Before a recent press screening of Blade Runner 2049, a representative from Warner Bros. read a note from Denis Villeneuve, in which the director politely asked those assembled to preserve the film’s many secrets. It’s a reasonable request, but a difficult one, as any discussion of 2049 is bound to involve spoiler-spilling queries, many of them existential. Will the digital revolution mark our finest hour, or our final hour? Can humanity be replicated? And, perhaps, the most pressing head-scratcher of all: Just how the hell does Harrison Ford get his arms to look like that?
The actor’s formidable 75-year-old limbs—bulging with squiggly veins, and just itching to swing—get a fair amount of screen-time in Blade Runner: 2049, Villeneuve’s sweeping, deeply affecting new sci-fi drama, and the sequel to Ridley Scott’s future-redefining 1982 original. That film marked Ford’s first appearance as Rick Deckard, a lean, oft-tipsy, emotionally akimbo Los Angeles robot-hunter tasked with tracking down on-the-lam androids (or “replicants”). Despite the original Blade Runner‘s infamous grimness, Deckard was actually a bit of a softie, giving the film an unexpected warmth amid all the ambient drizzling. Fans argued for years whether Deckard was actually a robot, but the performance itself was always recognizably human.
Still, three decades and a full-on global cataclysm can change a man, and the Deckard we finally catch up with in the year 2049 is a lot like 2049 itself: Hardened, precision-built, and capable of swift, sudden violence. This is a movie about the aftershocks of evolution—emotional, physical, global—and after watching it, you might feel slightly altered yourself, as Blade Runner 2049 is so mesmeric, so thoroughly transportive, that the real world waiting outside of the theater will strike you as bit of a let-down. It’s the sort of big-budget, big-idea sci-fi film that seems all but impossible these days.
That’s exactly why keeping the film’s mysteries intact feels less like a kowtow to studio policy, and more like an act of kindness. Blade Runner 2049 is best experienced cold, but I can’t imagine a few select plot points will ruin much (and if they do, you can always wipe ’em out with some new implants). 2049 takes place 30 years after the original, and while that film’s vision of LA remains somewhat intact (see-through umbrellas, assaultive neon ads), the city is darker and more claustrophobic than ever. It doesn’t help that the weather has turned pre-apocalyptic, and that society is still recovering from a massive blackout that caused “ten days of darkness”: All digital data was destroyed, and bank records and photos were lost forever. The upside to this shutdown? Mankind (presumably) was finally rid of Twitter. The downside? The entire world was plunged into reboot-requiring chaos.
Blade Runner 2049 is so mesmeric, so thoroughly transportive, that the real world waiting outside of the theater will strike you as bit of a let-down.
Our savior is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a literally bright-eyed inventor whose slick-backed hair and free-range beard make him look like Angel Heart-era Robert De Niro, and whose monk-like existence recalls some of our own 21st-century tech gurus. Wallace has taken over the infamous Tyrell Corporation building, which has been converted into a sleek museum-slash-lab celebrating Wallace’s greatness. There, he’s been working on new generations of replicants, best exemplified by Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), an employee whose dedication to her boss seems almost unhealthy—until you realize that just about everyone in 2049 is in some way subservient to the inventor, whose products have become seemingly standard-issue (in a nice bit of perhaps-accidental semi-homage, the logo for Wallace’s company echoes one previously used by a certain film studio).
Wallace, though, is hardly a humble altruist—a point that becomes clear when he sets Luv on a violent, top-secret mission that just happens to coincide with even an even more violent (and especially more top-secretish) mission undertaken by K (Ryan Gosling), an blade runner who’s only beginning to question his purpose, and who’s aided by Joi (Ana de Armas). The answer to all of his questions, he hopes, is Deckard, whom he finds living in an old casino parlor, with little to keep him company save for a raggedy dog and “millions of bottles of whiskey” (and we all know how dangerous that can be).
Their initial meeting is marked by a dizzying bit of fisticuffs in a strobe-lit nightclub, and as fun as it is to watch the two generations of leading men in a super punch-out, the best moments in Blade Runner are their terse verbal exchanges. Ford, in his public life, is a man of few words, and in 2049, that sparseness is advantageous; his dim-eyed stares and chewed-up phrasing tell you all you need to know about what he lost during his 30 years self-exile, and the movie’s most affecting renders him completely silent. (He is also allowed to occasionally be funny—no small feat in a Villeneuve film, which tend to be dangerously chilly.) Gosling is equally bottled up, his usual easygoing charm set to mute, his searching eyes shielding, just barely, the sadness and confusion K doesn’t want others to see. (That doesn’t prevent nearly every female character, real or mechanical, from swooning over him; it may be a dystopia, but everyone still wants to bonk Ryan Gosling.)
There’s little very lingering over anything in Blade Runner 2049, which may be the way it adheres most closely to Ridley Scott’s hazy original.
But there’s very little time in Blade Runner 2049 for introspection. Actually, there’s plenty of time—the movie runs just over two and a half hours, very little of it wasted—but Villeneuve, the director of such exquisite bummers as Sicario and Incendies, has always used the characters’ worlds to illuminate what’s in their minds. And the world of Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeously scopic: cautiously soaring spinners giving chase in the night sky; a parched, burnt-orange desert littered with garish statues; the slick, squirmy industrial birth-canal that Wallace uses to bring his replicants to life. Villeneuve and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, don’t linger over their compositions, which just makes them loom even larger in our minds, and even the relatively small-scale shots, like that of a bloody eyeball being washed clean in a sink, have a severe staying power.
In fact, there’s little very lingering over anything in Blade Runner 2049, which may be the way it adheres most closely to Scott’s hazy original. The technologies in 2049—from grubby farming equipment to hovering, fish-like replicant-monitors—appear just long enough to embed themselves in our curiosity. The same can be said for 2049‘s jittery themes. It’s a movie with dire warnings about everything from technological over-reliance to corporate idolatry to environmental abuse, yet never dwells on any of them. The film’s most haunting scene finds Luv ordering round after round of body-obliterating missiles—all while getting a high-tech manicure from miles away. It’s a sequence that’s as much about 2017 as it is about 2049, but Villeneuve never belabors the point, which just makes the moment’s casual brutality all the more affecting.
2049‘s greatest power, though, lies in the way it manages its own scope. This is a $150 million franchise film with huge movie stars and no small set of box-office expectations; yet it’s also a considered, empathetic story that, like the original, forces you to rethink what it means it be alive. “You’ve never seen a miracle,” one character chides another early on in the film, and while Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t warrant that lofty of a designation, it’s a thrilling anomaly in the ever-depressing tentpole era—a pleasure model with a brain.