When a film has obsessed audiences for 35 years, revisiting its heady world is almost unmanageable. To rekindle its excitement, to surprise spectators familiar with its originality, to echo the creative character without mimicking it is not far from impossible. Following an iconic film like “Blade Runner” with a coherent sequel is a task that would seem utterly futile to most filmmakers, especially at a time when major studio films are expected to be mass-audience-friendly, not difficult.
“Blade Runner 2049” handles its inheritance well, avoiding the principle of diminishing returns while adding qualities that will thrill fans and art house patrons alike. It keeps us invested in the themes of Ridley Scott’s revolutionary classic — what is life and who has the right to it — while taking us into a very long tunnel where there’s no sight of light at the end. And it carries the astounding visual style of the original to breathtaking new heights. Revisiting the damp, dirty, trash-strewn gloom of futuristic Los Angeles, director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Sicario,” “Prisoners”) has created a powerful, unflinching, despairing, brutal and emotionally devastating film.
Once again, we follow a world-weary police protagonist (hero or antihero are terms too simplistic to apply) through an ambiguous manhunt in a world populated by humans and near-identical, genetically engineered “replicants.” They are essentially bioengineered slaves, built as laborers, warriors and sex workers for human overseers in the hazardous “off-world colonies.”
Officer K (Ryan Gosling) tracks down independent-minded replicants in hiding, old-model beings that have passed their date of planned obsolescence and are committed to survival. Killing them might look like cruel injustice, but it’s just a job to K. His police supervisor (Robin Wright) makes sure things remain that way by requiring him to be intensely psychologically examined after every assignment to analyze his commitment to the LAPD’s lethal goals.
K’s duties become more difficult when he looks into the fate of characters that may or may not be alive, accompanied by a discovery that might launch a revolution threatening countless lives and the social hierarchy. It’s a fine role for Gosling, who can say a hundred words and make them sound wonderful, but also can give one look and break your heart.
The studio has asked reviewers not to reveal any significant details so as to keep the film’s surprises intact. But it’s not a big reveal to note that Harrison Ford is back as Rick Deckard, the original film’s police detective. He always impresses and moves me with his nuanced body language and brilliant dialogue delivery, and here he absolutely steals the show, having the best character interaction of the story with Gosling. Watching him at age 75 gallop through choreographed action scenes like a thoroughbred racehorse is a wonder to behold.
As K’s live-in companion Joi, Ana de Armas helps create a romantic relationship that sounds strong, intense and passionate, though we know it’s not. In a way, that only makes their intensely moody connection more touching because love, like everything else in our lives, cannot go on indefinitely.
The film is created with astounding narrative clarity, confidence and detail. Visuals have to work harder here than in a lot of pictures because they express myriad things the characters don’t say. Fortunately, brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has worked with the Coen brothers various times starting with “Fargo”) is up to the challenge, creating sweeping chiaroscuro shadows through flashing lights and moving spots that symbolize the characters’ unsettled states of mind.
The film vividly creates a society where the gap between man, machine and artificially intelligent hologram is microscopic, a fantasy that feels more eerily prophetic every day. The ominous prospect of technology overtaking humans as the predominant species on Earth is brought to center stage through almost every scene. It’s just guesswork to tell a computerized consciousness from an animal brain. Here the digital creations are more sympathetic than their makers, even expressing feelings of love that exceed the instinct of self-preservation.
The film is a psychological endurance test, a mosaic of elements from film noir detective stories, science fiction, romance and tragedy that leave the brain sometimes overwhelmed but eye and ear always rewarded. In essence, there is no central story, at least not one that conforms to the regular science fiction film language. Rather than spoon-feeding viewers, this jolts them, triggering Pavlovian responses.
It is a mystery with considerable darkness at its heart, not about suspense, not about shock, but about doom. In this dystopian world, humanity has sinned and for its sins, it is lost. Like Scott’s original, this is a film that could undergo several different cuts and repeat viewings and still remain fascinating.