Alert! Watch out, viewers. This piece contains spoilers.
The original 1982 cut of Ridley Scott’s confounding dystopian detective story “Blade Runner” proved so incomprehensible to studio executives that they demanded the addition of a voice-over narration spelling out all the movie’s mysteries in perfunctory, hard-boiled lingo. (According to legend, star Harrison Ford hated this idea so much he deliberately tanked the recording session, assuming the suits wouldn’t dare use something that sounded so dreadful. Oops.) A poorly reviewed flop upon initial release, “Blade Runner” nonetheless became a cult fetish item during the VHS era, with the 1992 release of Scott’s "Director’s Cut" — then an almost identical 2007 “Final Cut,” because the dude loves to tinker — eventually cementing the film’s status as a classic.
A big part of "Blade Runner’s" reappraisal and elevation to masterpiece status arose from the scrapping of a studio-mandated happy ending that borrowed incongruously sunny stock footage from “The Shining,” and of course, Scott’s stripping away that god-awful narration. But I also like to think that we as an audience had evolved and grown more able to absorb the shock of the movie’s bustling, nocturnal gloom and its haunted, dreamy ambiguity. To watch “Blade Runner” again 35 years later is to be seduced anew by its elliptical images, rainy melancholy and stubbornly unanswered questions.
But “Blade Runner 2049” is a movie for people who miss the voice-over narration.
This eagerly anticipated sequel is such a product of our current era in franchise filmmaking they might as well have called it “Blade Runner 2017.” It’s a talky, blocky launching pad for yet another “cinematic universe” — short on incident, but long on sequel setups and what studio executives like to call “world-building.”
The first film took its cues from 1940s film noir, with slick streets at night, Venetian blinds, sad saxophones and doomy inevitability. This one feels more inspired by modern television forensics procedurals, the characters constantly poring over data in antiseptic office spaces while re-iterating how things work.
Ryan Gosling stars as K, a synthetic detective hunting those pesky rogue robots that still seem to be a problem some 30 years after the original film took place. Designed for slave labor, the super strong “replicants” revolted and were replaced by more servile models like Gosling’s K, who unquestioningly hunts and “retires” his own kind without a glimmer of disobedience. But one day a routine execution is disrupted when K discovers the buried remains of a replicant who died during childbirth. Wait, what? If these androids can breed and conceive does that make them living beings instead of mere appliances?
“This breaks the world,” says top cop Robin Wright. It’s one of those lines of dialogue that sounds cool in a trailer but “Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t offer much in the way of backing it up. Sure, we’re told time and again that K’s discovery could shatter the slave labor economy on the off-world colonies, but none of this is remotely depicted or dramatized. It’s just one of those things we’re supposed to take as a given because people in the movie keep saying so. (They say it a lot.) K is ordered to find and “retire” the child before his discovery inspires another replicant revolution, and we’re off to the races.
Clocking in at a posterior-numbing 163 minutes, “Blade Runner 2049” tells maybe two-thirds of a story that could fit inside a movie half its length. “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve takes the reins from Ridley Scott, inflating every interaction with ostentatious bombast and more dramatic pauses than you’ll find at a William Shatner retrospective. These days Villeneuve seems to be replacing Christopher Nolan as the cinematic patron saint of young men on the internet who take themselves terribly seriously, and with movies like “Sicario” and “Prisoners” he’s won passionate admirers for puffing up perfectly good pieces of pulp into drearily self-important prestige pictures. “Blade Runner 2049” is so dour and gasbaggy that the film’s two lonely laughs stick out like sore thumbs.
I’ve never seen so many establishing shots in a movie. At least a third of the absurd running time must be devoted to Gosling strolling at the pace of molasses through wondrously designed exteriors shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. (If you admire one of these settings you’re in luck, because chances are you’re gonna see it from at least three more angles before the scene itself starts.) Scott’s 1982 film is often criticized for being a little too in love with its crammed Los Angeles cityscapes, but that place felt like a fully functioning world was spilling out past the edges of the frame. The spectacular vistas of this sequel are sparse and underpopulated, painterly in their compositions but also lifeless and inert.
It takes almost two hours for Harrison Ford to finally show up, reprising his role as lovelorn Detective Deckard, who in the first film made the mistake of falling for one of the replicants he’d been assigned to kill. Always a pleasure to see on screen, his craggy charisma provides a welcome respite from Gosling’s morose self-pity party. (I especially enjoyed that Ford appears to have had it up to here with Deckard’s futuristic fashions and demanded that he be allowed to come to work in his pajamas.) Too bad the movie doesn’t offer more for him to do besides get captured and listen to exposition.
All the questions “Blade Runner” fans have been debating over these past 35 years are anti-climactically answered in an interminable monologue from Jared Leto’s blind bioengineer. (Having these enduring mysteries resolved once and for all by one of the most annoying actors alive feels like adding insult to injury.) I couldn’t help but think of Peter Hyams’ similarly misguided and almost instantly forgotten sequel “2010: The Year We Make Contact” and its banal attempts to explain away the eternal inscrutabilities of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t come to an end so much as it just up and abandons the story right when things are about to get interesting — saving all the juicy stuff I suppose for the inevitable sequels. In its final moments Villeneuve slips in a snippet of the first film’s airy, ethereal Vangelis score, a startling contrast to the rest of the soundtrack’s generic Hans Zimmer percussion assault. Hearing that wonderfully weird old music again only underlines what a frustrating act of diminishment this project is, transforming an enigmatic classic into a branded franchise property. It turns poetry into prose.