‘Blade Runner 2049’ dreams of dystopian excellence

Denis Villeneuve paints a vividly eerie future while thoughtfully exploring humanity and reality in a brilliant work of sci-fi art

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

At 163 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 is a long sit for a movie that asks its audience to accept a dark, dystopian future driven by industrialists using bioengineered humans called replicants for slave labor, but it quickly makes its case. The first few minutes introduce the world with a massive sense of scale through richly detailed scenery and a hauntingly heavy synthesizer score — this place immediately feels chilling and fully realized. The setting has such a strong sense of its own history without explicitly detailing all of it that the quiet, melancholy pacing almost hypnotically draws you in. The world director Denis Villeneuve creates — which revisits and builds upon what Ridley Scott established in the 1982 original, Blade Runner (in itself based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) — is so incredibly visceral with its combination of sights and sounds — fog, steam, dust, shadows, neon lights, snow, rain — that it becomes a wholly immersive place. This is why we go to the movies, to get lost and exist in a fascinatingly different world for a few hours, which is exactly the experience Villeneuve delivers in Blade Runner 2049.

While it helps to have seen Scott’s original film for background, it’s by no means necessary as Blade Runner 2049 touches on the key details as applicable. Like its predecessor, this film is more about developing the world these characters live in than anything else; its premise mostly serves as an excuse to navigate it and meditatively consider concepts like humanity, reality, and memory through K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant who serves as a “blade runner” for the LAPD, hunting down and retiring older replicant models. K’s routine offers insight into the world, its history, and the tense relationship between humans and replicants, without necessarily over-explaining the minutia. These not-totally-contextual references to past events and small passing details are what make this place palpable. For example, when K returns to headquarters he completes a strange debriefing process in a machine to assess his baseline obedience, but there’s no explicit explanation on the science or logic of how the machine works.

K’s story picks up while completing a mission on a farm, where he finds a buried box with the remains of a female replicant, which upon further analysis, appears to have died during child birth. As there’s no prior record of replicants being capable of reproducing, K is tasked with tracking down the child and eliminating it, otherwise the knowledge that replicants can reproduce could lead to war between humans and replicants. K follows his orders, tracking his leads to identify the parents and ultimately locate the child. As he does so, the idea that replicants can be born makes him contemplate his own existence and whether he’s capable of the same things as humanity — whether he might be capable of being real in the same sense. In this way, Villeneuve manages to take his film of massive scope and keep it very focused and personal.

Gosling’s performance as K is just the right amount of understated. He’s stoic but not necessarily robotic. He’s so hyper-aware of the fact that he’s a replicant that he seems to almost disregard the fact that he has feelings. His memories clearly have resonance and meaning, but he’s the first to brush them off as implants that never really happened to him. The only somewhat human indulgence he seems to allow himself is his love for his A.I., Joi (Ana de Armas), which is one of the strongest parts of the movie and plays out as if Spike Jonze’s Her took place in a colder, darker future. Their feelings for each other seem so earnest and human, it’s hard to imagine that they might not be. As K wonders whether Joi’s feelings for him are just part of her programming, those thoughts seem to be just as much about him trying to reconcile what might be real in terms of his own emotions.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

While the story stays tightly focused on K, his investigation brings him in contact with various characters, all of whom provide information that continues to fuel his complicated feelings about his existence. Even with limited screen time, the supporting cast has plenty to sink their teeth into, as the periphery characters are just as detailed and fully realized as the world of Blade Runner 2049 itself. Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, Sylvia Hoeks, and Barkhad Abdi really feel like people that may exist in this world, and it’s not hard to imagine their characters just living their lives before or after we meet them. Jared Leto is kind of terrifying as the corrupt CEO of the Wallace Corporation, the current manufacturer of replicants, and Harrison Ford of course returns as Rick Deckard, who factors pretty heavily into K’s investigation.

Both visually and sonically compelling, Blade Runner 2049 stands alongside Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Interstellar (both also powered by incredible Hans Zimmer scores) in a master class of films that are so strikingly detailed that they take on an immersive quality. Beyond that though, the real beauty of Blade Runner 2049 lies in its ability to introduce themes like the nature of humanity and what makes someone or something real and let those concepts percolate across the film. Villeneuve explores these ideas on a massive scale, but uses K as a lens to do so in an introverted and personal way.

So what makes something real? Or human? Well, Blade Runner 2049 may not have those answers. But Villeneuve delivers a fascinating journey in examining the questions.