Androids dream of revolution.
Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir masterpiece, explores the porous boundary between the fabricated the real. Banned on Earth in the original Blade Runner, replicants are back — and they’re both docile and freed of their short lifespans. As a Blade Runner named K, Ryan Gosling is one, and he’s tasked with hunting down his rogue brethren and reinforcing an uneasy truce between the machines and their creators.
The original Blade Runner reimagined Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, relocating the narrative from San Francisco after a global nuclear war to a monstrously hyper-urban Los Angeles. Set in a rainy November 2019, Blade Runner depicts an impoverished L.A. full of giant ads and industrial flares. With much of the citizenry relocated to “off-world colonies” serviced by androids called replicants, criminals and the genetically damaged comprise most of the people who remain. There are also many Asian characters, something that could be read as inverted colonialism or as a cousin of the 1980s anxiety over a resurgent Japan.
Thirty years later, in the internal chronology, Blade Runner 2049 shows an even more repressive, inhospitable Los Angeles, with worse food. It builds on its antecedents well. The film’s strength lies in the way it respects and maintains the tone and mystery of the original, still among the darkest of cinematic visions. (Famously mutilated through a series of different cuts, Blade Runner’s enigmatic quality has only grown over the intervening decades.) Rather than retcon any of the technological elements that changed in the real world’s timeline between 1982’s vision of the future and ours, the sequel leaves them be. Pan-Am still exists, as does the Soviet Union — and Atari remains a powerful corporation. Computers don’t look like they connect to an internet, although there are references to a 10-day “Blackout” in the 2020s that cost everybody’s mother their baby photos.
It’s not all retro-future wistfulness, however. There’s a strain of vicious fabulousness, as when a character launches a missile strike while getting a manicure by a guy in a welding mask. Much of the tech is marvelous, too. Gosling’s K, lonely and hated by “real” humans, has an interactive holographic companion (Ana de Armas), and the swarm of drones that accompany evil genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) are much more graceful than anything in existence today. Large-scale solar arrays look frightening rather than optimistic. Through his emphasis on dust and radiation, Villeneuve is arguably more faithful to Dick’s text than Scott was, and Hans Zimmer’s almost overpowering version of Vangelis’ famously moody, synth-heavy score has echoes of what Mad Max: Fury Road did for that series. There’s also a lot less smoking and a lot more tears.
In various phases of development since the 20th century, this sequel has been a long time coming. After years of firmly tamping down rumors that Harrison Ford would reprise the role of Rick Deckard, we nonetheless have a script that avoids tickling any superfans’ erogenous zones a la The Force Awakens’ “Chewie, we’re home.” It’s well-cast throughout, too. Carla Juri plays a sorrowful builder of false memories. Edward James Olmos returns with a cameo, and M. Emmet Walsh’s grizzled-cop character is gone, replaced in spirit by Robin Wright, the reigning queen of sub-zero amorality.
Blade Runner 2049 isn’t perfect. Although K is designed to be perfectly obedient, De Armas’ character is pure straight-male fantasy, a technologically advanced equivalent to Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie. More importantly, the film suffers in the third act when the focus shifts from Gosling to Ford, and one of the many on-screen deaths ranks among the most gratuitous in cinematic history. Hampton Fancher’s dialogue can be wooden — the clammy “That is just a piece of the puzzle,” is actually uttered at one point — and Leto’s character is overworked and underdone.
But it avoids strip-mining the original or recycling old ideas, and there aren’t any contrived twists. Judged by the standards of highbrow sci-fi, Blade Runner 2049 is beautiful and smart, and its sizable length shouldn’t be a deterrent to people who didn’t get the first one. Almost all the interiors are stunning, and a holographic sex scene is nothing short of profound. The question, then, is not whether androids dream of electric sheep, but to what extent that dream is lucid, and whether those electric sheep have nightmares, too.
Blade Runner 2049 opens Friday, Oct. 6.