In the olden days—say, 1982—the movies were simpler. A man, a detective of sorts who hunts down and destroys artificially created humans, falls in love with a woman, or seemingly a woman. A slippery sax interlude tells you when hot, steamy sex is about to happen, even if you don’t actually see it. And, best of all, this story is trusted to find its natural ending, like a leaping cat landing on its feat. The end credits appear exactly when they should, with no extra interminable interludes of seemingly dead people (or dead seemingly people) rising from unconsciousness to do whatever it is seemingly dead people come back for.
Today, so many action movies have a million endings, or near-endings, each one an echo of the infomercial promise “But wait—there’s more!” There are a million endings in Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s much-loved 1982 future-noir Blade Runner, and some of them are kind of OK. What’s more, Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, is a handsome-looking picture. Shot by Roger Deakins, it echoes the somber, rain-misted Los Angeles that Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth gave us 35 years ago—including the requisite swooping sky-cars and skyscraper-tall advertising mirages. Only this time with additional strata of despair and wistfulness floating on its surface. At certain points, Blade Runner 2049 has the look and feel of a miracle fabric no one has yet invented—it’s like translucent velvet.
But the story—so much story! There’s enough story here for three sequels, and not even the capable shoulders of its star, Ryan Gosling, can carry all of it, though he tries. Gosling plays K, an LAPD officer whose job—like that of another, earlier taciturn hero, Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, who vanished some 30 years ago—is to find and destroy the manmade humans, or replicants, who threaten the stability of this futureworld human society. But K isn’t sure of whom, or what, he is. His face is a blank slate with phantom thoughts scribbled on it. He approaches his job with grim dutifulness.
In an early scene, K endures a bone-crushing encounter with one of his targets (gentle giant Dave Bautista, who maximizes just a few slender minutes of screentime), reports back to his no-nonsense, no-makeup-wearing boss (Robin Wright, groovy in her sternness) and goes home to his hologram wife (Margaret Keane-eyed Ana de Armas), a see-through charmer who’s programmed to genuinely care about what kind of day he’s had. She’s prepared a meal of phantom steak frites that’s tantalizingly superimposed over his real dinner, a bachelor’s bowl of drab brown noodles or something.
K doesn’t start out searching for his identity. It’s more as if his identity comes searching for him, beginning with the discovery of a secret grave well past the city’s outskirts. His quest is complicated by a marble-cool, nicely dressed android brunette named Luv (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), whose futureduds include white sandal booties and a cool asymmetrical coat. Her boss is Jared Leto’s Wallace, a mad guru and android-making artiste who’s both sightless and all-seeing. His eyes are milky orbs that ought to be spooky, except come on, we all know it’s just Jared Leto with contact lenses.
Blade Runner 2049 is packed with visual cleverness, and it shows a great deal of affection for the movie that came before it. There are many obvious little echoes—the origami animals fashioned by Edward James Olmos’ detective Gaff, for example, make a reappearance. And a fountain-of-youth version of Deckerd’s lady love femme fatale Rachael, played by Sean Young in the earlier movie, appears as a spectral temptation.
Deckard, older and, if you can believe it, even crustier, shows up too. Ford shrugs through a role that doesn’t really ask that much of him. But then, this isn’t really a movie about people, or even about androids that look and act like people. Villeneuve’s sequel is really more like a dream that’s trying to answer another dream, with mottled success. The script is by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Fancher also co-wrote (with David Peoples) the earlier movie, adapting it, with an imaginatively loose hand, from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 work Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Incidentally, anyone who loves the original Blade Runner, or just rakish charmers in general, should have a look at Michael Almereyda’s marvelous sketchpad-documentary about Fancher, the recently released Escapes.)
But even if Blade Runner 2049 never forgets where it came from, it somehow keeps losing its way. The picture’s moodiness is excessively manicured; this thing is gritty only in a premeditated way. Mostly, it feels like a capacious handbag, designed with perhaps too many extra compartments to hold every cool visual idea Villeneuve can dream up. This picture is even more ambitious than Villeneuve’s last, the 2016 sci-fi parable Arrival.
That’s not to say there aren’t some inspired touches: The best of them is a retro-modern jukebox that looks like one of those old Victorian glass bells with a mechanical bird tootling inside, though the bird in this one is a mini hologram of one of the great singers of the 20th century. His crooning is a like the signal from ghost ship, calling through the years as if they were waves. Old movies send out those types of signals, too. Our job, when watching a sequel, is to sort-of remember and sort-of forget what came before. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t make us sort-of forget enough.