Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 16, 2018)
One of the greatest “cult classics” of all-time, 1982’s Blade Runner finally got a sequel via 2017’s Blade Runner 2049. After the artificial lifeforms called “replicants” rebelled, they became banned, but brilliant scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) was able to design them to be passive and obedient.
This means that in the year 2049, replicants occupy a major portion of society. One of them – LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling) – works to hunt down and “retire” older models still out in the world.
When K confronts replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he finds a surprise buried in the yard: remains of a deceased replicant, one who gave birth. Because replicants aren’t supposed to be able to reproduce, this sends shockwaves through K’s department, and he gets the task to find the offspring and “retire” it as well.
After a 35-year wait for a second Blade Runner, fans went into 2049 with high expectations, and the involvement of so much of the original’s personnel likely bolstered hopes. Though Ridley Scott didn’t direct the sequel, he executive produced it, and screenwriter Hampton Fancher reprised that task for 2049.
Most significantly, Harrison Ford returned to play Rick Deckard, the title character from the first film. A few other actors also reappear, but obviously Ford acts as the biggest “grab” of the bunch.
Ford’s presence also creates one of 2049’s biggest problems – at least for fans who paid attention to the film’s advertising. Virtually every poster and trailer and promo image touted Ford’s appearance in the film, so I imagine almost no one will be surprised to see him.
Unfortunately, 2049 waits an exceedingly long time to introduce Deckard into the story – far too long, honestly, due to the nature of all that advertising. In terms of the character’s narrative usage, I can’t complain that Deckard doesn’t appear until late in the film, but the promotion makes the wait much more problematic.
That’s because virtually every viewer knows Deckard will be part of the story, so the question of when Deckard will appear becomes a distraction. As I watched 2049, I couldn’t let go of that notion. I knew we’d see Ford eventually, and the seemingly interminable amount screentime that passed until he did pop up made it more difficult to attend to the tale.
This issue wouldn’t exist if the ads hadn’t revealed Deckard’s role in the movie. Should I ding the movie because of a problem connected to its promotion?
In this case, I think I should. The filmmakers had to understand that Ford would be used as a major aspect of the promotion, so they couldn’t treat Deckard’s presence as a surprise – but they did. The film utilizes Deckard like a major reveal but since everyone knows it’s coming, the shock value seems non-existent, especially because the viewer has already become so impatient to finally see Ford.
2015’s The Force Awakens did it right. That movie used Ford’s Han Solo character as a major part of its advertising and made sure that we saw him before too long. No, Solo didn’t pop up in the first 10 minutes, but he arrived early enough that the audience didn’t get distracted.
Sure, Awakens made us wait longer for Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia – another character featured prominently in ads – and you could argue that’s no different than Deckard’s delayed appearance in 2049. I’d disagree because Awakens gives us a major Original Trilogy character – Solo – fairly early, so we’re not as distracted by the wait for Leia. We know she’ll come before too long, and with Solo on board, we feel less patient.
The same goes for the way Awakens uses Luke Skywalker. Posters indicated Mark Hamill would appear in the film, but Luke doesn’t actually appear on-screen until the movie’s very ending – isn’t that worse than Deckard’s delay?
No. Again, we’ve already seen so many Original Trilogy characters that we’re not that focused on Luke, and also, Awakens tells us from the start that Luke is missing – no one expects to see him until the end.
In contrast, 2049 makes very little reference to Deckard until he actually appears on-screen. Observant fans can draw allusions to the character, but we get no mention of him, so there’s no direct path to his appearance. We wait to see him with barely a lifeline thrown our way.
I’d love to claim that this elongated wait to see Harrison Ford stands as my only notable problem with 2049, but unfortunately, it’s just one of many issues – and I can’t blame the other concerns on advertising. The movie plays too much like “fan fiction” and never becomes something that stands on its own in a productive manner.
2049 definitely tries hard to fit within the Blade Runner visual universe – a little too hard, honestly. The LA of 2049 looks awfully similar to the LA of 2019, and that doesn’t make a ton of sense. Fashion and technology seem not to have changed much – if at all – and even the same advertisements remain in place 30 years later. How does this make sense?
Granted, I can accept some of this because both Blade Runner and 2049 make it clear the Earth largely turned into a wasteland, so innovation and change might stagnate. Still, I get the impression 2049 relies so much on shared elements less out of logic and more to give diehard fans a kick of recognition.
To be sure, observant Blade Runner buffs will find many allusions to the first movie. Some are more obvious than others, but various bits and pieces hearken back to components seen in the 1982 film.
A little of this goes a long way, and the preponderance of these sort of “Easter eggs” becomes too much. It feels like the filmmakers substitute winking nods to the Blade Runner conceits as an easy way to get a reaction from the fans.
This trickles down to Fancher’s lazy script as well, one that lacks the depth and nuance found in the first film. Both Blade Runner and 2049 play as neo-noirs on the surface, but Runner came with an introspective layer that offered a rich exploration of what it means to be human.
2049 wants us to think it does the same thing, but it fails in that regard. It pays lip service to deeper notions while it instead simply spins its wheels. 2049 goes for superficial concepts and almost entirely lacks the more provocative and involving elements seen in the first movie.
For a while, 2049 maintains interest, perhaps simply because of the semi-novelty. After all, we’ve waited 35 years to see an extension of the Blade Runner universe, so our reinvolvement in that world manages to sustain curiosity for a period.
But not for long, and running time becomes a massive issue here. While Blade Runner clocked in at a reasonably efficient 117 minutes, 2049 drones for a groan-inducing 163 minutes!
That’s right: those involved thought they needed to make a sequel that pushed close to the three-hour mark. That’s a terrible mistake, as it makes the film an endurance test.
To be sure, many movies can run 160-plus minutes and keep us with them, but 2049 simply lacks the content to do so. As noted, the film suffers from a superficial feel, and it doesn’t use its cinematic real estate well.
Because of this, 2049 does little more than drag for much of its duration. It doesn’t use the minutes to explore its themes in a more complete manner – it just makes the viewer wait longer and longer for the inevitable.
And I don’t just mean the inevitable appearance of Deckard. 2049 gives us a mystery with no secrets, as the viewer can easily suss out most – if not all – of the areas K explores. Nothing that happens will catch the audience off-guard, as we can see plot twists and turns from a mile away.
These make those 163 minutes even more soul-crushing. With a tighter plot, stronger characters and greater depth, 2049 might be able to fill the time well, but in the absence of those traits, it turns into an extremely slow ride, one that never pays off.
In the end, I find it hard to see 2049 as anything other than a crashing disappointment. It does nothing to innovate, as it just regurgitates themes and visual concepts from the original. It’s a wholly unworthy sequel to a classic film.