Blade Runner 2049’s visuals can’t escape character and pacing issues

Blade Runner 2049 stands up well to the 1982 original on a surface level. The film has an immaculate sense of place; DP Roger Deakins captures future L.A. in all its neon, rain drenched glory. The production design is stunning. Yet amazing visuals can’t overpower 2049’s thin supporting characters and pacing issues.

(Major spoilers ahead for Blade Runner 2049.)

Joi (Ana de Armas) – K’s (Ryan Gosling) futuristic mashup of Stepford wife and manic pixie dream girl – encapsulates Blade Runner 2049’s character problems. She starts the film with promise; Joi opens questions on how AI intersects with love, mobility, and even societal rank (Joi is technically a slave for another artificial slave.) And in a later memorable scene, Joi uses sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) as a physical substitute for herself. Joi tries to “sync” to the movements of Mariette; the unsettling imagery of this Joi/Mariette “hybrid” making out with K has implications for identity and even future-scape pornography.

Unfortunately, all those questions felt abandoned given Joi’s lack of depth. Outside that Joi/Mariette love scene, the film awkwardly shoehorns her into a K-centric solo narrative. At one point she’s reduced to little more than an exposition piece for the audience. Joi showers K with many “I love you” platitudes but gives little warmth. I never bought emotionally into Joi as a character nor her “tragic” death in the film’s third act.

Problems abound with other characters as well. Replicant villain Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) looks cool in a futuristic white coat and holds up in action scenes. Yet by the film’s end she’s little more than someone for the audience to sneer at. Top baddie Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is flat out embarrassing. Leto is out of his depth here. His line readings reach for profoundness on angels and creation but come off as supremely dumb. Wallace only has two big scenes in 2049, but they both drag on much longer than they should.

Wallace isn’t the only one that needed some trimming. A few acts of K’s journey feel slack. The mood shifts from contemplative to plodding. At some point, while K slowly walks through a furnace from his memory, my mind drifted away from the character’s concerns to how much this film must have cost Warner Brothers to make.

Denis Villeneuve’s occasionally portentous direction is partially to blame. At times it feels like Villeneuve got intoxicated by the setting to the point of distraction. He’ll hold on a stunning shot of fifty child extras in a post apocalyptic orphanage, or Joi as a 200 foot pink ad-bot, and then we’re off to the next scene without deeper probing.

Though what a setting! Many shots will sit with me for a long time, especially those of L.A.’s dystopian future. Deakins captures cramped gray-black housing with tiny shafts of commercial life bursting through the seams. We see massive walls on the city perimeter that hold high sea tides away from its occupants.

And some characters still register. Gosling sticks to his moody, mostly silent Drive persona here and it suits the film well. Harrison Ford also delivers a strong (albeit brief) performance, especially in 2049’s final scene. And I enjoyed Dave Bautista’s brief turn as replicant. There’s a nuance and interior quality to his acting style that starts 2049 on the right foot.

Nevertheless, my frustrations still stand. 2049 may still be destined for cult status, but the film’s flaws relegate what could have been amazing to something far less.