Funny how time, consideration, and no less than five different cuts can so radically change minds. In 1982, Ridley Scott's cerebral sci-fi thriller "Blade Runner" came and went in theaters with little fanfare and middling critical notices. Based on the 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick, the film's heady themes, dead-serious tone, and hard-boiled noir leanings likely left viewers scratching their heads and yearning to be in the theater next door where the altogether warmer, more life-affirming "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" was playing. A groundbreaker in terms of its special effects and flashy dystopian depiction of 2019 Los Angeles, "Blade Runner" is nevertheless an intellectually and emotionally chilly experience. By exploring the relationship between living beings and hunted bioengineered replicants, the picture provocatively delves into the nuances of humanity while, ironically, rarely feeling human. In other words, it's easier to deeply admire than to wholly embrace on first blush, and that is perhaps the key to why it has gradually built such a feverish cult following in the thirty-five years since release. Also likely not hurting the movie's mystique are the multiple versions released to home video over the decades, culminating in 2007's definitive, director-approved, blessedly voiceover-free "The Final Cut."
Ridley Scott may have struggled with the studio over his theatrically released version of "Blade Runner"fearing audiences wouldn't be able to follow the plot, higher-ups insisted on including an aforementioned running narration delivered by Harrison Ford's bounty hunter Rick Deckardbut there are no signs of a behind-the-scenes struggle when it comes to long-awaited sequel-cum-companion-piece "Blade Runner 2049." Denis Villeneuve, who has made a string of great, time-testing cinematic triumphs over the last five years (2013's "Prisoners
," 2014's "Enemy
," 2015's "Sicario
," and 2016's "Arrival
"), is an undisputed visionary, one of the finest filmmakers working in the twenty-first century. An ideal successor to Scott who puts his own singular spin on the material, Villeneuve adheres to the spirit of what has gone before and then expands, enlightens, and improves upon the original in every conceivable way. This may sound like mighty high claims for those who view "Blade Runner" as sacred, but that was mere appetizer to the more fully rounded meal served in "Blade Runner 2049."
Knowing as little as possible about what is to come and where the story is headed is one of the special pleasures which Villeneuve and his writersreturning scribe Hampton Fancher (1999's "The Minus Man") and Michael Green (2017's "Logan
")bring to the table. In an effort to be as vague and spoiler-free as possible, here is what can be touched upon: LAPD detective K (Ryan Gosling) works as a blade runner, tracking down and "retiring" (read: executing) the long-obsolete, thought-to-be-untrustworthy Nexus-8 replicants. When he and his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), come upon skeletal remains which point to a thought-impossible anomaly, she sends him out into the field to investigate the deceased's identity. His increasingly perilous mission eventually leads him to former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
"Blade Runner 2049" beats to its own haunting, eye-opening, sumptuously enigmatic rhythm. Where the film stands out next to its predecessor is in its dramatic resonance. As bleak and foreboding as its rain-pelting, snow-thrashing landscapes are, there is an underlying intimacy in the handling of K, a universal drive bristling within him to find purpose and a place to belong. Cinematographer Roger Deakins' (2016's "Hail, Caesar!
") images are bold and ravishing, a powerhouse of despairingly beautiful imagination. The music score, composed by Benjamin Wallfisch (2017's "It: Chapter One
") and Hans Zimmer (2017's "Dunkirk
"), is entirely at one with the world being portrayed, a roar of metal and memories both real and illusory. Joe Walker's (2013's "12 Years a Slave
") editing is deliberate yet alive, studied but never inert, thoughtful in its quiet moments and riveting in its lurking menace. One wishes even more of this virtually apocalyptic planet could be explored, and yet it is in Villeneuve's decisions about what to show and what to keep in darkness which add to the often baffling marvel of it all.
Ryan Gosling (2016's "La La Land
") is exquisite as K, a hero of initially opaque intent whose humanity cannot help but bleed through. An officer with a one-track task that morphs into an entirely different journey for answers, K has but one companion: a supportive holographic girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas). She may not be real, but in a world where the line has blurred immeasurably between human beings and those who have been synthetically farmed by one Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who's to say a computer program cannot think and feel? Gosling doesn't say a whole lot and doesn't need to, building a three-dimensional figure out of a character who scarcely knows much about himself.
In a relatively small but crucial role, Harrison Ford (2015's "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
") returns as Rick Deckard, older yet no worse for the wear, a sad man who has given so much to protect the ones he loves. Ford and Gosling share a number of great little moments together in the picture's second half, one set in a colorful futuristic representation of a 1960s mod-styled Vegas nightclub. Giving memorable support to the ensemble are the effortlessly appealing Ana de Armas (2016's "War Dogs
") as Joi; the mesmerizingly cutthroat Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace's assistant Luv; and Carla Juri (2014's "Wetlands"), making a lastingly poignant impression with only two scenes as Dr. Ana Stelline, a memory-maker whose expertise K seeks. The sole sort-of weak link is Jared Leto (2016's "Suicide Squad
"), bringing little inspiration to Niander Wallace while delivering the script's only instances of unnecessary exposition.
Not everyone will take to "Blade Runner 2049," just as so many were left alienated by "Blade Runner" in 1982. This goes with the territory of any film of such adventurous, unapologetic means. True to form for a director who never repeats himself, Denis Villeneuve has made a thinking-person's science-fiction epic not at all like the one he mounted in 2016, the devastating "Arrival
." Reverberating with the yearnings of souls who have been brought up to question if they even have souls, the film shrewdly blurs the line between self-preservation and self-sacrifice while asking no more profound question than what it means, and what it takes, to be human. Far from simplistic, check-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn fare, the 164-minute proceedings demand a certain commitment and attention from viewers and ultimately pay off in spades. A motion picture of grand aims and elevated altitudes, "Blade Runner 2049" challenges in the best way, as emotionally resounding as it is visually remarkable.