Director Ridley Scott's 1982 feature Blade Runner is the kind of epochal genre film whose stylistic influence is so enormous, it can be difficult to accurately assess the feature's merits and flaws in isolation. Blade Runner changed science fiction forever, in a way that even Scott's Alien didn't quite manage in 1979. The latter film is a masterpiece, and H.R. Giger's nightmarish creature designs were instantly seared into the cultural consciousness, but Alien was essentially an old-fashioned monster movie in gritty New Hollywood clothing. Blade Runner was something else, something ferociously fresh. It is thoughtful, enigmatic, poetic, radical. It borrows form the conventions of film noir, but then disappears down a dystopian rabbit hole of suffocating megacities, unrestrained corporatism, and manufactured people. Like Metropolis or The Road Warrior, it only seems clichéd because it is where those cinematic clichés were born. (Or, "incepted," to be precise.)
The historical heft of the original film undoubtedly weighed on the creative minds behind Blade Runner 2049, a sequel that unfolds in 30 years later in the same grim, alternate future of bio-engineered replicants and off-world colonies. Those minds include French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) and writers Hampton Francher and Michael Green, the former a returning co-scripter form the original Blade Runner. Scott himself also returns, this time as an executive producer. The filmmakers seem to appreciate that a sequel is almost always less revolutionary than its forebear, and to that end they have focused on creating a work that retains the original film's other laudable qualities. Blade Runner 2049 is as pensive and mysterious as its predecessor, and also visually and aurally dazzling in a way that counter-balances its necessarily diminished novelty. It is, to be frank, the best that cinephiles could have hope for in a 35-years-later Blade Runner sequel.
Villeneuve and the distributors have practically pleaded with critics to keep most aspects of 2049's plot under wraps. So be it. Suffice to say that the story concerns another "blade runner" employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. He is known simply as K (Ryan Gosling), and like his fellows he is tasked with hunting down rogue replicants and "retiring" them by force. By 2049, this diminishing group of fugitives mostly consists of later models created by the now-defunct Tyrell Corporation, which after the events depicted in the first film rather unwisely developed replicants with indefinite lifespans.
In the process of retiring a particularly dangerous "skin-job" who is living as a farmer (Dave Bautista), K makes a strange discovery. In fine noir tradition, pulling at this thread starts to unravel a far-reaching conspiracy of civic and corporate corruption. K eventually follows the trail back to Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner who in 2019 faced down four desperate, ruthless Tyrell units -- and in the process, fell for a replicant himself. The only thing missing from K's story is a femme fatale. He has a special lady already, in the form of a consumer hologram and surrogate wife, Joi (Ana de Armas), while frosty villainess Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is all killer instinct and no sultry slink.
To say more of the plot would diminish the pleasure of experiencing the film firsthand, but it's not truly concern for spoilers that compels that restraint. Truthfully, any reasonably canny science fiction fan will be able to guess almost every plot beat in Blade Runner 2049 before it unfolds. Time and again, the viewer knows exactly what is going to happen -- what lies hidden in the ashes of an ancient furnace, whose face will emerge out of the shadows as echoing footfalls approach, what a spiteful villain will do to a cherished possession. Yet Villeneuve draws these moments out into scenes ripe with quivering expectation. This is not a film of narrative twists, but of moods, vistas, and philosophical conundrums. The viewer is advised to simply settle in and let it wash over them.
The new film boasts some marvelously composed action sequences, most of them consistent with the hard-boiled tone of the original Blade Runner: scrabbling bare-knuckle brawls, grisly knife fights, cat-and-mouse shootouts. There are rare bursts of more spectacular science fiction violence, such as a barrage of missiles raining down from a sub-orbital drone, but these explosive moments end just as quickly as they begin. Viewers expecting a re-imagining of Blade Runner as a bombastic 2010s sci-fi action film will be disappointed. Villeneuve's film is 2 hours and 43 minutes long, and it fills that epic running time not with exhausting sound and fury, but with melancholic contemplation. It meditates on faces, landscapes, and emotions.
Blade Runner 2049 gapes at the noxious orange wasteland that is the former Las Vegas, where eerie, colossal statues deftly but vividly evoke Shelley's "Ozymandias". It inspects snowflakes as they melt on a battered hand, in a moment that recalls Steve McQueen's film of righteous self-annihlation, Hunger. (Pointedly, a character at one point speaks to K about humankind's facility for martyrdom.) Midway through the film, K's digital wife Joi hies a prostitute to physically gratify him while she holographically mimes the woman's movements. It's a bittersweet attempt to capture something like domestic sexual intimacy. Another kind of film would have given this scene fleeting attention, or cut it altogether. Villeneuve luxuriates in its strange sadness, and asks that the viewer does the same, soaking up all its tremulous passion and unbearable anguish, while also ruminating on its disquieting thematic implications.
This is not a feature that rushes excitably from one spectacle to the next. It's a film of wonders, to be sure, but it lingers on its wonders, obliging the viewer to absorb and react to each of them. It might be the most brazenly languid film ever made for north of $150 million, which is arguably a kind of radicalism all its own. Fancher and Green's screenplay begins with the striking world conjured by Scott's original film, and then stretches its concepts and characters in new, speculative directions, posing questions that feel like knotty but credible extensions of those raised in the first feature. It's stylish, engrossing, and thrilling, but it never feels like a film that's tripping over itself to appeal to the widest possible audience, or even to prod at the nostalgia centers of the original Blade Runner's devotees. Viewers can simply take or leave 2049, in all its doleful, ponderous, mesmerizing glory. In the present age of sprawling cinematic universes and misbegotten franchises, there's something wonderful about seeing such cerebral unconcern in a massive sequel to a beloved science fiction film.
Villeneuve has only made one stone-cold masterpiece -- the surreal, little-seen thriller Enemy -- but all his English-language films exhibit a formal virtuosity that blends an auteur's daring with the uncanny self-assurance of a natural big-budget filmmaker. Blade Runner 2049 is no exception, and paired with last year's Arrival, the film makes a persuasive case for the director as a leading purveyor of Hollywood sci-fi as a Cinema of Ideas. However, while Villeneuve's stamp is discernible, the film is an exemplar of the marvelous results that emerge when everyone involved is working at the top of their game. The masterminds on the crew include: legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, his images flawless as usual (Christ, give the man an Oscar, already); production designer Dennis Gassner, carrying the now-retro-futurist vision of the original film forward three decades; and composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, building splendidly on Vangelis' iconic 1982 score.
Ford plays Deckard as a wily codger with few regrets but plenty of heartache. He performs well enough, and even delivers a couple of glorious line readings, but his presence in the film is primarily about establishing a living connection to the original Blade Runner. (Edward James Olmos in a cameo and a couple of other faces also contribute in this respect.) Cuban-Spanish actress de Armas is the film's real discovery, in a challenging role that requires her to convey genuine affection and longing underneath the veneer of a pre-programmed girlfriend experience. However, there's no point in mincing word: Blade Runner 2049 belongs to Gosling, who is as good as he's ever been here. He portrays K as a man who is obliged to ensure successive gut-punches of emotional agony, while also doing his best to keep moving forward with only a few telltale tears, trembles, and grimaces. In this, K doesn't always succeed; often, he seems nearly paralyzed by his doubts and suspicions, in the same way that most people would freeze in the face of lethal physical danger. Gosling's damp, searching eyes -- slightly asymmetric, one never following the other quite perfectly -- are vital here, conveying the sense of someone who is roiling with questions, but hasn't decided if he wants to know the answers or not.
Like its forebear, Blade Runner 2049 is a film that seems ordained to be dissected and disassembled, in the hope that its apparent ambiguities might be resolved. Just as Scott did, Villeneuve scatters signs and omens across his meticulously composed frames, like lucid signposts in a dreamscape. There are wisps of fairy tales and monster stories everywhere: Frankenstein, Peter and the Wolf, and Pinocchio are all alluded to, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly. (Nabokov's Pale Fire also gets a nod.) However, it would be a mistake to regard the film as a puzzle box to be unlocked. The original Blade Runner's most obsessive admirers have spent 35 years poring over its every detail, to no avail. The 1982 film defiantly resists any attempt to wrest cut-and-dried answers about its central noir mystery from its mad, grimy clutches. Blade Runner 2049 is much the same; it will mock code-breakers and taunt case-crackers.
Beyond potent atmospherics and the nitty-gritty of sci-fi world-building, the 1982 film's primary interest was philosophical. Like Scott's original, but unlike, say, Jonathan's Glazer's Under the Skin -- a masterful film, but one that wrestles with more abstract, existential questions -- Blade Runner 2049's preoccupations are intimately entangled with humankind's relationship to technology. Villeneuve and his collaborators apprehend how the future's miracles heighten time-worn philosophical dilemmas, turning airy theorizing into uncanny vexation and horror. What does it mean to be human? In what sense are memories real? What is the distinction between natural and not-natural? The harsh irony of Blade Runner 2049 is that it is ultimately a far more elegant and poignant exploration of themes that Scott himself has attempted to plumb in recent years with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve's film is welcome proof that returning to and expanding on a cherished story can still produce invigorating cinema that lives up to the ambition and artistry of the original.