Editor’s note: This review may feature some mild spoilers for “Blade Runner 2049.”
“Blade Runner 2049,” the big-budget sequel 35 years in the making, is every bit as beautiful, mysterious, impenetrable and often languorous as director Ridley Scott’s 1982 original. It is, for better and for worse, every bit the perfect sequel to “Blade Runner” — given that it amplifies both the original’s successes and flaws. Shepherded to the big screen by director Denis Villeneuve, the filmmaker behind “Sicario” and “Arrival,” this new sequel is at the very least a grand achievement in big-budget visionary science fiction filmmaking. Does it have as compelling a reason to exist on the storytelling front? That’s not as easy to answer.
Although, the prospect of following up Scott’s bizarre cult classic has always been more interesting in regards to seeing how the world it established could be recreated with modern advancements in special effects, set design and art direction. What makes “Blade Runner” endure is mood and style, certainly more than any sort of vibrant interior life of cop protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). He’s an LAPD officer tasked with “retiring” rogue synthetic humans — replicants — in a dystopian future-noir Los Angeles where the sun never seems to come out. He is also one of the least interesting things about the original film, to be frank. It’s the detailed sci-fi world viewers find easy to get lost in, and keep coming back for.
“Blade Runner 2049” certainly has mood and style, and a world worth exploring. Villeneuve and his collaborators, including master cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner, have crafted a truly extraordinary setting, expanding upon Scott’s original ’80s-style dark futurism to depict a world on the brink of complete collapse. The natural ecosystem has all but been destroyed. The haze is so thick that only the omnipresent holographic advertisements can cut through the darkness. And, eventually, in the service of this film’s expansive, sprawling story, we see cities beyond the Los Angeles limits. They are not doing so well either. This is all created with stunning technique that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
I suppose it’s best not to reveal all that much about the story of “Blade Runner 2049,” so to preserve its secrets, I will tread lightly. Our protagonist is Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a “blade runner” tasked with hunting down replicants — but unlike the first time around, in which Deckard’s humanity has remained tantalizingly ambiguous, we learn definitively in the opening moments of the film that K is a replicant himself. He’s a newer model — more subservient to his human masters, like his lieutenant (Robin Wright) at the LAPD. But his existence is a solitary one, distrusted by humans and disparaged by the replicants he hunts down.
In the prologue, K faces off against one such older model replicant (Dave Bautista), hiding in the countryside on a protein farm. On the grounds of this farm, K makes a discovery that leads to a shocking mystery that could have worldwide consequences. “This breaks the world,” his lieutenant tells him, tasking K with covering up what he’s discovered before news gets out. This is easier said than done, as powerful interests are soon hot on K’s trail. This eventually leads him to Deckard. And in “Blade Runner” fashion, the illusory nature of identity and reality is examined, during an expansive 163-minute runtime.
Eventually the film’s plot runs a bit out of gas, partially because “Blade Runner 2049” lacks a truly compelling antagonist along the lines of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. Try as they might, neither Jared Leto’s messianic blind entrepreneur Niander Wallace, nor Sylvia Hoeks’s replicant assistant Luv are quite fit to walk in Roy Batty’s shoes, though perhaps that’s unfair: We’re measuring them against one of the most interesting villains in science fiction.
But they’re both good here, as are, more importantly, Gosling and Ford. Gosling’s actually quite compelling, especially in his scenes with a character called Joi (Ana de Armas) — a holographic companion with whom he has developed a close relationship, despite the fact she doesn’t have a physical form. This is where “Blade Runner 2049” is most exciting and provocative; it presents a soulful romance between two things that, by conventional understanding, don’t have souls. But what is a soul? If one is possessed of human emotion and feeling, is one not human? What are the ethics of programming something to love you — and does it make that love any less genuine?
“Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t exactly tread new thematic ground — Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green don’t examine the fungible distinction between human and replicant in a significantly different way than the original film. Don’t get me wrong: One leaves thrilled and perplexed in the best possible ways by a new film in the “Blade Runner” universe. But it is a new film that does not significantly expand or deepen our understanding of this universe, a film that seems to answer the question “I wonder what has changed in that world during the past 30 years” with “Ultimately, not that much.” Still, even if much of “Blade Runner 2049” feels like well-trod territory by this point — cribbing as much from sci-fi like “Ex Machina,” “Her” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” as Scott’s original film — it’s a beautiful revisit to one of sci-fi cinema’s most striking visions that does right by its predecessor.