Deeply mysterious, visually ravishing and malevolently seductive, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t merely replay the greatest hits of the stunning, frustrating and transcendent 1982 Ridley Scott-directed dystopian cyberpunk cult original—all the greatest hits of the many extant versions of Blade Runner, that is. Instead, continuing the original’s dark, stone-y saga of androids versus cops, it enriches and burnishes the first film’s existential melancholy and adds layers of meaning to its chilly landscapes and multiple readings of its intent and achievements.
Blade Runner 2049 plays like someone’s opium dream within a dream wrapped in a nightmare. It goes against everything we’ve come to know and loathe about our age of unearned, unasked-for sequels. It stands alone and justifies its own existence. A hypnotic, relatively action-free, two-hour-and-44-minute exercise in theme and variations on noir, it’s entertainment that dares to aspire to the level of art. It’s anything but one of those flash-bang, gee-whiz pop culture pleasure machine followups that milk their originals and make us wonder why they were made in the first place. In it, we finally get provocative but endlessly debatable explorations of the question posed by Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel: Do androids ream of Electric Sheep?
One thing they dream of is, apparently, to be human. On the basis of how humans live and behave in the movie, though, one wonders why the androids don’t aim higher. The set-up by Hampton Fancher (who co-adapted Blade Runner) and Michael Green (Logan) is classically simple; everything that follows is dense, profound and wildly unpredictable. Mesmerizingly realized by the holy trinity of director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), production designer Dennis Gassner (Skyfall) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (a 13-time Oscar nominee), the films shows us that Los Angeles has continued its descent to hell since 2019—and it is a terrifying, soul-stifling wonder to behold. Food is scarce. The climate and terrain are harsh and barely uninhabitable. Cars still fly. Leering, hard sell mega-billboard holograms still tower eerily over the glittering cityscape. Acid rain burns down in sheets. The population teems. The 99 percent are junkyard mean, battling for survival and clinging to what passes for life. Androids and humans are tougher and tougher to tell apart.
The universe created by the moviemakers is operatically grandiose, paranoid, audacious and bleakly romantic.
Far above the have-nots in a chilly futuristic Frankenstein palace and laboratory, a blind, endlessly philosophical zillionaire scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto playing things all pose-y and Flash Gordon-esque campy) manufactures a new, “improved” race of slavish, docile androids meant to ease and speed up intergalactic colonization. Meanwhile, Officer K (played by a blank, haunted Ryan Gosling)—cynical, burned-out and eager to find a new line of work—is assigned by his brusque, severely-tailored boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) to unravel a serpentine mystery that sends him in his modified DeLorean to the isolated farm of hulking suspected replicant Sapper (Dave Bautista). That volatile encounter further leads to the trail of a child and a certain key figure from the film’s mythological past, the long missing Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, wide awake and terrific). If Officer K fails in “retiring” the kid and Deckard, then, as Wright tells him, “This breaks the world.” How’s that for high stakes?
The even thornier mystery, though, is K’s dawning realization of the circumstances of his own existence and what that revelation means for the future; it makes the character, and Gosling’s portrayal, immeasurably more sympathetic and vulnerable. Not a single other word should be revealed about the plot, the surprises, the reversals and the finale. Suffice it to say, the universe created by the moviemakers is operatically grandiose, paranoid, audacious and bleakly romantic. Neon-lit and heavy on shades of dusty gold, amber and black, the film benefits immeasurably from ferociously committed, scene-grabbing performances by women, including Ana de Armas as K’s romantic partner and Sylvia Hoeks as Niander Wallace’s manically sadistic henchwoman.
In some ways, the movie doesn’t require encyclopedic knowledge of Blade Runner. But another viewing of the original helps immeasurably and who needs an excuse to revisit a masterwork anyway? As melancholy and bleak as Blade Runner 2049 is, when it ends, you want to see it over again, just to ease back into that mood pocket and savor its dark delicacies. It isn’t just one of the great movies of the year. It’s one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Seek it out on the biggest, grandest screen with the best possible sound system. It’s worth every penny and every second.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.