Existentialism doesn’t lend itself naturally to cinema. Sure, a theme as lofty as ‘being’ can be dramatised at the level of dialogue in a play, third-person narrative in a novel, and even imagery in poetry. In cinema, however, it’s harder to convey this theme without sacrificing a compelling narrative. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)—among other movies like David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, (2017) Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and anything made by Terrence Malick after The New World (2005)—is one successful cinematic interpretation of being, its complications, and the extent to which artificial intelligence is capable of human consciousness. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Denis Villeneuve’s highly-anticipated sequel to Scott’s imposing sci-fi noir.
Of course others may disagree, not least because Blade Runner 2049 is less about existentialism than about the past, how it’s constructed, and how well it can be trusted—in addition to pertinent issues such as climate change. But the movie’s biggest problem is that it lingers on its subject matter for far too long. And where a movie like Silence (Martin Scorsese 2017) needed its 160-minute running time for its examination of one man’s struggle with Christian faith, Blade Runner 2049 could have been an hour shorter and still retained the narrative ingredients and thematic issues with which it concerns itself for its laborious 163 minutes.
In a desolate California we’re introduced to K (Ryan Gosling,) one of the latest replicants on the market. He works for the LAPD as a blade runner specialising in the retirement of Nexus 8s. In other words, for the uninitiated, he’s a human-like robot who kills other human-like robots not as congenial as he is. After retiring replicant farmer Sapper Morton, K finds a box underneath a tree, and soon thereafter his boss, Lt. Joshi, (Robin Wright) reveals the box’s contents to be the bones of a replicant who died in childbirth. Once K has processed the news that replicants can give birth—a development previously unheard of—he is faced with the task of finding and retiring the child.
If this all sounds intriguing, that’s because it should be. What’s more, when K finds a wooden horse on Morton’s farm, he recalls a childhood memory and, in turn, considers whether his memories are the result of genetic engineering or whether it was he who was born from the pregnant replicant and his memories are, in fact, real. More intriguing still, replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace, (Jared Leto) orders his associate Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to steal the remains of the skeleton replicant and find the child so that he can improve his latest models.
So: with K’s clear objective, his metaphysical concerns, and the antagonistic pressure coming from Wallace Corporation, the scene is set for a decent movie. However, Blade Runner 2049 never becomes the captivating film it promises to be, largely because it trudges along at a languid pace and is hampered by stilted dialogue—Niander Wallace in particular sounds like a 2049 version of Microsoft Sam: ‘‘You don’t know what pain is yet. You will learn.’’Luckily for him, he’s unaware of how painful it is to sit through his monologues.
The one consolation of the movie is that it is both very pretty to look at and fascinating to listen to. Granted, picturesque visuals and atmospheric music ought not to be favoured over engaging the audience at a narrative level, but if nothing else Blade Runner 2049 is further proof that Roger Deakins, after Emmanuel Lubezki, is one of the best cinematographers working today. He captures a dystopian Los Angeles and Las Vegas in a variety of hues, shadows, and weather conditions, and the score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch develop Vangelis’ original themes to harmoniously sync with Deakins’ camerawork.
In many ways, Blade Runner 2049 is a twenty-first-century L’Avventura. (Michaelangelo Antonioni 1960) In Antonioni’s drama, the protagonist Anna disappears at the end of the first act, never to show up again and her disappearance never to be explained. In Villeneuve’s sci-fi, Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard only in the film’s final act, and the question of whether or not he’s a replicant—without spoiling anything—is as ambiguous as it was in 1982. Both films are in part concerned with the inherent conflict carried within human psychology, and, given the rave reviews Blade Runner 2049 has been receiving, are both critically acclaimed to the point where to criticise them is tantamount to sacrilege. Though Villeneuve’s Arrival was one of the best movies of last year, and Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) one of the finest films of the 1960’s, both are deeply flawed: in Antonioni’s case, for favouring theme and mood over character and story; in Villeneuve’s case, for the film’s on-the-nose dialogue and its poor pacing. Perhaps in the future I’ll come to see L’Avventura and Blade Runner 2049 for the masterpieces they are purported to be, but in the meantime I will remember them as five hours of my life that I will never get back.
‘Blade Runner 2049’ is out now.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
Story by: Hampton Fancher.
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoekes.
Genre: Sci-fi, neo-noir.
Runtime: 163 minutes.
For fans of: Aside from the original Blade Runner (1982), Ex Machina, (Alex Garland 2015) Robocop, (Paul Verhhoeven 1987) The Terminator. (James Cameron 1984)
Bottom line: Neither the superlative camerawork of Roger Deakins nor the always-welcome presence of The Gos can save Blade Runner 2049 from being one of the most boring movies of the year.
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