SHARE
‘Blade Runner 2049’ came out last week. FACEBOOK

“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.