"They think that details make it more real, but they're wrong. Reality is messy."
Dr. Ana Stelline
That quote is bitterly ironic. (Not a spoiler, don't worry; this review is pretty much spoiler free.) She's talking about Replicant memory implants there and what makes 'good' ones. Her point is that there is more art in what's missing and the messy parts, and that's what makes one emotional, visceral and real. The irony comes from the fact that she utters this line in the middle of the most expensive, overproduced monument to detail-orientation and obsessive compulsion that I've ever seen.
Let's get this out of the way first. Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous. It is mind-meltingly, visual-cortex-blowing, auditory-center-shatteringly pretty. I saw it in Laser IMAX, and it was pretty much as close as I have come to being in non-gear VR. At one point, a device in the upper left of the screen emits a notification tone, and the entire audience swiveled our heads to look at the thing because it was so compellingly there.
See it in IMAX if you can. Make sure there is a good bass system at the least, because like director Denis Villeneuve's earlier picture Arrival, half the soundscape is in the subwoofer and infrasonic range. The IMAX I was in had those super cool beamforming speakers behind the screen, with the result that - coupled with the screen size - the locational cues for sound were just amazing.
So. Blade Runner 2049. Is it? Is it in fact Blade Runner?
It certainly is in the universe. It certainly purports to be a direct sequel, albeit one with a 30-year interregnum. The characters are there. The storyline events link as they ought to, I suppose. But it wasn't Blade Runner to me, and I've spent a bit of time thinking about why.
There are at least a couple of reasons this might be true (for me, of course). One is that I was furious that this movie got made at all, and I suppose I still am. There was just no need for it other than a cash grab. However, the real problem I had with it was despite its sheer visual overwhelming shock and awe, I had the same response to it I had to Arrival - namely, I was unable to give a shit about any of the characters in it. This isn't to say they weren't cast and acted very, very well; it's not to say the original actors weren't there because they were. But rather than a story - and like the first movie a story with a critical and emotional question at the heart of it - this is a clockwork mechanism which is equal parts fan service and trope- no, cliché- laden 'story.'
Blade Runner was a dirty, brilliant, innovative movie around a single question - what does it mean to be human? That's a Big Question, with a ton of subjective hooks, and you can drape enormous quantities of movie and plot and character around it - and they did. Eldon Tyrell, the quintessential tech nerd, hooked on an engineering challenge without thinking at all - until it killed him - about the impact his game would have on anyone and anything else. The famous 'is Deckard or isn't he' game even. So Blade Runner is a human, messy, organic movie about robots and humanity.
Blade Runner 2049 is a gorgeous, sterile and icy movie about humanity and robots. But although it looked for half a minute like it was going to pick up that question - the one that elevated the original - and run with it, it instead cheapshot the whole thing about ten minutes in, and then halfheartedly played with it like a cat batting a dead bird for the rest of the movie - that is, when it even bothered to be about something.
There are things in it that are amazing. There are a couple of scenes which are not just beautiful, but genuinely thought-provoking. It's just that the movie then immediately throws them away and never refers to them again. I suppose the things I thought worth going see are the cinematography, the rendering, the set dressing (in some specific cases) and the obsessive care with which they aged the Blade Runner future. They did a great job, it's fully believable as a 30-year advance on the original. There are easter eggs in it, or at least callouts to the original. Ryan Gosling is perfect as Officer K, because...well, he's a zero-emoting robot most times anyway. Harrison Ford at least seems to have overcome his distaste for the original enough to actually work, here. Robin Wright is pretty much as badass as she was in Wonder Woman, and it's awesome to see Edward James Olmos and Sean Young, however briefly.
But in the end, I would have been so much happier if they'd made it 'a movie in the Blade Runner universe' and made it the best of those so far, rather than trying to continue the first. Its mishandling of the first movie's questions and story basically makes the actual content of the film utterly uninteresting to me, leaving me only the eye candy.
But damn, that candy is sweet and tart and fucking addicting.
Beware late night showings - this film runs 2:44, although you won't mind that.
I saw the movie again, this time in non-IMAX, and I felt compelled to add one more point - sadly, a negative. I raved above about the visual and auditory design of this movie. I still stand by that, but with one major, major exception, which I believe i hadn't really grasped on the initial viewing because the sound system in the IMAX theater was so good and the mix different. This movie succumbs to one huge, major (in my opinion) super bad cliche in its sound design. Ever since Inception, movies trying really hard to be 'shocking' or 'dramatic' have been using this horribly stupid sound that resembles nothing so much as a foghorn or klaxon, slowed down from 45 to 33rpm. Basically, a huge, blow-your-ears-out BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH noise, sometimes with the tone sliding up and down a bit. I think some cheap effects movies have used it as 'BIG ALIEN WARCRY' somewhere. But whereas Inception's was an actual slowed-down and reversed clip of a piece of a music relevant to the movie, these are really nothing except cheap copies of the monster honkings from Pacific Rim, fuzzed up.
BR2049 uses this. A lot. And it does it whenever it's trying to tell you LOOK LOOK THIS IS IMPORTANT/SUBTLE/COOL ISN'T IT? And as a result, loses about a zillion points. And, in a theater with a good and powerful but not too subtle sound system, gave me a headache by 2/3 through the movie.