"BLADE RUNNER 2049" — 3½ stars — Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Jared Leto; R (violence, some sexuality, nudity and language); in general release
Fans of the first "Blade Runner" and science fiction, in general, should be awed by Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049," a visual and sonic experience that stays faithful to its roots while expanding in new narrative directions.
The movie is the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 science fiction neo-noir "Blade Runner," which itself was the adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel called "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." "Blade Runner 2049" picks up the story 30 years after the original, which followed the exploits of a Los Angeles policeman named Deckard (Harrison Ford), who hunted down a group of outlaw synthetic humanoids called Replicants.
In the time since, "2049's" opening titles tell us that the original film's already bleak and post-apocalyptic future has become even more bleak and post-apocalyptic, thanks to the collapse of various ecosystems and a technological event called The Blackout that has compromised society's electronic records. But on the bright side, a man named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has updated the Tyrell Corporation's previous Replicant design and created a new, obedient model.
This leads us to K (Ryan Gosling), a present-day Blade Runner who is hunting down the last of the early rogue Replicant models. We meet him on the way to a remote farm outside of Los Angeles, where he flushes out a Replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) and makes a discovery that ties "2049" back into the events of the previous film.
Villeneuve has requested that critics be discreet with the details of his complex and twisting plot, in the understandable interest of audiences who wish to experience "2049" with as clear a palate as possible. But suffice it to say, K's investigation into his discovery leads him into trouble with Wallace, whose corporation is pursuing much more insidious goals than it lets on.
"Balde Runner 2049" dives headfirst into the same themes as Scott's original film, considering the very nature of what constitutes life, consciousness and the soul. There's plenty of speculation going on, as in any worthwhile science fiction film, but "2049" also has a way of touching on plausible topics that feel like logical extensions of present-day issues.
Even so, Villeneuve's primary achievement is in creating a breathtaking and immersive world that is faithful to the original film while feeling fresh and updated. We spend plenty of time in the dark and oppressive neon-lit corridors of future Los Angeles, but we also get out beyond the city into various ruins and farmscapes that marry the bleak to the beautiful. Villeneuve was also the man behind last year's "Arrival," and the connection shows.
Furthermore, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch enhance that visual landscape with a powerful and terrifying soundtrack that feels like a perfect extension of Vangelis' haunting compositions in the first film. Combined with the striking visuals, "2049," at times, becomes as much of an experience as a movie, which should please fans who were inspired by the experiential impact of the first film.
That being said, "2049" is not a perfect film. Its profound and ponderous tone can lag when stretched over the film's 163-minute run time, and some of the film's R-rated profanity and nudity feel forced and gratuitous more than essential (the graphic violence that marked the first film actually feels pretty restrained here.)
But for a film that takes on the challenge of following-up a beloved 35-year-old cult favorite, not to mention a film that had a profound influence on the visual style and tone of so much of the cinematic science fiction that followed, it's hard to argue that audiences will be disappointed with Villeneuve's effort. Even if "Blade Runner 2049" is technically a riff on a previous director's vision, it is a piece of filmmaking that towers above its peers.
"Blade Runner 2049" is rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language; running time: 163 minutes.