It’s impossible to start writing about Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s way-later sequel to Ridley Scott’s genre-changing 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, without working through a lifetime of accumulated responses to the original. Is Blade Runner a great movie, or just one that’s penetrated so deeply into the pop-cultural consciousness, its innovative production design imitated by virtually every sci-fi dystopia that’s come since, that we’ve canonized it by default? I remember thinking as a teenage movie snob that, visual and aural spectacle aside (those building-high geisha faces! That moody Vangelis soundtrack!), Scott’s neonoir thriller never quite hung together as a story. In between the high points—a spectacular foot chase through a series of narrow alleys, Rutger Hauer’s parting speech on a rain-pelted roof—there were stretches of tedium or thematic vagueness. (Some of this was addressed in the later release of a director’s cut with a less upbeat ending, though I admit I haven’t been superfan enough to keep up with the several other cuts that have been released over the years.)
Later on, I came to think of Blade Runner the way I thought of 1999’s The Matrix. Both are movies whose cult reputations are richly deserved, whether or not they are as formally accomplished and structurally taut as, say, Scott’s 1979 outer-space horror classic Alien. And both also came along at the right time to tap into contemporary cultural fears about the increasing role of automation and, by the time of The Matrix, digitization in daily life. They asked questions that spoke to their viewers’ sense of existential dislocation and technological anxiety: What’s real and what’s fake? Who’s really in charge? Is this life we’re living truly all there is? These movies didn’t need to be as philosophically deep as they sometimes believed themselves to be or as their fiercest acolytes gave them credit for.
It was enough for them to be breathtaking, to look like nothing else on screen at the time, and to build an imagined future vivid and bold enough to elicit from the viewing audience at large a Keanu Reeves-ian “whoa.”
By those standards Blade Runner 2049, set exactly 30 years after its predecessor, is a solid if not unqualified success.* Denis Villeneuve, who made Arrival, Sicario, and Enemy, is a director who enjoys not-fully-solved enigmas, and 2049’s twisty, misdirection-filled story alternates between suspenseful and tediously murky. But Villeneuve is working with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose mobile yet stately camera provides stunning bird’s-eye perspectives on the bleak urban habitat where these humans and replicants live. Dennis Gassner’s phenomenal production design extrapolates Blade Runner’s dystopic hypercapitalism two generations into the future and throws in the implied effects of nuclear holocaust and/or climate disaster. Bad news, Angelenos: 32 years from now your city will be a vast plain of rubble, perpetually shrouded in a dense fog from which chunks of ash rain down. Nearly everyone who can afford to will have already left the planet for the off-world colonies, meaning that the people remaining will be desperately scrabbling for the few resources left on a no-longer-fertile Earth.
One institution that will plod indestructibly on, though, is the Los Angeles Police Department, whose stubbornly un-updated logo becomes one of this sometimes humorless movie’s few running jokes. Ryan Gosling, as a replicant cop with the Kafka-esque name “K,” is forever flashing his LAPD badge, and the four letters appear stenciled on stout concrete bunkers throughout the trackless waste. While the original film leaves it ambiguous whether Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant (your answer may depend on which version you watch), the matter of whether K is a replicant seems to be resolved in this movie’s first few minutes. K belongs to a newer generation of man-made organic beings, we’re told, engineered to be more obedient to their human masters. His job as blade runner, under the command of Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), involves finding and retiring any first-generation replicants who are still left—a task we see him accomplish with extreme prejudice in the bloody opening scene.
K is as miserable in this line of work as Ford’s Deckard was in the original, and keeps his collar turned up even higher. He’s unsettled, depressed, and lonely, his only company a software-generated holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), who can become anything he wants at any moment: an anime-styled sex kitten, a concerned helpmate, a bookish companion. But in the course of an investigation, K comes across a piece of evidence that suggests one of the memories he’s always assumed was an implant might be a real memory after all. Which would mean he’s “a real boy,” as Joi breathes when she hears the news, in a none-too-subtle echo of Pinocchio.
In an attempt to make sense of his past, K—whom his digital girlfriend insists on humanizing with the name Joe—goes in search of a certain ex–blade runner gone underground, whose identity you can no doubt guess but whose crooked half-smile and distinctive chin scar you’ll have to wait till the last quarter of the movie to lay eyes on. Gosling and Ford do eventually meet up—and unexpectedly, these two very different male movie stars seem to make sense on the same screen, striking a real emotional spark in their few scenes together.
But a large portion of the middle of Blade Runner 2049, which runs a ponderous two-and-a-half hours, is essentially vamping. Visually gorgeous and often awe-inspiring in design and scale, but vamping nonetheless. We visit the shimmering minimalist lair of the reclusive engineer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who’s responsible for the latest and most sinister innovations in replicant technology, along with his pitiless henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). K flies squat, tanklike hovercrafts over swaths of blasted landscape. The geisha billboards that beckoned passersby in the rain-slick streets of the 1982 film have now become three-dimensional holographic images, giant naked women who walk the streets trying to entice passersby to spend money on their life-size digital avatars. These images, which posit the future of technology as a kind of ever-present sentient pornography, are among the most powerful in the film.
But the grim idea they seem to hint at—that in the not-so-distant future human desire and sexuality will be all but entirely outsourced to digitally created fembots—is one of the many aspects of Blade Runner 2049’s imagined future that remain tantalizingly unexplored. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” boasts Roy Batty, the dying replicant played by Rutger Hauer, in the 1982 movie’s climactic rooftop scene. This new Blade Runner dazzles the audience with plenty of staggering sights but never quite matches the original’s mysterious ability to suggest something even more incredible lying just beyond our ken.
Correction, Sept. 29, 2017: This review originally misstated that Blade Runner 2049 takes place 40 years after the original. It takes place 30 years later.