For its first two hours, Blade Runner 2049 seduces us, slowly drawing us deeper into the past as we search for the key to upend this bleak authoritarian future. Where everything ends up isn’t as satisfying, but that’s not surprising for a movie motivated by mood, color, and scale more than plotlines.
I’ve only seen Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner once, and I didn’t revisit it before taking in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel. The visuals are reason enough to see this in theaters. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, legend that he is, designs shots that wow with their sheer size and alluring patterns of color and light. Sensual yellows and oranges give the baddies’ corporate offices an erotic charge; the ruins of Las Vegas, abandoned due to radioactivity, resemble a scorching sunscape.
The look is distinctive to Villeneuve’s re-imagining of the universe, yet the movie echoes its ‘80s origins. It’s hard to tell where the miniature models end and the CGI takes over. Ridley Scott’s vision of the future persists: a hellish fantasia of an environment destroyed, overrun by machines and corporations and urban sprawl. (This movie takes on our environmental woes much more effectively than mother!) A morose, lonely planet, overtaken by ubiquitous grey skyscrapers and virtual-reality ads of nude women, suffocating in endless rain.
You could watch the movie without sound and feel ninety percent of it.
Ryan Gosling is a replicant and blade runner for the LAPD, identified as “K,” who is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” older replicants. But he discovers clues about one female replicant who mysteriously gave birth—which, if the news leaked, could endanger everything that keeps order between replicants and humans. So K is tasked with finding—and retiring—the child. Gosling works well as a replicant; he’s a minimal actor anyway, and he keeps his face inscrutable. The effect might be unnerving, but there’s something trustworthy about the actor. He’s beautiful to look at, which helps.
In one pivotal scene, Gosling learns a key secret about the child he’s searching for. The shock of the revelation starts to rattle him, as if something is bursting inside, his questions about the child’s identity and even his own racing through him and, for the first time, being unable to conceal them.
But all this luridly filmed intrigue doesn’t build the way you think it will. Once we’re in the last half hour, there’s a sudden jolt of sequel-itis, where it becomes clear that many plot threads (from the fate of Jared Leto’s sinister replicant builder to an underground society of insurgent replicants) will not be resolved. The movie narrows down to a few characters, tightening its scope, making this world feel suddenly claustrophobic. Then there’s Harrison Ford. While Star Wars: The Force Awakens made perfect use of Ford’s nostalgic return, his presence here doesn’t electrify. He’s his usual gruff, surly self, and the scriptwriters (Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) keep him sidelined in the final showdown.
Ignoring all the extraneous noise, Blade Runner 2049 rides best on K’s arc of realization and redemption, and the price he pays to get there. Scott’s original movie still teases us about whether Deckard is/isn’t a replicant. And this movie digs deeper into that core question: Is it possible for a replicant to truly know who or what he is? How can he determine which memories are real, and which were implanted? In the first ten minutes, K retires an older model, his face scarred with blood by the end of their stand-off. Does real blood pulse through his veins (or the manufactured equivalent)?
Villeneuve, following up on the success of Arrival, displays the empathy necessary to entertain these philosophical questions without offering definitive answers. In both cases, his work imagines a more perfect world, where our bonds are stronger than the arbitrary distinctions (of national borders, of aliens and sentient AI) between us. When it’s at its best, Blade Runner 2049 freely goes its own way, drawing on something new rather than rehashing what’s come before.