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Don't Expect To Have Your Mind Blown By 'Blade Runner 2049'


This is FRESH AIR. In 1982, director Ridley Scott's sci-fi detective thriller "Blade Runner" was released to good reviews but poor box office. Almost immediately, the reputation of this dark, dystopian view of the future began to grow. And now after 35 years, there's a sequel called "Blade Runner 2049." Ryan Gosling is the new blade runner, a police officer hunting artificial life-forms. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Anyone who saw "Blade Runner" in an empty theater in 1982 would be amazed by the excitement its sequel is generating. I saw the film in the mid-'80s at a midnight screening, those being prime outlets pre-home video for so-called cult movies. The visual universe, a Tokyo-influenced dystopia that's a dismal mix of high-tech and corrosion, would color all dystopias to come.

And the cult of Philip K. Dick, who wrote the novel it's from - "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" - would grow exponentially. Now after adaptations of his "Total Recall," "Minority Report" and "The Man In The High Castle," as well as things he plainly influenced like "The Matrix" and TV's "Westworld," you can't get away from his paranoid vision of a surveillance state in which memories are questionable and identities mutable.

So expectations are huge for "Blade Runner 2049." It's just OK - too long at 2 hours and 43 minutes, but absorbing. Director Denis Villeneuve made "Arrival," which was foggy, visually and temporally. And he uses fog here too, so the look is less hard-edged than in the first film. Figures melt out of a rancid, yellow smog, and the corroded LA cityscape, with its giant, beckoning Japanese female holograms, is more like San Francisco. California is gray, denuded of vegetation, a desert and garbage dump.

Ryan Gosling is the new Blade Runner, an LAPD officer called by the letter K. He's a hunter of artificial humans - replicants - who's himself a replicant, only a less-empathetic model than the older ones he's assigned to kill. The problem with those replicants, introduced in the first "Blade Runner," was they developed feelings, which made it hard to enslave them and also made them conscious of and furious about their built-in expiration dates. That's why the original blade runner, ex-cop Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, had to kill them, though his empathy took over, and he flew off in the end with a replicant named Rachael.

Deckard is alive in "Blade Runner 2049," but I'll stop there because the director, in a note read to critics at an early screening, asked that we disclose as few details as possible. But it's fair to say Deckard is a factor in the last act and one key to a long-buried secret relating to the ongoing existence of old-model replicants. That's why K's superior, played by Robin Wright, insists he kill everyone connected to that secret. She says their society is built on a wall between humans and replicants. If the wall falls, there could be war. Replicants are already starting to organize.

The question hangs, though - is K really completely without empathy? In one scene, he laments that his childhood memories are implanted, and he doesn't have a soul, to which his boss says, you've been getting along fine without one. But one look at Gosling and you know the boss is wrong. Gosling does a lot of eye acting. He can make his orbs look moist and innocent. He can make them smile. He certainly has something resembling a soul. In his apartment, he plays Sinatra's "A Summer Wind" while his holographic girlfriend leans on him, reading books. She seems soulful too.

This is a key element in Philip K. Dick's work. Machines would grow more human while humans' humanity would rust. Before he died, he read the original "Blade Runner" script and thought it left out his ideas. The sequel has more, like the sad young woman played by Carla Juri whose job is to manufacture memories. I can reveal that Jared Leto plays an industrialist who does hideous experiments on replicants and that he has a female replicant assistant who's a terminator-like assassin. I can also say, the end is overly sentimental and inconclusive.

The studio obviously thinks it can squeeze a series from this. You'll talk about the three-way, interdimensional sex scene. That's novel. But will you talk about "Blade Runner 2049" like you did about "Blade Runner" - doubtful. Unlike the original, its mysteries aren't that mysterious. You'll be reasonably entertained, but your mind unblown.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast or our 2006 interview with Tom Petty, which we rebroadcast Tuesday after his death, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews to choose from.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) The summer wind came blowing in from across the sea. It lingered there to touch your hair and walk with me. All summer long, we sang a song. And then we strolled that golden sand, two sweethearts and the summer wind. Like painted kites... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.