Last year Denis Villeneuve made Arrival, which was probably my favourite movie of the year; there were a couple I enjoyed more, but Arrival is the one which I’d feel happy recommending to absolutely anyone, without knowing what kind of movie they liked. So Villeneuve directing a sequel to Blade Runner carried me right past “why the hell would anyone want to do that?” and into “you know what? That might just work.”
Well, maybe. Famously the original tanked at the box office and got recut about five times, so it’s probably best to stick a pin in my first impressions and see how the revisionism goes.
Still. It’s long. It’s slow. It’s not very focused - well, everything’s IN focus, because Roger Deakins. It’s got Jared Leto in it (Ryan Gosling won big time here by not having to share any screen time with Leto, who seems to have been at full-on creepy form for the fortnight he spent on a soundstage in Hungary; sure, Ryan got punched in the mouth and relentlessly mocked by Harrison Ford, but at least he didn’t have to put up with Jared Leto). It’s great looking without having the sheer novel punch of the original. It’s full of important themes, but at the same time it’s kind of full of itself about how it’s messing with important themes. As Mackenzie David’s Mariette says “I've been inside you, and there's not as much there as you think.”
It probably wouldn’t have been so long if it could have picked a plot and stuck with it. There’s a perfectly serviceable plot about Ryan Gosling’s officer K and his alienated relationship with a computer simulation. K’s a replicant, and he’s in love with something even more artificial than he is. That’s a perfectly good movie right there, and a good place to jump off if you want to spend a whole movie brooding on the nature of humanity and identity. Sadly, that’s just the B plot. The A plot is all about finding the mysterious child of Deckard and Rachel from the first movie, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the mysterious child (who would be at least half replicant depending on your position on the whole Deckard question) is going to be leader of a fresh replicant revolution. Oh, no, it’s the end of the world. Again.
Because Blade Runner 2049 has loads of the end of the world already. In the thirty years since we checked in with Rick Deckard, things have got worse. The world’s food supply has collapsed, people have been chucking nukes around, trees are so gone that wood is worth a fortune, and weather is available in original “continuous rain” and new “permanent dust storm” and “snow? How is it snowing?” The weird thing is that after a while it just gets in the way.
Watching Villeneuve and Deakins layer on more and more detail to their world, I realised how economical Blade Runner was. It’s wet, tight, urban and claustrophobic. There’s a consistent background which tells us enough about the world and then the characters just get on with it. The background doesn’t become the foreground, no matter how impressive and immersive it gets. In 2049 minutes go by just looking at stuff. And it’s the exact opposite of immersive. At one point, K trips over a bunch of beehives, full of bees. There isn’t a scrap of green, let alone any flowers, for as far as the eye can see. What are those bees living off? Villeneuve wanted a shot with a beehive, so that K could stick his hand it and get covered in bees. Whether it made any sense or not. But because the movie is sleepwalking, I had all the time I needed to figure out how dumb this was, while it was - happening doesn’t even feel like the right word.
So there it is. A good looking movie, which I went I wanting to like. It’s well acted, by a whole swathe of good performers. Gosling is excellent. K doesn’t make a button of sense, but Gosling somehow still makes him feel like a person. Ford is the same old grumpy Ford he’s been for the last ten or so movies. Robin Wright is great, as usual. Mackenzie Davis continues to be an overlooked treasure; all I can do is hope that with Halt and Catch Fire winding down she’ll start getting more chances to break hearts without saying a single word. And there are three more women in completely schematic roles who I’ve never seen before and hope I see again; Ana de Armas, Sylivia Hoeks and Carla Juri are playing walking plot points and they rise above the writing to give you people who feel real. How can all that be happening and somehow I’m not happy?
I don’t know. But I can’t help thinking that if this goes into the same cycle of re-cuts as the original, what comes out of it will have a lot less scenery and a lot more acting.