Watching a sequel to “Blade Runner,” at least for a certain generation of fans, is something akin to watching a sequel to “Citizen Kane” or “2001: A Space Odyssey.” A lot is at stake.
So to say that “Blade Runner 2049” is very, very good, without quite being a masterpiece, is not faint praise.
It certainly might have been a masterpiece, coming from the Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose “Enemy” deserves to be a cult classic, and whose “Sicario” and “Arrival” were among the very best movies of the last few years.
He is exceptionally skilled at establishing uncomfortable or alien spaces and exploring his characters therein. But in “Blade Runner 2049,” the main character, blade runner “K” (Ryan Gosling) very often seems to be in front of the majestic space instead of occupying it.
It’s as if Villeneuve — along with writers Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original) and Michael Green (“Logan”) and composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer — are stuck trying to re-establish those spaces and sounds and rhythms and feelings of the 1982 original and simultaneously trying to move ahead.
Although the sequel explores similar themes (what it means to be alive, what it means to have a soul, etc.), it contains nothing quite as moving as Rutger Hauer’s “lost in time. … like tears in rain” speech. The wanting in this sequel isn’t quite as strong.
To further nitpick, it is far too long (flagging after the second hour) and it teeters awfully close to dumb Wachowski-esque territory (looking for “the chosen one” while “a revolution is coming”).
Moreover, Jared Leto, in a two-scene Tyrell-like role, overacts in a wince-inducing way.
Yet so much is absolutely spellbinding, particularly the visuals and sound. Many scenes are hauntingly, eerily still, although the movie does have its share of fights and explosions.
Villeneuve plays with themes of wood and water and womanhood that are, if not totally brilliant, then at least consistently interesting.
Harrison Ford, returning to Rick Deckard after 35 years, slips back into the role like a pro, giving it the same kind of weight that Sylvester Stallone brought to Rocky in “Creed.”
Quite a lot rides on Gosling, whose character plays everything close to the chest, and yet it’s easy to see how he’s pulled in different directions. He’s the right choice for this. Other popular actors simply can’t play stoic without shutting down and going cold.
Many recent films, including the live-action “Ghost in the Shell,” have toyed with the same themes and the same overwhelming, dystopian, cityscape backdrop. Most are immersive, but not especially thoughtful. “Blade Runner 2049” puts the thought back in.
Blade Runner 2049
Three and a half stars
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoeks
Written by: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: 2 hours, 43 minutes