A strange and beautiful beast indeed, "Blade Runner 2049" is a science-fiction epic for adults. This large-scale, 35-years-later sequel to Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" dreams big, with classically challenging science-fiction implications about our present and our rapidly approaching future.
Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve ("Arrival," "Sicario") and his screenwriters -- the original film's co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Stanford grad Michael Green ("Logan," "Alien: Covenant") -- chip away at today's audiences one anxiety at a time. In freely adapting Philip K. Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," the original "Blade Runner" offered a triumph of mood and world-building, positing a steampunk dystopia where "replicants" (bioengineered beings scarcely distinguishable from humans) threatened people just by wanting to go on living. "Blade Runner 2049" pivots that science-fiction neo-noir into a science-fiction detective story that tumbles further down the rabbit hole in pursuit of the meaning of humanity and our relationship to technology.
Villeneuve quite rightly would prefer that you know nothing about the plot before seeing his film. Suffice it to say that Ryan Gosling plays a new "blade runner" (that is, a hunter of replicants, working for the LAPD) who eventually comes face-to-face with Rick Deckard, the blade runner introduced by Harrison Ford in 1982. Gosling's blade runner "K" (a Kafka-esque nod to his Everyman status and/or authorial surrogacy) drifts through his work with a cold professionalism that nonetheless feels as if it may thaw at any moment into dewy-eyed emotion.
And as he drifts, so do we -- into and out of wildly overpopulated urban hellscapes and blighted exurban deserts that write large our own projections of lifestyle decay and collapsed ecosystems. In what may be the film's most moving plot thread, K has a holographic mate named Joi (Cuban-born actress Ana de Armas), a product advertised with a line that sums up modern mercenary moviemaking: "Everything you want to see./Everything you want to hear." Like the replicants, she certainly seems to have a soul, or at least as much of one as the humans around her. The blurred lines of humanity create an environment ripe for a civil rights movement to rise up from and for replicants (referred to as "ideal slave labor") or perhaps other forms of artificial intelligence. K's LAPD boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) fears "a war, or a slaughter" should that particular door of perception open.
The sequel shares with the original a haunted quality both in its aesthetic and its spare dialogue, which tends to the lyrical. We're still in a steampunk dystopia, but one easily tracked as being closer than we'd like to admit. One clue leads K through a Dickensian orphanage/sweatshop producing tech, Foxconn run by a Fagin (Lennie James' pointedly named Mister Cotton). Corporate elites still tower above the second-class citizenry and third-class replicants, slurred as "skin jobs" or "skinners."
"Blade Runner 2049" keeps teasing these larger ideas while it doggedly, deliberately pursues its central mysteries of defining identity and societal "order." At last working with the resources and creative freedom typically only afforded to Christopher Nolan, Villeneuve crafts an arresting vision in concert with legendary cinematographer Roger A. Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner ("Skyfall"). "Blade Runner 2049" has its action-oriented thrills, but they take a back seat to K's personal journey of the mind and a vision of the hopeful preservation of miracle and memory, the flowered weed somehow surviving on rocky ground, the woodwork of art handcrafted from the long-forgotten tree.