Die-hard fans have been longing for a follow-up to “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” for thirty-five years, but have had to content themselves with a seemingly endless stream of re-edited, altered versions intended to clarify and improve on the original. Now Denis Villeneuve provides a true sequel, and it proves to have been worth the wait. “Blade Runner 2049” is also coherent enough to ensure that re-edited versions will be unnecessary in this case.
While narratively clear—indeed, quite simple—however, Villeneuve’s film offers real food for thought while maintaining the seductively dystopian look of Scott’s film. In the story fashioned by Hampton Fancher (co-writer of the original) and Michael Green, the protagonist, thirty years on, is another replicant-hunter, Officer KD6-3.7, or “K” for short (with a nod to Kafka—it’s even revealed that his given name is “Joe”), a replicant himself. Played by Ryan Gosling in somber, stony style, he’s first seen travelling to a remote farm, where he confronts early-model replicant Sapper Morton (burly ex-wrestler Dave Bautista), who’s been living there for thirty years. A fight ensues, but before his quarry is dispatched, Sapper mutters something about once having witnessed a miracle. K also finds, buried in the yard, a box containing the skeleton of a woman, which he takes back to precinct headquarters for scrutiny by his boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) and her forensics team. It’s discovered that she died decades ago, of natural causes, but further investigation reveals an additional fact that Joshi fears might ignite a replicant rebellion.
K is thus assigned to unravel the mystery behind the woman’s death, which will lead him to a host of strange and dangerous places. One is the headquarters of the replicant-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation, which went bankrupt and is now controlled by a blind, power-hungry mogul, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who presides over his empire in a labyrinthine modernist building where all the archives are kept. He and his henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) scheme to use K for their own purposes.
Then there’s San Diego, which has become a vast garbage dump, but also home to a Dickensian orphanage run by a hooded taskmaster (Lennie James), where K finds a toy wooden horse he remembers from his childhood, and a research facility where young Dr. Stillene (Carla Juri), enclosed behind a glass barrier, fashions false memories for implantation into replicants. Finally he travels to the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas, where he finds none other than Deckard (Harrison Ford), who he hopes will possess the key to understanding not only the mystery behind the skeleton but the secret of K’s own past.
In fact, the counterpart to K’s investigation of Sapper’s claims and the mysterious skeleton is his questioning of his own identity. His “home” life with his live-in hologram Joi (Ana de Armas) appears as comfortable as that of a blade runner could be, but he’s haunted by the idea that there might be more to his past than he knows—a notion reinforced by that little wooden horse that he seems to recall—though, of course, a replicant’s memories are by definition false. Or are they? The answer to that question will also involve a pretty replicant hooker named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis)—whose “three way” with K and Joi is an effects highlight—and a mysterious woman called Freysa (Hiam Abbas).
The two plot threads devised by Fancher and Green dovetail nicely, and Villeneuve’s handling of them is dexterous, abetted by Dennis Gassner’s remarkable production design, Roger Deakins’ typically elegant cinematography, a rumbling, ominous score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer and Joe Walker’s pensive editing, which gives the film the brooding quality the director requires. The bursts of action—K’s struggle with Morton, his strained meeting with Deckard in a hologram-rich casino, and a final confrontation—are all well-staged, with expert stunt work and some vivid CGI. But just as Villeneuve’s “Arrival” was an atypical science-fiction movie, this is not your usual action movie. More concerned with creating mood and provoking thought than with simply providing an adrenaline rush, it too may prove too cerebral—and leisurely—for some viewers. But that will be their loss; the original reaction to “2001,” remember, was very mixed as well. “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t on the same level, but it comes close.
Gosling is a fine protagonist, managing a severely inexpressive persona that’s a complete contrast to his open-hearted turn in “La La Land,” and Ford’s gruff world-weariness makes Deckard as welcome a returnee to the screen as Han Solo was And while Leto gives Wallace a strange, cruel streak and Bautista is an imposing presence, it’s the women who stand out in the supporting cast. Hoeks is a formidable villainess in every respect, de Armas gives real personality to the hologram Joi, Wright brings a strain of hard intensity to Joshi, Juri is an ethereal memory-maker, and Davis adds a note of seductive ambiguity to Mariette. And Abbas is outstanding in what amounts to a cameo.
Devotees may call this heresy, but “Blade Runner 2049” is an improvement on the original–a thoughtful, visually striking, emotionally satisfying continuation of Scott’s celebrated but rather muddled film.