A belated sequel to a beloved film is always at least part homage — unless it's all cash-grab. Blade Runner 2049 is decidedly not the latter. With this long, unwieldy and ambitious film, director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) makes the world of Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic his own, bringing to it his characteristic strengths and weaknesses.
There's a lot of story, perhaps too much. There are awe-inspiring visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins. There is moody strolling where most movies of comparable budget would have nonstop explosions. There are dark reflections on the possibility of meaningful agency in a corrupt world.
That last theme is where Villeneuve's noir tendencies (best seen in Sicario) intersect with the original Blade Runner, which was both a work of futurism and a noir pastiche. In that film, a jaded cop (Harrison Ford) hunts down bioengineered androids called "replicants" after they stop obediently serving humanity.
Set 30 years later, 2049 has the same premise, with one key exception: Blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant. One of a new generation created by tech tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), he "retires" antiquated replicants who weren't, as he was, designed for flawless compliance.
During one such assigned hit, K discovers evidence that a female replicant has, improbably, given birth. "This breaks the world," K's boss (Robin Wright) hisses at him, before telling him to find and murder the miracle child whose existence challenges human dominion. Meanwhile, the sinister Wallace is eager to secure the replicant offspring for his own ends.
Anyone can guess that K's quest will eventually lead him toward players from the original film. The surprise is that their reappearance feels like a detour, slowing down and unfocusing the film just as K's story becomes most compelling.
While it's always nice to see Ford back and committing to a role, Leto's performance is a distracting attempt to recapture the campier aspects of the original. Ultimately, they're both less interesting than K's search for fulfillment with a digital love interest (Ana de Armas) and his dawning sense that he can make choices on his own.
While Blade Runner's themes ("What does it mean to be human?") were old hat even in 1982, its immersive urbanscape was totally new — part modern Tokyo and part gritty old-time LA, part nostalgia and part future dread. Villeneuve can't give us the thrill of seeing that for the first time, but he shows us new marvels: the laboratory where replicant memories are manufactured, future LA's vast garbage dump (formerly known as San Diego), an orange-hazed Las Vegas where icons of the past perform as holograms.
Philip K. Dick's midcentury pessimism meets climate-change consciousness in this world clothed in a dreamlike, funereal sheen, the monumental graveyard of an Earth wasted by human overreach. Finding meaning there is quixotic, yet K does emerge, in his own way, as a hero.
Popular with neither critics nor audiences when it opened, Blade Runner slowly built a cult of viewers seduced by its unique vision. Yet there's an irony at the heart of its built-in nostalgia, and the nostalgia surrounding it now.
In the film's world, memories can be programmed, which means your fond recollections of seeing Blade Runner on first run are no guarantee that you aren't actually an android. But would it matter? For all its flaws, Blade Runner 2049 is the kind of film that provokes such questions — a big-budget genre movie that respects its audience's intelligence, and an homage that adds something beautifully new.