Paranoid Androids: When love & hate collide in Blade Runner 2049

(spoiler-free)

As the irradiated dust slowly settles around Blade Runner 2049, the fallout is intriguing to say the least.

The long-awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece should have returned bigger, bolder and brasher than the original … isn’t that what all sequels do?

Not this one.

Instead of firing us headlong into a familiar but amped-up cyberpunk jungle, director Denis Villeneuve slams on the brakes — jettisoning all our expectations somewhere up the neon-lit freeway.

Our electric dreams of what we think this film should be are instantly short-circuited. The roaring fires of anticipation reduced to ash — but its fiery embers ignite something else …

And it lies somewhere on the smoking asphalt, where we’re left to peer at the black gold of a heroically understated and bravely slow-burning future-noir.

A critical, if not particularly commercial, success ($31.5m on its opening weekend against a $50m target), Blade Runner 2049 has unquestionably proved divisive.

Many critics and cinemagoers have hailed it a modern-day classic, a triumph of substance over style.

But equally, just as many have slammed it as overlong, portentous, impenetrable and … well, just plain dull.

For me, I see shades of all the above, but I also can’t deny what a curiously affecting and surprisingly satisfying film this is.

It’s also one that refreshingly refuses to insult our (artificial?) intelligence; its clever plot slowly unfurling like a lotus flower as we tumble deeper down the rabbit hole.

Much has been said about how audiences have not taken kindly to the movie’s unrelenting dark tone, keeping us locked in the shadows when it’s human nature to chase the light.

Everyone knows escapism is a powerful, intoxicating drug ­- but so too is the truth.

And Blade Runner 2049 revels in its own brutal depiction of a terrifying future-reality not a million miles away from our own. The gap is narrowing all the time and it’s laid bare here for all to see ­- its inherent ugliness, hatred and despair sometimes a little too close to the bone.

Thankfully there is respite– namely in the welcome flashes of beauty, love and hope, if you care to look. Just not too closely, as these fleeting glimpses have a habit of shying away like lightning.

To uncover all its secrets, this sombre tale certainly makes you work hard, much like its protagonist K (Ryan Gosling).

He’s an LAPD sleuth tasked with tracking down and ‘retiring’ old replicants ­- bio-engineered androids who look human.

They were initially created as slaves until they developed ideas and a natural wanderlust.

K lives in a humble flat with his virtual partner Joi (Ana De Armas), a hologram whose fragile life surfs existence like a kite in a storm.

It’s small wonder that troubled K starts to question things — his job, memories … even his own nature, which leads him on a frightening journey of self-discovery.

This existential angst is a recurring theme throughout, hammered home later on when our hero hooks up with original replicant-chaser Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) amid the scorched-sand ruins of a Vegas casino.

But enough plot, there are no spoilers here.

Let the spotlight instead fall on the breathtaking cinematography.

Its forceful shafts of light and characters often illuminated from behind echo the visually arresting style of classical Hollywood. Warm, marmalade skies tango with icy sapphire-steel structures, perhaps evoking skin on metal?

It really is a true feast for the eyes, but also a thorn for the brain.

Watching it is sometimes like wading through a murky swamp in the half-light, desperately hoping somebody, anybody, will grab your hand and lead you to safety.

I remember leaving the cinema feeling as if I’d been repeatedly pushed up against a wall for nearly three hours. Battered and bewildered — I wasn’t really sure what I’d just witnessed.

But now that irradiated dust has settled I can clearly see Blade Runner 2049 for what it is — a 21st century sci-fi classic in the making.

A gruelling watch for sure, but what’s a little ephemeral discomfort when the rewards last a lifetime?

And in any case, as someone once said, all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to try.