Blade Runner 2049, the 2017 sequel to a classic 1992 director’s cut of a flawed 1982 theatrical release adapted from a 1968 sci-fi novel, is a long and stately movie, with many scenes paced slowly enough to allow a corner of your mind to meditate on important questions that stand a little ways outside the plot.
For instance, is the world that Ridley Scott’s original depicted, and Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up expands, really a dystopia? The answer might seem obvious: To the future-noir gloom of the original, with corporate titans ruling from towers high above a polluted, overcrowded, acid-rain-swept Los Angeles, the sequel has added a civilization-altering blackout that has left L.A.’s rivals, San Diego and Las Vegas, respectively a trash-heaped wasteland and a radioactive ruin. It’s not the darkest timeline, but it’s pretty dark indeed.
Yet the society of the Blade Runner movies is the opposite of stagnant. Despite (or because of?) all the pollution and squalor and oligarchy, its pace of technological achievement has leaped ahead of our own timeline — with not only “replicants,” the engineered semi-human beings whose existential situation is at the heart of the story in both films, but also extraordinary virtual-reality simulations, flying cars, and far-flung space travel. If the films’ world is wickeder in certain respects than ours, more uncomfortable and viscerally unpleasant, it is also more dynamic: a world where the future once envisioned by space-age futurists and AI prognosticators is actually happening instead of slipping ever back into the past.
At one point in the new film, its corporate villain, a blind visionary overacted by Jared Leto, starts rambling about how every great leap forward in human history was achieved through the exploitation of some helot class — which is his justification, naturally, for creating replicants en masse and then exploiting their semi-humanity to the hilt. There is a sense in which the setting, dystopic but also dynamic, seems to vindicate his boast: The bleakness of the Blade Runner world is more like the dark-satanic-mills darkness of the 19th century than the post-apocalyptic darkness of, say, Mad Max: Fury Road or The Road. It’s a future where a kind of progress has kept rolling on . . . and the question it raises is whether sometimes the progress we pine for is something we would be better off without.
This is a digressive way to begin a review, but digressive meditations are what the Blade Runner movies invite. The original had a rare un-charismatic Harrison Ford performance at its heart and a Chinatown-esque plot whose specifics do not exactly linger in the memory. The sequel is a bit more overtly political; there are hints that a replicant revolution might be aborning. But again, the lead performance features a sex-symbol actor working very hard to bury his charisma — Ryan Gosling, this time — and a whole lot of theological scaffolding around a gumshoe investigation in which nobody’s motivations bear much scrutiny.
Gosling’s character, like Ford’s before him, is a “blade runner” — a cop whose job is to find and retire replicants who’ve tried to escape servitude and blend into the human population. In the original, there was a much-debated question about whether Ford’s Agent Deckard was himself perhaps a replicant; this time things are simpler, because Gosling’s character is identified from the start with the designation “K” and sneered at by his co-workers as a “skinjob.” He’s one of the new-model replicants, with none of the loyalty problems that bedeviled the older models, and so he can be trusted by his police-chief boss (Robin Wright) to put his predecessors out of commission.
But that trust begins to fray when one of his violent decommissionings turns up an ossuary full of replicant bones and evidence that the departed synthetic human had given birth before she died. This is supposed to be an impossibility, and K’s boss fears that it will lead to a revolution — childbearing being the last obvious line separating humans from their enslaved creations — so she tasks K with finding and then eliminating the by now grown-up child. But meanwhile Leto’s corporate titan dispatches his minion, a lady replicant named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), on much the same mission, except that he wants the replicants to reproduce, the better to multiply fast enough to make their slave labor that much more efficient.
The movie supplies no explanation as to why gestation, a notoriously stressful and time-consuming process, would be a more efficient means of making new replicants than whatever assembly line has already been quite successfully established. Nor does it explain why a society capable of the godlike feat of creating almost-human beings from scratch can’t also make them fertile, or why . . . well, anyway, as I said, the plot is not actually the thing, and it’s really not the thing until Harrison Ford shows up for the third act as a grizzled, hidden-in-exile Deckard and gives the somnambulant proceedings a welcome dose of orneriness and violence.
Instead you should come to this movie for the same reasons people eventually came to love the original: to be immersed in an Ozymandian-scale visual and aural experience, to be bombarded with Biblical and classical allusions, to enter a timeline that seems at once more inhuman and more human than our own, to watch a blockbuster-scale story that concedes little or nothing to blockbuster clichés.
This movie does not quite equal its predecessor, or for that matter Villeneuve’s last film, the masterly alien-encounter movie Arrival. There is nothing here quite so fine and startling and resonant as Rutger Hauer’s doomed replicant Roy Batty, no moment as memorable as his parting speech, and while Villeneuve expands the earlier movie’s landscape, it’s still a return visit, not a first encounter. And there are also a few times when the political plotting inspires a creeping fear that the screenwriters are trying to set up a franchise, to have a permanent Blade Runner universe along Marvel or Star Wars lines.
Fortunately, the disappointing box office probably disposes of that possibility. With luck, this will be the only sequel we get — imperfect but worthy, a reverent return, and a chance to let your mind wander while the camera glides through a world ravaged and darkened by its extraordinary progress.