“I hope you don’t mind me taking a liberty” are the first words spoken in Blade Runner 2049, an unlikely sequel to the oft-revised Ridley Scott sci-fi sleeper that has confounded and divided normals — and been an object of adoration for nerds — for 35 years.
I certainly don’t mind. This inspired, expansive follow-up, for which Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher returned, though Scott handed the directorial reins to Sicario and Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve, is less a generational iteration from its precursor than an evolutionary leap. It chews on the many existential questions introduced in Blade Runner — if our machines can think and feel, are they still machines? How do we know our memories can be trusted? Do androids dream of electric sheep, or unicorns or whatever? — more fully and more satisfyingly than Blade Runner did. Yes, even The Final Cut, which came out some 25 years after the original.
The past few years have spoiled us with good and even great sequels to beloved hits from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s — Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens — but 2049 is the cream of the genetically engineered crop. It doesn’t just remind you of what you loved about Scott’s weird but unshakable hybrid of film noir and cyberpunk-before-it-had-a-name, or even require you to have seen it, necessarily. It takes the grubby, thoughtful world-building and hyperkinetic imagery of the 1982 landmark and gives it, at long last, a story to match. 2049 runs 45 minutes longer than its precursor, but feels shorter. It’s the best philosophical gumshoe movie since Memento and the best dystopian future flick since Children of Men. It’s an astonishing achievement. And like Dunkirk, it’s worth the tariff you’ll pay to experience it on the largest, sharpest screen you can find.
Part of its impact, of course, is that Blade Runner‘s, ugh, brand hasn’t been diluted in the intervening decades by other deflating sequels, even though its influence has been everywhere. For a generation or so, there was little presumptive demand for a follow-up to the 27th-highest-grossing film from the year when E.T., Tootsie, and An Officer and a Gentleman ruled the box office. Ironically, the movie about a gang of desperate “replicants” — superstrong, self-aware bioengineered humans built as slave labor for the hazardous “off-world colonies” — who trespass on Earth hoping to have their built-in four-year life spans extended, was the ultimate grower. Planned Obsolescence would’ve made worlds more sense as a title than Blade Runner did.
The new movie does not explain the origin of that sexy-sounding idiom, nor does it dispel any of the glorious mysteries in the margins of the old one, like what a “kick-murder squad” is (one could hazard a guess) or what C-Beams or the Tannháuser Gate are (no idea). Unlike Scott’s own thudding Alien addenda Prometheus and Covenant (with which 2049 shares a screenwriter in Michael Green), this new film actually deepens the enchantment of the old one instead of breaking the spell. There are several distinct references to Macbeth, and a recurring music cue from Peter and the Wolf. Beyond that, I’m severely restrained in my ability to tell you very much, as the publicity team read to the critics at the screening I attended an appeal from Villeneuve: an exhaustive list of specific characters and plot developments he has kindly asked that we not discuss. I’m complying because he has made a superb movie, one that really is stocked with revelations and counterrevelations worth preserving intact.
Here’s one that, marketing necessities aside, I wish he’d been able to keep under his hat: Harrison Ford is in it. Look, he’s right there on the poster! He reprises his role as burnout ex-Blade Runner (whatever that is) Rick Deckard. Always a reluctant sci-fi icon, the fact of Ford’s appearance in a good latter-day Star Wars and a sublime latter-day Blade Runner within two years of one another strains credulity more than a kingdom of crystal skulls, but here we are. And here he is, emotionally all-in. Ford uses his innate flintiness to good effect in this, his most deeply felt performance in many years. He lives in the ruins of a casino, and the deep-in-the-movie scene where he and Ryan Gosling’s Detective K meet is a visually rich inversion of the original’s climax, with a dying Rutger Hauer taunting a wounded, terrified Ford in the husk of LA’s Bradbury Building. (I’ve been there. There’s a plaque on display celebrating the place’s major role in Blade Runner.) The whole movie is like that: It does echoes, not callbacks. It does not rely on nostalgia, even though Blade Runner, with its 2019-by-way-of-1940 aesthetic, was pickling in it.
Thirty years after the events of the first film, Earth is in even worse shape, though a genetic designer played with properly modulated flamboyance by Jared Leto has solved the basic problem of famine. (Little airborne recording devices orbit his head like moons around a planet.) Part of the solution, of course, was lifting the prohibition on replicants, but his new models are far less prone to rebellion and patricide than the Tyrell Corporation’s seriously Emo Nexus Sixes were. There are still some old rogue units around, which is why the LAPD needs its K.
Outside Greater Los Angeles, a massive wall keeps the rising Pacific Ocean from swallowing the city, and an “orphanage” full of child slaves picks through mountains of garbage looking for salvage. For the more fortunate ones, life has become a hierarchy of machines. As with human beings, the less sophisticated serve the more sophisticated: Gosling’s K orders around a drone that launches from the belly of his Spinner (flying car) to capture photos of the crime scenes he investigates. A little higher up the evolutionary chain, he’s in a relationship with a companion AI marketed under the name Joi (Ana de Armas), one that can be upgraded with an “Emanator” that allows her — it — to travel outside the confines of K’s apartment and even to feel some semblance of the sensation of touch. All this stuff is richly drawn and smart and believable. So is K’s relationship to his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), who subjects him to a fascinating psychological test each time he “retires” a replicant, to make sure he isn’t going soft or worse, contemplative.
I love that the filmmakers have stuck to the already scrambled timeline of the original, wherein the year 2019 had already brought us planetary colonization, flying cars, replicants and ecological collapse. (One out of four ain’t bad—or, you know, good.) So this is the future, but it’s a future where Pan Am and Atari and other long-extinct corporations survived to litter the landscape with their skyscraper-size electronic billboards. And where old sci-fi properties once resigned to cult status can be revived and renewed. Sequels used to have severely constricted life spans; they’re open ended now. Lucky us.