Released in 1982, the original Blade Runner is arguably more influential than it is beloved. It successfully weaved together two disparate genres—science fiction and film noir—while inventing new genres along the way. Its special effects still hold up, and parts of its vision of 2019 are depressingly similar to the world today. Still, it is a strange film, with underdeveloped characters and more atmosphere than story. In other words, any Blade Runner sequel would be met with high expectations, and not just because the identity of its hero was a minor controversy—at least until now. Directed with more style than substance by Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049 improves upon the original film, even if it cannot capture what made it so special.
It’s been 30 years since the events of Blade Runner, and replicants—androids who seem human, except for enhanced strength/agility—are still necessary components of the inter-planetary economy. “Blade Runners” are cops who hunt down rebellious replicants, often terminating them on sight. Ryan Gosling plays K, one of these cops, and when we first meet him, his assignment is Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). There are mysterious things around Morton’s compound: He has an actual tree, for example, which is rare in a future where the climate cannot support vegetation or animal life. K looks into Morton’s history, and finds a connection to Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner who has been missing for years. This film follows K’s investigation, leading him to shake the foundations on which the future is built.
Villeneuve has cemented himself as a cerebral genre stylist—his recent films Sicario and Arrival are both visually striking and shrewdly constructed—but here he outdoes himself. Along with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve creates one beautiful, composed image after another. Sometimes the frame is rich with color: The compound where replicants are manufactured is bathed in yellow light, with dramatic architecture designed to create even more dramatic shadows. There are other scenes drained of light, such as a harrowing fight sequence that takes place in pools of unforgiving blackness. Composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer deepen the style, with music that comments on Vangelis’ memorable score but adds deeper, almost pulverizing electronic thrums. Through sheer filmmaking craft, in other words, Blade Runner 2049 is a singular theater-going experience.
The irony is that, relatively speaking, the story is quite conventional. The details of the mystery lead to a series of character-heavy vignettes, adding dimension to the world through dialogue that borrows from classic noir tradition. K is also a noir hero: a little out of his depth, with a reserved nature and an acutely felt moral code. At first, Gosling’s performance seems too detached, but as the plot unfolds, Gosling reveals surprising depths to K. His best scenes involve interactions with women: Robin Wright plays his commanding officer, who is prickly and oddly nurturing.
In the film’s strangest and best scene, K has a tender, artificial embrace with his girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). Villeneuve pushes emotional and physical desire to their logical endpoint, leading to a love scene that is equal parts unseemly and tragic. Still, anyone who has seen the original film more than once can figure out how Deckard fits into the puzzle K attempts to solve.
Part of Blade Runner’s appeal is how it rewards multiple viewings. That is not because the film is inscrutable, but because of director Ridley Scott’s attention to detail. Like Alien and countless other Scott films, Blade Runner is a marvel of production design. Even the junk in Deckard’s original apartment adds subtext to its themes. Blade Runner 2049 does not share the same obsessive desire to fill the frame with world-building clues and details. Instead, Villeneuve focuses on striking imagery. He likes shots with clean, sharp lines, almost like a minimalist painter. His approach is gorgeous, and yet may not inspire the same obsessive devotion. Blade Runner 2049 also answers many more questions than the original film, so fans will not peer into K’s office or apartment with the same hope of another clue, no matter how inconsequential it may seem.
In its oblique way, Blade Runner is one of the first sci-fi films to ask what it means to be human. There is some of that same inquiry here, except it is in service of characters, rather than something more philosophical. Jared Leto makes a memorable impression as Wallace, a replicant-designing industrialist, and his monologues are filled with brutal, realistic dispassion for replicants and humanity. No one in Blade Runner 2049, not even Wallace, comes close to answering the biggest questions, yet Villeneuve and his screenwriters create the suggestion of serious art. Maybe the effect mirrors what it would be like to encounter a replicant: so close to the real thing, but missing enough that the flaws are all the more apparent. If the absence of soul is maddening, at least it is easy to appreciate the craft.
Blade Runner 2049 opens Friday at theaters everywhere.