cars of the city. I won’t spoil any of the big plot points, but I will say every bit of it is beautiful.
Villeneuve seems to have really mastered his craft with this one. His establishing shots are always ariel and expansive. And as with last year’s “Arrival” — which really should have won best picture at the Oscars — the way he uses unnatural white light elicits a sense of wonder at the otherworldly. Oh, and the scene where K wanders into a nuketown Las Vegas: perfect. You couldn’t find a more earthy orange scale, not even on an autumnal New Yorker cover.
And yet, “Blade Runner 2049” is bombing at the box office. Maybe the nearly three-hour run scares people away. Maybe not enough people have seen the first movie to really understand the Blade Runner universe. Maybe that Tom Cruise movie just looks more interesting.
But I think the real problem lies more in the movie itself. The beauty of “Blade Runner 2049” cracks because of a bunch of little things, those distracting literary references. It’s not as bad as this summer’s “Alien: Covenant,” where Michael Fassbender recited Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandius” and pranced along to Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” for the sake of The Symbolism. But in “2049,” the writers bombard us with Kafka and Stevenson references. It doesn’t sink the movie, but it makes it seem like it’s trying too hard to be meaningful.
It’s a shame that an otherwise great movie gets weighed down with these intellectual flourishes. Villeneuve is capable of making a great movie without a pedantry; “Arrival” and his 2014 film, “Prisoners” stand as examples. Both were tightly wound and completely comprehensible without any esoteric knowledge.
But maybe it’s fitting that “Blade Runner 2049” sometimes seems like such a pretentious riddle. We may love it now, but after years of discussion and analysis, who knows? Like everything else, it will be lost in time. You know…like tears in rain.