Remarkably disinterested in the sociopolitical relevance of its concept, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner follows a futuristic police precinct as it murders fugitive “replicants,” synthetic people who rebel against their enslavement. Scott isn’t blind to the strife of the replicants, as the film’s most powerful scenes concern the brutal deaths of these androids, but he’s so drunk on his now-iconic set design that he barely questions the story’s classist society. Harrison Ford’s Deckard, the central slave hunter, or “blade runner,” is a romanticized figure, a sexy and disenchanted blend of a rogue P.I. from a 1940s noir and a ragged cop from a 1980s action film. Inasmuch as Scott’s concerned with psychology at all, it’s Deckard’s pain that’s prioritized, as the filmmaker paints a self-pitying portrait of a white man’s burden.
Arriving 35 years later, Denis Villeneuve’s self-consciously woke Blade Runner 2049 is similarly a product of its age. Replicants are explicitly referred to as slaves in the film, which offers a striking contrast from the thematic muddiness of its predecessor. A police official, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), speaks of maintaining a wall between the humans and the replicants, so that each side knows their place in order to prevent revolution or chaos—language that recalls justifications given for repressing the actions of the civil rights movement. And the blade runner this time out, K (Ryan Gosling), is a replicant who weathers the pain of being a robotic Uncle Tom, as his own kind views him as a traitor while humans see him as inferior.
Blade Runner 2049’s racial text is oft-plumbed by the horror and sci-fi genres, recently and with far more success by Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Rupert Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell. Villeneuve’s film is designed to reward the audience for recognizing the references in the midst of an action pursuit, and, after an hour or so of the clipped and earnest signifying, one may find themselves nostalgic for Scott’s unforced indifference to the issue. Somewhat subtler and more promising is the film’s vision of a corporate world that preys on consumers with mechanized nostalgia. Though K was created long after the frequently sentimentalized 1950s, he longs for the simplicity of a role-play in which a working man returns home to his stay-at-home wife, who places a dinner on the table while the couple trades sexy banter.
In a subplot that’s distractingly indebted to Spike Jonze’s Her, K’s in love with Joi (Ana de Armas), an adoring hologram who places a simulation of a steak on top of K’s real dinner—a plate of drab microwave noodles—while Frank Sinatra croons on the speakers in the background. It’s painfully clear that K wants to be an unquestioned American man, though this cozy image of tranquility is as illusory for him as it is for the people who feel the American dream has left them behind. K isn’t human (or is he?), isn’t living with someone, and his anonymous apartment is locked off from a neighborhood engulfed in poverty. Everything in this world is impersonal and corporately manufactured. Where Deckard used to buy noodles from a vendor, K gets meals on the run from a vending machine. Human jobs are rendered obsolete whenever possible, further detaching us from a centralized society and ironically sending us scurrying to our phones and computers for refuge.
Of course, this film is itself a work of corporate efficiency, designed to flatter our feelings of specialness so as to distract us from our own alienation, which is also both enabled and salved by technology. If K’s endless loneliness gives us a case of the sads, it must mean that we’re empathetic people. A tougher film might’ve interrogated K’s relationship with Joi, as it reflects how deeply the former has internalized the master/slave relationship that governs his rapport with outer society; he benefits from her imprisonment, just as Joshi benefits from his. But this film, per the dictates of the series, is more interested in style, reveling in a kind of blue chic that originated in the 1980s and has returned to pop culture with synthetic forcefulness.
Scott’s Blade Runner is ludicrously overstuffed with visual stimulation, suggesting a pre-gentrified New York City that’s been imprisoned in the bowels of the sexualized spaceship from the filmmaker’s earlier Alien, with Asian and French aristocratic bric-a-brac thrown in for kicks. Take a shot every time Scott lingers without irony on a ceiling fan or a perfectly composed shaft of dusty sunlight and you’ll be drunk before the end of the first act. A more elegant artist than Scott, Villeneuve prefers streamlined compositions with vast pockets of negative space that are occasionally punctuated with splashes of purple and blue as well as snow and rain and, say, a Romanesque statue. The enormity of D.P. Roger Deakins’s images pleasingly contrasts with the simplicity of their through lines. Even the cityscapes directly lifted out of the first film have been streamlined, rendered in big brush strokes.
Like New York City, perhaps this future Los Angeles has also been gentrified over the course of time that’s elapsed since Blade Runner. Slavery remains, but city designers have attained more restraint and taste, though something’s been lost in the trade: As fatuous as Scott’s film is, it has a gnarly, sweaty, dirty, sleazy, and deeply sexual intensity that suggests that there’s more to it than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Blade Runner 2049 embodies the sterile sanitization that continues to grip modern American filmmaking. That’s the point in this sequel, but self-awareness is meager compensation for texture.
Villeneuve knows how to tell a story, though screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green haven’t furnished him with much of one in this case. K discovers a secret about the evolution of replicants that sends him on a collision course with the narrative of Blade Runner, unearthing shrewdly planted callbacks to the past. Over the course of 163 minutes, K discovers a fact that we immediately accept as a given, with a deliberateness that induces the cinematic equivalent of highway hypnosis. Brief, coiled, heartbreaking performances by Dave Bautista and Silvia Hoeks invest the film with spikes of pathos that are smothered by the constipated tone. Blade Runner 2049 has been made with impeccable craftsmanship and taste, yet the film is so terrified of disreputability that it renders itself dead from the waist down, unable to derive pleasure even from a theoretically kinky robot three-way.