I’ll say this for Blade Runner 2049: This movie is ballsy as hell. Director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to one of sci-fi’s most beloved, influential, wildly divisive properties might be the most daring blockbuster sequel in years—though not in the bombastic ways you might expect.
In a time of inevitable reboots, remakes, and sequels no one asked for, this is a movie almost aggressively defiant of modern-day blockbuster conventions. A slow-burn mystery neo-noir, it prizes mood and atmosphere over plot-driven action. It turns and meanders and twists in ways that are sometimes thought-provoking, yet always short of satisfying. Harrison Ford’s immutable charm aside, the nostalgia here is served cold. Imagine: a $150 million sequel 35 years in the making, rebuffing the warm allure of uncomplicated brand appeal. It’s like a unicorn.
All the self-interrogating questions we want from a Blade Runner film manifest again: Are we more than our memories? What makes a soul? Is maintaining order worth the price of killing? Whose lives have value? Is it for the better that our doomed species self-destructs? But 2049 is a more difficult, potentially alienating thing, too; overlong and regrettably muddled in its attempts to clarify new ideas beyond the philosophical scope of the original. It’s also unexpectedly strange and sentimental, worth witnessing in all its absurdly hypnotic beauty on screen. It’s too big, too messy for easy categorization; a blockbuster with the heart of an art film, some have suggested. I’m glad it exists.
Free will and creation are this go-around’s primary preoccupations, as explored by our new leading blade runner, K, played to cool, compelling effect by Ryan Gosling. (A smart thing this film’s screenwriters, Logan’s Michael Green and the original Blade Runner’s Hampton Fancher, do just minutes into 2049 is settle the question of whether or not K is a replicant. Another wise thing: leaving that perennial question untouched when it comes to Ford’s Rick Deckard.)
It’s been 27 years since a cataclysmic event referred to as “The Blackout” set off a chain of events that led to the rise of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, who is limited to a few scenes and actually quite good in them), a powerful scientist whose Wallace Corporation has solved world hunger and developed a line of replicants who are guaranteed to be obedient. In one of the three video shorts that predate the film, he orders one to kill itself in front of him; it does without blinking, though it feels real pain.
Wallace fancies himself God and talks in extended religious metaphors that Roy Batty would have found gauche. His “best angel,” a replicant named Luv (a seething, terrifying Sylvia Hoeks) proves a much more fascinating figure—a powerful woman bound to obey, yet, within her limits, exerting her strength toward her own advancement by turning on those weaker than her.
Though they live and work alongside us, humanity is still unkind to the synthetic underclass. Policemen hurl slurs like “skin-job,” and the last generation of Tyrell-created replicants, the lifespan-extended Nexus 8s (the ones not bound to obey, or to die after four years like Batty), live in hiding. K’s job as a blade runner is to hunt them down and “retire” them. It’s during one such mission to a farm outside Los Angeles that he discovers an object under a tree that threatens to rip the fabric of society by blurring the line between humans and replicants.
The object represents the existence of a secret so powerful, K’s LAPD superior (Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi) orders him to eliminate all evidence of it immediately, in a coverup to prevent “a war or a slaughter,” as she puts it, from “breaking the world.” First though, he needs to find out where it is. And so he jets off on a mission to hunt down his only living clue, Deckard, and is lured deep into a mystery surrounding his mind, his free will, and a few familiar names.
Villeneuve has long been a pro at unfurling slow-burn plots that seep into your bones like this one. Breathtakingly photographed by cinematographer Roger Deakins and rendered gloriously tactile by production designer Dennis Gassner, his version of a resplendent, rotten Los Angeles feels like both an evolution of Ridley Scott’s bleak vision, and the natural outcome of his own. Dazzling vistas of snowy skies, glowing commercial holograms, junkyard kingdoms, and decrepit skylines add immense weight to the sense of K’s isolation; by the end of the film, it’s emotionally crushing.
Nothing could compare to the genre-defining originality of the first film, but Villeneuve & Co. do dream up arresting new images and ideas—ones they fleetingly explore to sometimes stray from K’s existential torture. The mechanics of how memories are made is a highlight of the movie. Ditto a shape-shifting sex scene that’s as mesmerizing as it is unnerving. There’s also a new descendant of the Voight-Kampff test, seemingly designed to gauge a replicant’s emotional calm and administered by what looks like HAL 2000’s cousin. It’s intensely creepy.
So much of the film is so inventive, in fact, it seems odd that so little of it speaks specifically to the age we’re living in. Sure, watching a holographic advertisement divine K’s name like those personalized Amazon pop-ups that follow you around the internet is startling. But for a story released in the year 2017 about people fighting for their rights and freedoms, it’s also strangely monochromatic. This vision of L.A. as a whole is somehow whiter than it was in 1983.
There’s another element that might feel lacking, too, though not as egregious: A figure like Roy Batty leaves a large hole to fill in a sequel filled with, on the whole, far less charismatic characters. (His spirit now lives on in another Ridley Scott-created android: David, the antihero of Alien: Covenant, also cut from the same cloth as John Milton’s Satan and obsessed with free will, creation, and the destruction of his creator.) Original composer Vangelis is also missed, though synth maestro Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch do their damndest to fuse new and familiar themes.
Bucking the standard sequel formula, after all, is part of what makes Blade Runner: 2049 so special. There are more common ways to approach revivals of cherished legacy IPs: Bring back familiar faces to pass the franchise torch to new Chosen Ones; hit beats both exciting yet tantalizingly familiar; and maybe reward fans with a nostalgic wink or two. It worked for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film that adhered to the “rhyme” of its predecessors “like a stanza in a poem,” to borrow George Lucas’s phrasing.
Blade Runner 2049 only seems like it will rhyme. Then it doesn’t. It never articulates its headiest ideas even half as clearly as its predecessor, a frustrating flaw that hinders it from greatness. Some notes ring predictable. But by the final frame, after every unexpected interlude, every fascinating digression, and nearly three hours of visual splendor that somehow makes every minute feel luxurious, it strikes a note of hope and melancholy all its own. In today’s age of risk-averse blockbusters and canned surprises, that’s a thing worth celebrating.