There’s good news about Blade Runner 2049. You don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge (or memory) of the original Blade Runner to appreciate this 30-years-later sequel to Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking sci-fi epic. The new movie tells its own story, with a (mostly) new cast of characters, although the main plot thrust here was launched in the original. Enough context is provided to make sense to latecomers, while longtime fans will have lots of new fodder for speculation about how it all plays out.
Incoming director Denis Villeneuve (in close collaboration with executive producer Scott), sticks to the original theme of the first film and (more loosely) the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired it: an existential question of the meaning of life when a breed of super-strong, machine-made androids called “replicants” have been created to serve the master race of humans. The movie’s two hours and 43 minutes allow plenty of time to brood, and the issue of what constitutes “real” life is worth pondering. Yet, respect for the miracle of life itself, expressed with such aching eloquence in the original film, never feels quite as profound here.
Still, the movie resonates in its own way as its central mystery evolves. Scripted by Michael Green, from a treatment by original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, 2049 begins with an explanation that the original replicant manufactory has been purchased by a rich industrialist; the newer models are more obedient, less likely to rebel than the earlier renegades. Apparently, they no longer have a four-year expiration date, either. It’s the job of a replicant LAPD cop identified only by the first letter of his serial number, K (Ryan Gosling), to track down older models and “retire” them.
On one such mission, he unearths the bones of a woman who died in childbirth—with a replicant ID. This is a big deal to his tough-cookie boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), who assigns him to track down the offspring, before the possibility of replicant reproduction “changes everything.” Meanwhile, mad-scientist industrialist Wallace (Jared Leto), searching for the secret of replicant procreation, assigns his ruthless replicant minion, ironically named Luv (a chilling Sylvia Hoeks) to track the tracker.
K is a little daunted. “I’ve never retired something that was born before,” he tells his hologrammatic girlfriend Joi (a very appealing Ana de Armas). Haunted by some troubling “memory implants” of his own, K follows the trail to a community of junkyard scavengers, a scientist in a sterile bubble harvesting human memories for replicant implants, and finally to the secret lair of loner ex-cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), holed up in a plush, empty Las Vegas casino since the events of the first film.
It’s great to see Ford revisiting one of his signature roles. His testy, cynical Deckard plays well against Gosling’s smooth aplomb as they become unexpected allies in pursuit of the truth. The visuals are often amazing, with cinematographer Roger Deakins recapturing the perpetually grey, choked, drizzly post-millennial Los Angeles from the original, although there seems to be less neon glitz and even more grunge this time around.
But a few too many replicant vs. replicant slugfests—brutal, but rarely conclusive—slow things down. (In particular the climax, involving a grounded car and a rising tide, goes on forever.) And with so few humans on view (we never experience the master-slave dynamic in the offworld colonies), the sense of humanity as a goal to be striven for feels diluted. In this world, one’s humanity is the silver ticket that distinguishes the classes, but we never feel that profound sense of loss the renegade replicants felt in the first film, battling for their sense of human identity in the face of extinction.
Still, the question of whether organic humanity, born of a life actually lived, is more valid than genuinely human responses provoked by artificial means, remains fascinating. It keeps the Blade Runner franchise among the most literate of anti-superhero sci-fi dramas.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
With Ryan Gosling, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas, and Harrison Ford. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. A Warner Bros. release. Rated R. 163 minutes.