No-one would have been surprised if the Blade Runner sequel had been a wash-out. Even the original film, which is distinctive, hugely influential and now 35-years-old, nearly didn’t get made at all. You wouldn’t envy anyone who elected to make a follow-up, but here director Denis Villeneuve has managed to deliver a success, albeit a rather qualified one.
The first film, often light on dialogue or an intricate plot, was a masterly exercise in building a world with sound and visuals and placing characters within it. This outing offers a more involved, multi-layered narrative, but essentially it’s an extension of that same world: a near-future Los Angeles, 30 years on from the original. Our main character is K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD ‘blade runner’ charged with hunting down outlawed ‘replicants’ – that is, sophisticated androids virtually indistinguishable from humans. The difference this time out is that a new breed of replicants has been created and they’re living and working, in an uneasy kind of way, all over the city. It’s the old ones you have to look out for, though.
Where the film goes from there is best discovered by watching it, but rest assured this isn’t the crushing disappointment it might have been. It’s certainly respectful of the original, almost to a fault at times. Villeneuve is a great choice with previous form in visionary sci-fi cinema, namely Arrival. Blade Runner 2049 is at its best when he cuts loose from the shadow of Ridley Scott’s film and stretches out in new directions. Thankfully that happens a lot, and the result is a bold, fascinating piece with all-new gob-smacking vistas of its own. Much like its forebear, it’s a striking meditation on what the implications would be of the existence of sentient machines for issues such as memory, mortality, consciousness and the soul. Happily, this extrapolates from its source while adding to it. An apt example here would be the score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, which riffs on and around Vangelis’s original Blade Runner soundtrack but successfully becomes its own beast (maybe the abandoned score by Jóhann Jóhannsson will surface one day, so that’s a far-off box-set right there).
Where this really falters, though, is on the question of pace. At nearly three hours it’s a hell of a long haul, and while it’s laudable that a modern film should take its sweet time, this could do with a bit more rocket fuel in the tank. It’s never bloated, but it often lacks momentum. It’s probably intended to be immersive, but ‘languid’ is admirable whereas ‘ponderous’ isn’t. It’s a little too heavy-handed with its themes here and there too and, if truth be told, it doesn’t break that much new ground, mapping as it does so closely onto the original. The 1982 film had serious panache, an elegant sweep to it, whereas this wears its own self-importance rather too heavily, as though over-enamoured with its own profundity. In particular, this leads to some clod-hopping ‘look at me, I’m meaningful’ dialogue, not least when Jared Leto is in the room. It might be aiming for the quotability of moments such as the celebrated ‘attack ships on fire’ speech from the first film, but it often falls short. If long, lingering close-ups of the faces of Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford are your cup of tea, though – and let’s face it, there’s definitely a market there – then you’ll be in clover.
There’s some unevenness of tone throughout, with strange lurches into and out of action-based sequences. The same is true of some of the performances, too. Certain cast members act as though they’re in different films entirely. And for a film with such an intricate narrative, there are points when it takes large, unexplained plot leaps. It looks and sounds absolutely splendid, of course, and Gosling makes for a capable, powerful lead. It manages to take us back into a layered, compelling world. There’s plenty that does work, it’s just that there’s slightly too much that doesn’t. It has astonishing moments, for sure, but can’t quite sustain them over that generous running time. Possibly, sheer relief at the fact this isn’t abysmal will overshadow its short-comings. On balance, though, Blade Runner remains a better, more satisfying film, as does Arrival. It’s an impressive piece of work in many ways and Villeneuve is unquestionably a rare talent. But it’s hard to imagine that, 35 years from now, some young buck filmmaker will be so enraptured by this that they’ll be burning with desire to make another follow-up.