Outside “Star Wars,” no sci-fi universe has been etched into cinematic consciousness more thoroughly than “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott’s definitive 1982 neo-noir offered an immersive dystopia of rain-soaked windows and shadowy buildings adorned with animated neon billboards, where flying cars hum through the endless night. That cyberpunk vision remains just as alluring 35 years later, and “Blade Runner 2049” could have merely roamed those streets with the same chiaroscuro imagery and delivered a satisfying taste of the same familiar drug. Instead, director Denis Villeneuve goes beyond the call of duty, with a lush, often mind-blowing refurbishing of the original sci-fi aesthetic that delves into its complex epistemological themes just as much as it resurrects an enduring spectacle.
As the title explains, 30 years have passed since the previous installment, and a murky world of corporate overlords and stone-faced assassins has only grown murkier. “Blade Runner” found manufactured human workers known as replicants on the lam from government killers hired to snuff out the rogue A.I.; here, the dirty work continues under more dire circumstances. With former replicant manufacturer Tyrell Corporation ceding control to the entrepreneurial schemer Niander Wallace, a fresh set of replicants have been unleashed to snuff out any remaining old models. That’s exactly the sort of neat workaround that allows this franchise to dust off an aging concept, but Villeneuve (along with screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) manage to move the drama forward with a renewed sense of intrigue — and a fresh face.
Among these cold-hearted killers is K (Ryan Gosling), a sullen hunter who takes assignments from an icy superior (a steely-eyed Robin Wright). Equal parts Phillip Marlowe and the uber-cool speed demon he played in “Drive,” Gosling’s K endures his dreary routine with an unquestioned allegiance to his employers. His sole companionship comes in the form of holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), with whom he enjoys mechanical romance in the small pockets of time in between calls from the station. (Their scenes owe a mild debt to Spike Jonze’s “Her,” but this couple earns their own pathos.)
Tasked with tracking down a replicant who appears to have real parents, K finds himself in the midst of an identity crisis: “I’ve never killed someone who’s been born before,” he enthuses, in one of many asides that underscore the movie’s tendency toward poeticizing its character’s alienated mindset.
Gosling’s performances tend to be overwhelmed by a certain masculine assertiveness, but his hip posturing makes total sense the context of a movie all about conflicts between real and manufactured impulses. “To be born is to have a soul, I guess,” he continues — which prompts his boss’ rebuke, “You’ve been getting along fine without one.” As “Blade Runner 2049” sketches out K’s downbeat routine, it combines the traditions of a shaggy-dog detective story with the hopelessness of “No Country for Old Men;” along with first-rate special effects, it creates a unified portrait of despair in which a sudden burst of light represents the glimmer of hope piercing through. It’s a beguiling survival epic in which the stakes keep getting higher as K unearths a replicant conspiracy, but the dramatic scope never loses touch with the intimacy of its hero’s perspective.
Villeneuve directs every scene as if his entire filmography has built to this moment, and that may be the case. While “Prisoners” showed his penchant for a morbid investigative thrillers, “Sicario” proved he could intensify a stern police drama with tense, dynamic set pieces. Even his smaller, stranger films contain the breadcrumbs that come to fruition here, from the peculiar identity crisis at the root of “Enemy” to the personal and historical details that comprise the investigation in “Incendies.” They’re all in “Blade Runner 2049,” which has a greater efficiency and confidence than any of his previous work, alongside next-level craftsmanship.
Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins imbues every frame of “Blade Runner 2049” with the kind of complex artistry one would expect from the profession’s top veteran; the movie’s arresting atmosphere belongs to him as much as its director. Deakins handles the dark corridors of the urban nightlife with ease, balancing them with bright white factories, yellow-tinted hideouts, and blankets of snow that make this one of the most beautiful science-fiction achievements in recent memory.
The imagery’s poetic intensity extends to the effects, most notably in a sex scene involving a hologram, but it also comes into play with a callback to the earlier movie too remarkable to spoil here. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s low, ominous score works in congress with a stunning sound design that regularly steals the show: Every gunshot, explosion, or abrupt assertion pierces the air like a crescendo in this movie’s constant build towards the menacing possibilities that lurk at the end of every scene. As much as it registers as an indictment of technology, those same forces transform the movie into a whole new world.
K’s quest finds him grappling with childhood memories that may or may not be real. In particular, the movie features an assaultive upgrade to the Voight-Kampff machine used to test replicants in the first movie; forced to answer a series of questions and repeat words barked at him from the other end of a robotic lens, K’s pushed to assert his allegiance to a machine he has grown to resent, and we’re right there with him.
“Blade Runner 2049” starts to feel draining when its cold, humorless qualities starts to wear; at two-and-a-half hours, it pushes those boundaries to their breaking point. This is where moody, polished storytelling can go off the rails, as those tedious D.C. superhero movies can testify. “Blade Runner 2049” falls into that trap in a handful of moments, all of which involve Jared Leto. As the inane, underwritten villain Wallace, who lurks in a watery subterranean lair as he invents new schemes of conquering the universe with his replicant slaves, Leto delivers robotic lines of diabolical intentions (“We could restore Eden!”) while glaring at his underlings with shimmering silver eyes as if trapped in a rejected audition tape for a Bond villain. He’s beneath the movie as a whole.
Fortunately, he’s also dwarfed by a narrative that never slows down. K faces a terrific nemesis in fellow robot killer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), one of several merciless fighters whose strengths yield relentlessly engaging action showdowns. From the loud crunches of an opening fist fight to an alarming crash sequence, “Blade Runner 2049” maintains a visceral intensity in its biggest confrontations, interspersing them with quieter encounters that move the story forward. While K reels from his fractured mindset and dreams of a better life, he seems trapped in a Kafkaesque fever dream (his name being an obvious callback to “The Trial”). But whenever he gets a little closer to the truth, he’s faced with brutal interruptions. It’s a fairy tale told in whispers and sudden bangs.
Just when this stylized approach reaches a saturation point, enter Harrison Ford. A far cry from the Disneyfied callback to his earlier performance in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Ford lands in “Blade Runner 2049” as original Blade Runner Rick Deckard just in time to complete the movie’s capacity to commune with the source material. His hardened, world-weary attitude has become a staple of popular culture, but he reignites it here with a weathered face and a handful of tough showdowns. Facing off with K in a dimly lit room as an Elvis Presley hologram sings in the background, Ford becomes a key element in this movie’s magical capacity to merge the specter of the past with the fears of the future. (When the duo hit the bar to talk through their troubles, the bond is complete.)
“Blade Runner 2049” may not reinvent the rules for blockbuster storytelling, but it manages to inject the form with the ambitions of high art, maintaining a thrilling intensity along the way. It also addresses many of the questions posed by the first movie, even as it dances around complete explanations, ending with a degree of closure while leaving the next phase of the story open-ended. It poses endearing big ideas — who’s real, and what’s reality, anyway? — without landing on any firm answers. The brilliance of “Blade Runner 2049” is that it makes the questions worth asking, positioning them in a menacing universe that’s nevertheless a joy to revisit.
“Blade Runner 2049” opens October 6.