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Blade Runner 2049 is a gorgeous exercise in treading old ground

By Leigh Monson

     The original Blade Runner was a bizarre, lightning-in-a-bottle scenario born primarily of mid-production decisions that turned a relatively straight-forward noir pastiche into one of science fiction’s most notorious philosophical question marks, focusing on the questionable humanity of Harrison Ford’s Deckard as a point to contend what constitutes humanity and whether that humanity is what people should strive for.
   It’s an ethical quandary that is only further enhanced by the retro-futuristic design of its world and the classically hard-boiled detective story that lies at the center of its increasingly bizarre machinations. So it’s a pretty dubious enterprise to attempt a calculated, decades-later sequel as Warner Bros. and Sony have in Blade Runner 2049 when the original film’s greatness was realized almost by accident, and while I’d say it is a mostly successful experiment, I have my doubts as to whether it was an entirely necessary one.
   If you’re looking for a replicant (ha!) of the style and themes of the original, then you are very much in luck, as not only does the film sport a plot in service to the ambiguous humanism of the 1982 film, but it also showcases a visual style that at once feels like a natural evolution of Blade Runner’s crumbling artificial world and a gorgeous marriage of meditative direction and breathtaking cinematography. The power duo of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sicario, Arrival) deliver one of the most gorgeous spectacles of the year, leaning heavily on seismic contrasts and bathing hues to deliver a film where every shot is a masterwork of composition. And Villeneuve just lets those shots linger, forcing the audience to ponder their implications as the film stubbornly wishes you to move at its thoughtful pace.
   Here’s the thing about that pace, though: it doesn’t really serve to meditate on new territory that the original film hadn’t already covered. In fact, with Ryan Gosling as the protagonist, a replicant blade runner named K, the humanity-versus-empathy subtext of the first film is elevated to being argumentative text, positing explicit questions that it shows no interest in answering rather than letting those questions lie below the surface of what might otherwise be a compelling investigative narrative. For the most part this doesn’t kill the story as a whole—except for a subplot pulled directly from the film Her that entirely lacks the same level of philosophical examination—but it does mean the film’s thematic messaging is more of a blunt instrument than a precision tool, making the deliberate pacing more ponderous than provoking.
   But when you divorce 2049 from the inevitable and unenviable comparisons to its progenitor, there’s still an entertaining film in there. Sure, you have Jared Leto chewing the scenery with every chance he gets to play the film’s main villain, but Gosling turns in a shockingly understated performance, while Sylvia Hoeks works a level of complex magic as the film’s femme fatale and Robin Wright crafts a character out of an expositionary police chief from sheer force of will. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of Blade Runner, but it’s a competently crafted narrative that is gorgeous to behold, and that beauty is reason enough to see it on the big screen. One should just temper their expectations so as not to be disappointed when it doesn’t prove as intellectually satisfying as its pedigree might imply.
3.5/5 stars