Moviegoers won’t connect with “Blade Runner 2049,” and that’s OK. The original “Blade Runner” had trouble finding an audience, too. “2049” is a long, methodical movie about existence and procreation. You probably wouldn’t have guessed such a thing judging from its marketing. The Philip K. Dick novel that both of the movies are based on asks nuanced questions about what it means to be human in an increasingly inhuman world. It focuses at the feeling of love in a largely emotionless landscape. “2049” asks these questions but enhances the scope. The result is an often deliberately slow yarn that works more as a character study than a cerebral detective noir.
The film opens on Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a “blade runner” whose task it is to track down remaining rogue replicants (i.e. androids) in a desolate Los Angeles in the year 2049. In the first scene, K discovers a secret that drives the rest of the movie. I appreciate director Denis Villeneuve’s tumbling approach to plot. He’s often a director who favors ambiguity over convention, and “2049” is the apex of his style. The events of the first scene directly change K, but over the course of the film, his identity becomes complex. Hampton Fancher, who penned the story, takes K and connects him to this universe with a genuinely intriguing mystery. I’m going sparse on details, because saying too much about the plot would spoil everything. Going into “2049” blind is a wise choice.
With complexity comes confusion, which is tolerable to a degree. The middle of the movie is simply too long. It takes an idea and runs with it for about an hour until it loses steam. The third act completely negates aspects of the second act. It’s fine to explore K as a character, but it doesn’t work when that character has a narrative that fizzles out. However, Gosling turns in a solid performance, as does the rest of the cast, which includes Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) himself. Even Dave Bautista, best known as Drax from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, turns a bit part into one of the movie’s most memorable aspects.
“2049” does most things well but it does imagery best. The film is shot by Roger Deakins, who has crafted the visual identity for leagues of films over decades. His cinematography complements Villeneuve’s knack for emptiness. Deakins’ framing of large, barren landscapes tells a better story about this future than words ever could. By weaving settings together, we see a varied vision of the American west coast that provokes Kubrickian vibes of succinct, horrifying reality.
The visual scale also helps create a larger movie. Villeneuve goes for bombast at certain points; however, the score is obnoxious in its loudness. It does momentarily complement the dwarfing architecture that appears, but there is something truly off about the mix. Imagine Hans Zimmer transported through a bullhorn.
The plot itself is bigger. There’s more room for characters to move around, and K often feels like a fly floating around a miniature city. But a bigger narrative that welcomes numerous moments of silence makes the film as a whole ironically feel more impersonal. Villeneuve is a notoriously serious and ambitious director (look no further than the intensity of “Sicario,” for example), and he demonstrates an understanding of “Blade Runner.” There is still a longing for intimacy throughout the movie. It contradicts itself and collides with the maxim of loneliness it preaches.