“More Human Than Human.”

“That is our motto,” said Tyrell, head of the android-designing Tyrell Corporation.

And so began Blade Runner, a movie in which our human hero, Deckard the Replicant Hunter, began to wonder how human he really was, and in which his targets — ferocious replicants gone rogue — demonstrated their capacity to be vengeful Frankenstein monsters of humanity’s own making and their capacity to grasp the concept of grace, something that humankind had apparently forgotten.

[This is a review in progress. Check back for revisions and expansions to this draft.]

In that sense, it’s easy to imagine that the immeasurable influence of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece played a part in the composition of U2’s early ’90s hit “Even Better Than the Real Thing.” I suspect that they were consciously thinking about television, pornography, and consumer culture’s inclination to sell us trouble-free substitutes for the good-but-challenging things that God intended. Replicants were the culmination of humankind’s desire to be gods, to have slaves, and to find living beings that they could exploit to their heart’s content.

Now, more than 30 years after that original, groundbreaking work of science fiction filmmaking, one based on the innovative imagination of Philip K. Dick, we have a sequel directed by Denis Villeneuve with a screenplay and written by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original with David Webb Peoples).

And like Replicants themselves, it is designed to please its customers. It does so by serving up all of the familiar Blade Runner things that we like: flying cars, that overpowering Vangelis soundtrack, a grim and bloodied hero with an identity crisis, sexy synthetic faux-females, brutal hand-to-hand combat in the rain, fleeting glimpses of characters from the original, and machines that confirm our sinking suspicion that humanity has forgotten its greatest distinction—love.

Moreover, it understands that Blade Runner‘s distinctiveness was in avoiding action-movie cliches and focusing instead on Big Ideas. So Blade Runner 2049 has some of those too. But it introduces them in a very different cinematic context than the original, one in which we are surrounded by ambitious science fiction films about artificial intelligence.

As a result, this film — we might call it Blade Runner: Even Better Than the Real Thing — plays like a variation on a popular genre, joining recent hits like Ex Machina and Her and Alien: Covenant in the game of showing us the dangers of manufacturing subordinate entities.

As a sort of Blade Runner Replicant, 2049 comes about as close as I can imagine a movie coming to succeeding as a worthy sequel. It’s an immersive experience, often persuading us that this is, indeed, the same horrific future in which Deckard and Roy Batty fought it out in the rain. The cast is outstanding. The music is, at its best points, reminiscent of Vangelis’s original score, and, at worst, just a variation on the standard-issue percussive/concussive style of Christopher Nolan’s soundtracks. The story takes us to new locations, and wrestles with new twists on old questions.

Nevertheless, it cannot avoid the inevitable pitfalls of any Blade Runner sequel. And that is because the greatness of the original is due to its perfect limitations, its perfect restraint, its refusal to tell us any more than we needed to know.

I mean, for the love of all things holy — Blade Runner was the last Great Singularity in the world of science-fiction. It was a perfect snow globe. And any sequel that explores that particular narrative further expands the circumference of this big-screen world, placing that original snow globe within a bigger snow globe, which inevitably distances us from its perfection. Blade Runner‘s greatness was in its completeness, how everything contributed to the integrity of the whole. The origami unicorn, for crying out loud. Have we learned nothing from expanding on Alien? 2001: A Space Odyssey? Etc., etc., etc.?

Expanding Deckard’s story — this was always Deckard’s story, and the new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling isn’t interesting enough to change that  — beyond what was originally established makes it more difficult for the audience (well, this audience, anyway) to suspend disbelief. The original worked for me because Deckard was just a cop and Rachel just a high-end Replicant that Tyrell used to show off. It was Chinatownin Space. As moviegoers, we revere the two of them for their everyman/ suffering-hero qualities as they discover things that show them their dark and troubling world is far more troubling than they’d realized. They have been born into an unjust cosmos, exploited, pushed around, bamboozled, led astray. All we want for them is escape and some sweet relief.

But this movie, like the original’s reverent fans themselves, makes giants of them — characters of grand religious significance. There will be no escape for Deckard and Rachel. They are caught by a power more insufferable than Tyrell’s corporate tyranny or the law’s brutal prejudice. Though all they want is to ride off into the noir sunset with grim Chinatown looks on their faces, they now discover they’ve been caught by The Power of MythTM. And that means they are Important on a larger scale.

This has the effect of weakening what made me care for these two characters in the first place. It takes what was originally a solid science-fiction story and begins to turn it into a mythology of gods.

As a result, in spite of Fancher’s role here, this will never feel to me like something more than fan fiction written by the overly reverent. If I have to accept it as “canon,” then the whole affair is, in my opinion (and as I feared), diminished.

It doesn’t help that Harrison Ford, for all of the emotion that he brings to this performance (he “shows up” for this, as NPR’s Glen Weldon put it), doesn’t remind me of Deckard. At all. He reminds me of, well, Grumpy Old Man Harrison Ford, which is pretty much the only Ford we see anymore.

Still, there is much to admire here. Deakins, of course. Gosling is just good enough to be interesting. Carla Juri, one of the most interesting young actresses going right now, gives this chapter a surprisingly note of human tenderness. And the film’s bold venture into the new App-droid Genre (Her, Ex Machina) gives the film its most unnervingly fascinating turns, even if they feel more like they belong in Ex Machina 2 than Blade Runner 2.

And it sets up Villeneuve’s next film very neatly with a big-reveal scene that feels like something right out of Dune.

Also:

Jared Leto is not scary. Which only makes his character’s unnecessary and disturbingly graphic scenes of violence toward women that much more frustrating.

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