Blade Runner 2049 Is a Worthy Heir to a Classic

The filmmakers don’t want me to disclose very much about the movie. But I can say this: It's terrific.

Warner Bros.

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi game-changer Blade Runner, and it stars Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. I’m not sure precisely what else I’m supposed to say about it, as the filmmakers have requested that a very specific list of facts about the movie not be shared, including which characters are and are not “replicants.” (This is true even of characters who are introduced as replicants and for whom replicant-hood is their distinguishing characteristic.)

The first Blade Runner took place in a rain-soaked, dystopian 2019, which makes for a slightly uneasy viewing experience in rain-soaked, dystopian 2017. Replicants, as fans of that movie will recall, were artificial persons indistinguishable from human beings except by means of a complex psycho-behavioral test called the “Voight-Kampff.” Intended for dangerous duties on distant planets, replicants were forbidden on Earth. “Blade Runners”—of whom Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, was one—were the police sent out to find and terminate rogue replicants who’d returned home. Happily, by the AD 2049 of the new film, things have changed for the better, with newer-model replicants now productively integrated into the economy. It is only the older models, still hiding in the cracks of society, that are tracked down by Blade Runners and destroyed.

One of the central enigmas of Blade Runner—clarified over several cuts and recuts by the director, Ridley Scott—was whether Ford’s Deckard might be a replicant himself. So it would only be natural for filmgoers to wonder the same about Gosling’s character, who is the new movie’s protagonist and also a Blade Runner. Obviously, I can’t tell you whether he is a replicant or not. But I can tell you that his serial number is KD6.3-7 and that he goes by “K” for short.

When the film opens, K is conducting an investigation at a farm—or at least what passes for a farm in the sunless gloom of 2049. (Its chief commodity seems to be protein-worms.) There, amid the roots of a dead tree, he finds something important that I am also not supposed to describe to readers. Suffice to say that it leads to a mystery of great urgency, one that might forever alter the still-uneasy balance between human and replicant life. As his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), explains, “This breaks the world, K.”

So K sets out to solve the mystery. Along the way, he is aided by his “girlfriend,” Joi (Ana de Armas), who is, depending on your vantage, either more or less than she appears; he is intermittently hindered by a murderous corporate functionary named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks); and he encounters another character, played by the actress Carla Juri, about whom I’m evidently not supposed to say anything at all, except—I kid you not—the following: “We meet many striking characters over the course of the film, and she is one of them.” (It’s true, insofar as it goes.)

What I hope I can say without fear of giving offense to even the most fainthearted studio executive or prospective audience member is this: Blade Runner 2049 is terrific, a worthy heir to one of the great science-fiction films of all time.

Although Ridley Scott had long discussed the possibility of making a sequel, that directorial task ultimately fell to Denis Villeneuve. This is (with all respect to Scott, who produced) very good news. Villeneuve, who is French Canadian, is in the midst of one of the most intriguing streaks of filmmaking in recent years, beginning with Incendies in 2011 and continuing through Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and last year’s Arrival. As that most recent film and his current one powerfully demonstrate, Villeneuve has a particular knack for high-brow science fiction. This makes his intention to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune, into a feature film—and in so doing, hopefully erase all memory of David Lynch’s woefully ill-advised 1984 version—one of the most exciting possibilities of the next few years.

The screenplay for Blade Runner 2049 is by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original Blade Runner) and Michael Green (Alien: Covenant). Sharp, atmospheric, and—a great rarity—deserving of its 160-minute running time, the film gently expands and extends its predecessor’s inquiries into the nature of identity, personhood, and slavery. These inquiries now comprise not merely the “real” and manufactured, but the virtual as well: There are strong resonances with Spike Jonze’s masterful Her throughout, including in what may be the film’s most touching scene. There are echoes, too, of Pinocchio and Treasure Island, Spielberg’s Minority Report and HBO’s Westworld. Sinatra and Presley even make significant (virtual) appearances—the Chairman and the King, long gone but never forgotten.

Gosling leads a strong and largely female cast, and Ford once again proves—as he did in long-delayed reappearances as Indiana Jones and Han Solo—to have lost little of the spryness or charisma that made him the biggest star of the 1980s. Jared Leto also shows up as a blind industrialist who has taken over the manufacture of replicants; but his role is a small one, and the agonizing, over-the-top Leto-ness that he has displayed since winning his Oscar is not allowed to throw the movie off-kilter.

This is in part because, like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a decidedly cool artifact, and not primarily an actors’ film. Villeneuve’s most important collaborators are the cinematographer Roger Deakins and the production designer Dennis Gassner, who between them conjure a future world breathtaking in its decrepitude, a gorgeous ruin. From the grayed-out countrysides over which the sky has closed like a lid; to the drizzly neon decadence of Los Angeles; to a San Diego refashioned as a waste dump worthy of Wall-E; to the Ozymandian wreckage of Las Vegas—the film is a splendor of the first order. This next-level visual imagination was (rightly) the one undisputed triumph of the first Blade Runner, and it is of this one as well. If Deakins’s work does not finally earn him a cinematography Oscar—he has been nominated 13 times without a win—the Academy should perhaps find itself another line of work.

I’ve probably said too much already. (Shhhhh.) But let me say this much more: The original Blade Runner, much derided upon its release, has proven to be one of the most influential and argued-over films of the past 35 years. It’s far too early to say what, if any, legacy Blade Runner 2049 might leave behind. (I’m very much looking forward to a second viewing.) But it is easily one of the best films of the year to date. Don’t miss it.