It’s hard to make a case against reboots and long-delayed sequels when an exception to the rule like “Blade Runner 2049” comes along. No cynical cash-grab or by-the-numbers repeat, this is a sequel that manages to go deeper on the ideas offered by the first film. (One which, ironically, was a big money-loser back in the summer of 1982 before its cult grew exponentially with each new re-release and re-edit.)
Whereas Ridley Scott’s trips back to the “Alien” well are starting to feel more and more like monster movies with delusions of aesthetic grandeur, Scott’s “Blade Runner” becomes a blueprint for a haunting and meditative genre film. Building off the original movie, and the Philip K. Dick story that inspired it, director Denis Villeneuve and returning writer Hampton Fancher (who collaborated with Michael Green of “Logan” and “American Gods”) never let plot subsume theme.
“2049” isn’t here to answer the first film’s questions about the differences between the natural and the artificial, or the membrane that separates the two concepts, or who gets to make that distinction, but it does take those questions to an even more thoughtful place. In a future dystopia where the outdoor world is always bleak — those off-world colonies remain the place to be — nature only seems glorious when presented as a simulacrum. It’s always raining or snowing in Los Angeles, but inside, scientists are creating eerily realistic virtual rain forests or lighting vast rooms with a dancing illumination that suggests sunshine bouncing off a swimming pool.
It’s no accident that the film’s mass-marketed virtual girlfriend – think a sexy Siri, only a lady hologram who asks you about your day — uses a few notes from “Peter and the Wolf” when she goes into active mode. After all, that famous Prokofiev piece is all about simulating the natural world, with animals and human beings alike being portrayed by different musical instruments. What is real, and what approximates reality, and what happens when the approximation confuses itself for the genuine article, is at the heart of “Blade Runner 2049.”
If it sounds like I’m dancing around the plot, I am; Villeneuve and the publicists at Warner Bros. have asked critics to avoid giving much story away in their reviews, and for once, I’m inclined to agree with a studio dictum. Much of what makes the film exciting and provocative comes from the little (and big) surprises along the way. So for now, let’s stick to the broad outlines.
Three decades have elapsed since the events of the first film. The spate of replicant rebellions has led to the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation. In the mid-2020s, a famine strikes, and Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, underplaying for once) becomes wealthy and powerful through his mastery of synthetic agriculture. He acquires what’s left of Tyrell and begins producing his own replicants, with shorter lifespans.
The remaining old-school replicants are still being hunted down and rounded up by special policemen, known as “blade runners,” like K (Ryan Gosling); when he tracks down Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) at one of Wallace’s farms, K makes a potentially earth-shattering discovery that eventually sends him out in search of retired, and long-missing, blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
Story-wise, this is your basic “cop gets in way over his head” tale, complete with K being told by his boss (an appropriately icy Robin Wright) to turn in his badge and his gun. But again, “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t about what happens; it’s about what this terrifying and beautiful world — how could it not be, with Roger Deakins behind the camera — tells us about life and perception and reality.
Deakins’ use of light is masterful throughout, whether we are in Wallace’s palatial ziggurat, the dully fluorescent police offices and morgues, or an abandoned casino where holograms of legendary performers once entertained. Production designer Dennis Gassner (“Into the Woods”) builds on Syd Mead’s legendary, oft-copied concepts for the first film, giving us a world we recognize but also one that has moved forward 30 years. (Not to worry: Pan Am and Atari continue to be in business and to buy billboard space.)
Villeneuve is one of the rare commercial filmmakers who’s not afraid of stillness and silence, and if anything, he goes a little overboard with his lugubriousness at times; the film runs just shy of three hours and could stand to lose a few moments of moody staring. Not that the filmmaker, working once again with editor Joe Walker, doesn’t craft many moments of breathless tension; the early scene between K and Morton ratchets up suspense merely by having a simmering pot on the stove, making us wonder what’s in there and whether it might be used as a weapon.
Still, while the performances are dialed-down, they’re uniformly excellent. The role of K calls on Gosling to squelch some of his natural charisma, but he’s always engaging, always questioning, even if his light is at least partially under a bushel. Ana de Armas (“War Dogs”), as the woman in K’s life, exudes warmth and poignancy, and she’s balanced out by Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks as a Wallace employee whose benign efficiency barely hides utter ruthlessness.
Mackenzie Davis (the “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror”) steals a few scenes as a sex worker – her makeup is far more subdued than the extreme looks favored by Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy in the original – and Ford, of course, brings his gruff gravitas as he revives yet another of his iconic roles of yore.
Here’s hoping modern audiences take to the new “Blade Runner” with more enthusiasm than they did in 1982, because this sequel proves that this world merits repeat visits.