Blade Runner 2049 begins on a farm in broad daylight. It’s what you would call a dramatic change of scenery. Before now—which is to say, for the decades it took Hollywood to get this long-awaited sequel off the ground—Blade Runner was basically synonymous with nighttime and the city. Though set in a sleek, bleak future when some of mankind has abandoned Earth for “off-world” living, Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian noir never really left rainy, foggy, overcrowded Los Angeles, where man and machine alike plotted in the shadows of skyscrapers. But that was the old model. This new one moves around: from a basically unchanged L.A.—cold and dark as ever, just with pushier holographic advertising—to a junkyard Mad Max orphanage, a temple of robotic creation, and a fallen city, orange with radiation. If Blade Runner gave us the world, Blade Runner 2049 has come to fill in the universe.
Orchestrated by Sicario and Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, taking over for Scott (who produced), this is the blockbuster sequel as extended club remix: It takes a hit song—a midnight cyber ballad from the New Wave yesterday—and stretches it way out, distorting notes and building on motifs. That’s literally true of the movie’s soundtrack, which cannibalizes that seminal synth-and-sax Vangelis score for stray blasts of familiar melody, then nearly drowns them underneath the rumble of one of Hans Zimmer’s assaults on the speakers. More broadly, there’s also the way that an economical sci-fi classic has birthed a two-hour-and-44-minute encore: a longer, slower, heavier return trip to Philip K. Dick’s nightmare tomorrow.
Much has happened in the 30 onscreen years that have elapsed since Harrison Ford’s trench coat-clad Rick Deckard retired his last “skin job.” The Tyrell Corporation, engineer of lifelike bionic slaves, went bankrupt—but not before unleashing a final wave of replicants with indefinite lifespans, now perpetually on the lam, squatting wherever they can find safe haven from those who would have them exterminated. There are newer models of synthetic laborers, birthed out of tubes of plastic by godlike mogul Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), and much more compliant than their neurotic predecessors. And there are still Blade Runners, hired to track down the outlaw machines; if Scott’s original played coy about the origins of its own bounty-hunting detective, leading to endless is-he-or-isn’t he debate, Blade Runner 2049 allows no misunderstanding: L.A.P.D. officer K (Ryan Gosling) only looks human.
Part of the endless fun of Blade Runner is how it uploaded gumshoe conventions into a new science-fiction shell—a tradition upheld here by having K, like Deckard before him, take the kind of constant beatings reserved only for the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the world. (The film’s fight scenes are hectic and messy, sending characters through walls and to their knees.) But Gosling isn’t “doing” Ford. Blade Runner 2049 draws upon the younger actor’s own romanic aloofness, that distant cosmetic cool; more than most of his peers, the Drive star is ideally suited to playing a mechanical man with something stirring deep inside him. “You’ve done just fine without one,” Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) says of K’s purported lack of a soul, but Gosling, fixing his baby blues into the distance, keeps the character’s humanity (existential, not literal) an open question, at least for a while.
At nearly three hours, this is a big-budget studio franchise picture that takes its time, slow-playing its mystery, luxuriating in its awesomely meticulous world-building. There are times when it flirts with something stranger than the super-sized detective story at its center. When not on the job, K plays house with custom-made love interest Joi (Ana De Armas), a flickering housewife summoned like Alexa from the ether upon his return each night. It’s the movie’s most potentially poignant idea—the robot and the hologram, acting out a facsimile of domestic bliss—and it leads to scenes, like a strange act of consummation, that seem as indebted to Spike Jonze’s aching sci-fi daydream Her as to its own iconic inspiration. But screenwriters Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, the latter of whom launched his career with the original, seem to take the romance at face value, even as Joi remains at best a winsome idea, at worst an exposition delivery system, and never quite a character.
It wouldn’t quite be accurate to call Blade Runner 2049 hard science fiction. Mostly, it applies a seductive new coat of paint to old genre concerns—those nagging questions of sentience and technological evolution, augmented this time with a stealth sentimentality that marks it as the work of the same filmmaker behind cerebral tearjerker Arrival. But goddamn is the thing a wonder to look at. Villeneuve, whose transformation from Québecois arthouse maverick to studio visionary is now complete, plunges us into an expansive, beautifully realized future. There’s never any shortage of nifty technological details, like a handheld dreamweaver used to conjure false memories for the replicants’ implants. And the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, working with maybe his fullest palette of colors and textures, supplies one staggeringly unforgettable image after another: a giant shaft of light passing constantly over the pyramid-like corridors of the villain’s corporate HQ; a fleet of flying cars zooming across a tangerine skyline, mighty abandoned buildings looming out of the mist; and Gosling strolling in silhouette through the shadows of snowy L.A., like Brad Pitt emerging from the locomotive steam in Deakins’ masterpiece of lensing, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.
It is hard to shake the feeling that Blade Runner 2049, for all its grand visual invention, is something of a replicant itself. Scott’s original posited memories as the key to emotional autonomy—if there was a ghost in the shell of Sean Young’s tortured moll, it came from the phony history supplied to her by her makers. Likewise, this hefty, gleaming franchise object owes much of its resonance to the relationship its audience might have to a three-decade-old classic. CGI ghosts, audio samples, and callbacks (“more human than human,” equestrian keepsakes, a boiling pot as a suspense device) haunt the film’s vast, cavernous hallways. And they loom, too, over Harrison Ford, again grappling with his own sci-fi past, in another crowd-pleasing role reprisal. Like The Force Awakens, Blade Runner 2049 exploits his advancing age for easy cathartic power, in this case literally confronting Ford with audio of his previous performance. But that can’t take anything away from the star’s almost relaxed gravitas.
Whether the film settles the enduring Deckard debate, this review can’t and won’t say. (Spoilers are being guarded with a vigilance that might make master of secrets J.J. Abrams roll his eyes.) But there’s a slightly dispiriting sense that Blade Runner 2049 has been made under the assumption that those kind of endlessly mulled-over fan theories are what makes the original special. Blade Runner, now and always, is a poetic curiosity, not a puzzle waiting to be solved. And its smallness is a big part of its appeal: By only giving us one little corner of Dick’s (and Deckard’s) brave new world, Scott encouraged imaginations to spark and drift, to construct that unseen universe from mental scratch. Blade Runner 2049 does the work for us, and often with gloriously operatic panache, but its sights and sounds are mere echoes of everything a genre-mashing cult classic already implanted in our noggins.