This week I saw Blade Runner 2049 at the cinema after rewatching the original.
One of these films is a masterful work of art. The other is its pale shadow.
Can you guess which is which?
What makes Scott’s Blade Runner so great is that it’s a full-immersion experience. Crucially, it immerses us in an unfamiliar world as it is experienced by the characters. This is why it still works, after decades of imitations. Even though it’s an immediately familiar world (flying cars, constant drizzle), we’re made to share the characters’ sense of looking at this world anew. The visuals, the performances (a plot that develops as much through Harrison Ford’s facial expressions as through his words) and, of course, that score…all of it sustains a feeling of existential unease from the first scene to the last.
Blade Runner has aged well. In common with much timeless science-fiction, it lets us feel what it’s like to experience the real world as a dream. In this, it stays true to the dreamlike feel of Philip K. Dick’s source material (as the author acknowledged).
Blade Runner 2049, however, fails to immerse us in its weird, shimmering world through the experience of its protagonist, “K”. It never achieves the same sense of disjointedness and alienation because to be out of place you must first be rooted in a place. 2049 isn’t and so it drags. We’re not participants in this story. We’re spectators of other spectators.
This is not only about pacing, scripting and plotting, although it is about that. Alas, Ryan Gosling has nothing like the range, charisma or screen presence that Harrison Ford had. Ford more or less drives the plot of Blade Runner with his facial expressions; Gosling’s inexpressiveness holds 2049 in limbo.
And, yes, I get that he is a self-aware replicant with emotion-retention issues. But if he explodes in that one scene (you’ll remember it, it’s the one where he’s acting) then why so much of the blank face?
2049 is a stylish, high-concept, boring and portentous film. I know the original is slow (as pointed out in this ‘honest trailer’) but at least Scott punctured its air of seriousness with flashes of humour and Tim Burton-esque quirkiness (Why does Rutger Hauer strip naked during the final confrontation? I’ve no idea, I don’t care, and this detail alone is more disorienting and entertaining than anything the sequel can muster).
Some final advice to would-be directors of sequels to beloved classics: don’t reference so many of the original’s memorable scenes if you don’t want audiences to draw unfavourable comparisons. (Also it looks desperate.)