Arrival director Denis Villeneuve pulls off the dare of the decade, hatching a thoughtful, expansive sequel to a sci-fi classic.
It’s still raining in Los Angeles—actually, now it looks like thick sheets of sludgy sleet are pounding down—and those dark synths swirl in Blade Runner 2049, a colossal piece of retro-futuristic gorgeousness. At well over two-and-a-half hours, the movie impresses (and oppresses) with its mood: Sometimes it’s an orgy of neon-colored street life; elsewhere it’s an existential thumb-sucker that Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky would have been proud to sign; and always, it’s in thrall to the stylishly downbeat vision that Ridley Scott hatched back in 1982. As with the original film, Greek composer Vangelis is the real star here—his keening keyboard themes have been acid-washed by today’s re-scorers, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, yet the Chariots of Fire wizard’s aural signature echoes through these urban canyons like a welcoming beacon. Immersing you in a complete wow, Blade Runner 2049 is the thinking person’s sci-fi event of the year.
Radically, Scott’s landmark was also a ’40s noirish mystery, and this sequel (co-scripted by Michael Green and a returning Hampton Fancher) follows suit, a little too closely. Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s a reboot cloned from beloved DNA, with similar action beats and a dramatic skeleton that’s meant to be a bridge for fans. Stubbly Ryan Gosling plays “K,” a trench-coated hunter of wayward “replicants.” He needs no droning narration for us to know he’s a sad sack: Unambiguously from the start, he’s an artificial creation. (K breezes by the hurled insult “skin job” with detachment.) Gosling’s La La Land fans shouldn’t hold their breath for a song-and-dance number—or even a smile—yet the actor’s performance is fascinatingly physical, an internal struggle to break the parameters of his programming. Staring down his jerk of a police boss (Robin Wright), K submits to scary white-room debriefings and is eventually on the trail of some mysterious unearthed bones. He’s sent to one of those gleaming ziggurat-like megastructures, where a tech tycoon (Jared Leto, acting up a storm behind cloudy contacts) likes to talk about his own godliness.
None of this is remotely boring—it’s almost touching to see Hollywood upgrading one of its weirdest properties with a generous budget. But the best parts of Blade Runner 2049 are when it’s pushing its setup into new territory. K has an affecting, sexually complex relationship with a hologram who pretends to make house with him (Ana de Armas). There’s an interlude in a radioactive Las Vegas, filled with the Elvis-and-Marilyn detritus of a long-vanished culture, that’s been brilliantly bleached out. (Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins ups his game.) And it’s no spoiler to say that once again we meet the grizzled blade runner of yore, Harrison Ford, who reminds us that these movies were always about the most human of inventions, love, even if manufactured by machines. With films like Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve has brought an alien strangeness to his intimate moments. This time he’s infusing soulfulness into a story that could have rung hollow. He’s flirting with metaphysical ideas on a grand scale; the new Blade Runner—human or replicant, it’s hard to tell—is a strange hybrid, and for that, it’s worth cherishing. It’s a unicorn in the fog.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Ana de Armas