It's going to sound like I'm crabbing and bitching and pissing and moaning and harboring all sorts of ill will towards Blade Runner 2049, so let me please clarify one important thing: it's a fine movie. And that's already most of the battle won. Given the uncountable number of ways that a decades-later sequel to 1982's stylistic masterwork Blade Runner could have gone, the fact that BR2049 is good is all the miracle we could ask for. Also, it's worth keeping in mind, this is the second time that 2017 has witnessed a follow-up to a production design-heavy Ridley Scott science fiction film from around the dawn of the 1980s, with Scott taking an active role in the new film's production. And if BR2049 strikes me as rather substantially less than the staggering achievement which quite a substantial number of critics and fans take it to be, it's also rather substantially more than the damp squib of Alien: Covenant.

The plot of BR2049- and see, we've already hit the wall. BR2049 is a plot film. And Blade Runner really just isn't. It's a mood piece heavy with traditional science fiction philosophy and heavier with mindblowing production design and visual effects, in service to an act of world building that is itself an example of philosophy. If there's one point where BR2049 obviously went wrong early, never to recover, it's that it took its cues from the ostensible mystery of Blade Runner rather than the tone. Or to put it another way: this is a film made by people who think that Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard is the most fascinating and important character by the original film, which is a choice that somebody certainly could make and defend. But, of course, Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty is actually the most fascinating character, and it's telling that the one thing the new film forgets to earnestly re-create is some new version of the "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe" speech, which is probably the best thing in the original.

So anyway, the plot. It's 2049, 30 years after Deckard (a human? or not? I will spoil the point only to say that BR2049 deals with this longstanding question in the most tediously coy way imaginable) and Rachael (for sure not a human) fled into the wilderness to keep Rachael safe from the prying eyes of God knows what scientists, cops, and bureaucrats curious about the new leap forward in technology she represents. A lot has happened in those three decades, some of which we learn in wonderful fragmentary snippets, some of which we learn in a scene that clumsily treats its exposition with a graceless "what's that, whippersnapper? You're too young to remember the details of an event 27 years ago that's almost solely responsible for defining the world in which we live? Well then, let me tell you all about it" gambit. What we learn in an opening title card is that the synthetic anthropoids called replicants - strongly implied to be hyper-realistic robots in the first movie, explicitly declared to be genetically engineered humans in this one - were outlawed for a time after the events of the first movie, but later brought back in a new, much more docile form by industrial genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has done away with the whole "give them personalities" nonsense that caused so much trouble back in 2019. Now, the replicants are so reliable that the Los Angeles police department even has a replicant on staff to hunt down and assassinate (or "retire") other replicants - a role still called, as it was 30 years ago, a "blade runner". The artificial blade runner we'll be spending the next few hours with has no name, just a serial number, which is familiarly shortened to "K" (Ryan Gosling). I don't know if I'm saddened or relieved that there's never any whisper of a Kafka reference surrounding this moniker.

K's latest mission uncovers a shocking, unpleasant discovery: the bones of a female replicant that bear the definite marks of injuries that could only have been caused by childbirth. His human boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), takes this news with massively paranoid excess, and assigns K to the task of eradicating the child and whatever other evidence he can find, and thereon hangs the rest of the film. It's trading one sci-fi cliché for another - "have we made a more perfect human race to replace ourselves" for "what do we make of the Robot Christ-child" - but honestly, the fact that BR2049 gets so hot and bothered about its own internal mythology is a godsend. For all the explicit references in Hampton Fancher and Michael Green's screenplay, for all the direct visual quotes in Dennis Gassner's production design and Roger Deakin's solid-color cinematography, for all the feeble attempts at mimicking Vangelis's outstanding electronic music in Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer's startlingly mediocre score, this doesn't really feel very much like Blade Runner at all, and that makes it a lot easier to think of the new film as a separate thing, to be judged on its own terms.

And on those terms, BR2049 is, well, it's a fine movie, like I said. It's too motherfucking long, that's for sure. At 163 minutes, the film has a lot of room, and a lot of plot to fill it with, but the first 100 minutes are largely taken up with detective movie boilerplate. All around the edges, a fantastically interesting snapshot of humans' incorporation of technology into our lives keeps announcing its intentions to intrude, something half-way between Blade Runner and Brazil. Most promisingly and most frustratingly, K's live-in girlfriend is a hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas), whose precise level of self-awareness and autonomy remain tantalisingly unclear throughout; but Joi remains firmly at the level of nervous film noir girlfriend, her technological nature remaining almost pure window dressing. Otherwise, the film functions, like its predecessor, almost entirely by providing fragments that invite us to construct a whole world from them: the spectacle of malfunctioning holograms in a long-dead Las Vegas casino creating a ghostly kaleidoscope of Vegas entertainment through the years (this is also the scene where Deakins goes to town most showily), a beautiful scene where a verdant forest collapses into a sterile white prison, the brief flashes we get of life on the streets of Los Angeles.

The problem, then, isn't with the world-building, which is superb (though it could never be as novel as in Blade Runner, a film that it mostly just amplifies - and not even as invigoratingly as the shitty live-action Ghost in the Shell did earlier in 2017). The problem is that the story which winds through that world is laboriously reconstructed without anything that pays it off: I would never dare to dream of saying what specifically happens in BR2049, but I will say that the hints all throughout of a rebellion of replicants gathering strength underground and away from prying eyes grow increasingly forced and implausible the more explicit they become. And K, played by Gosling with an impressively focused lack of affect (which makes the few times an actual emotion crosses his face land with more impact) simply hasn't the curiosity to anchor whatever statements of robotic humanity this film thinks it has up its sleeve. To be frank, I don't know what this film thinks its ultimate message is; it muddies things horribly by dragging in Ford, surprisingly not joyless and bitter, deep into its running time, and plopping him in the center of a film that would surely have resonated more if he remained a ghost, or an echo, or a rumor. Or simply didn't show up, and the Blade Runner franchise (God preserve us) just stayed an anthology series centered in one location and with a set cluster of themes. The Ford part of the film feels subtly different than the non-Ford part: more satisfying, because it is more narratively consequential, but also shallower, since it abandons whatever scraps of theme it was trying to cobble around K.

For all this whining, I will concede that for such a long, overstuffed thing, BR2049 doesn't really feel like its running time, and it is stupid gorgeous. It's not even quite as stupid gorgeous as the first time that Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve collaborated, on Prisoners in 2013, but the contrast between the giant slabs of color for the exteriors - deadly patches of orange in Las Vegas, steel blue canyons in Los Angeles, the bleached grey protein farm where the film opens - and the soft whiteness of the interiors would be enough to put this in the running for 2017's most openly impressive work of cinematography even without the watery yellow lighting that turn the inside of the Wallace Corporation into dry aquariums, and are perhaps the most striking example of lighting I've seen all year.

It's also none too shabby at wandering around in the corners of a ruined world that full of monuments to the past: giant collapsing buildings of twisting metal walkways, perverse statues in tribute to female exploitation gaping silently in the yellow haze of the desert, and the concrete impenetrability of the L.A. buildings we see in close-up - not all of them I think, designed for the film. The point is, what Blade Runners need to be good at, BR2049 is good at. Take out how impressed it is with its own elaborate plot, dig into the ideas being laid out rather than pointing at them and saying, "see, that's some speculative fiction right there" before walking on, and maybe try harder to capture the spirit of Blade Runner and less of the letter, and there could really be something here. I mean, there is something here. Just not really enough to justify its heaving, exhausting ambition.