Leave it to Harrison Ford, in grumpy grampa mode, to succinctly sum up with a quip what Blade Runner 2049—the sequel to Ford’s own Blade Runner—otherwise tries to capture with portentous imagery and grandiose dialogue. Asked if the dog that’s accompanying him is real (a reasonable question in a future of replicants and holograms), Ford’s Deckard growls, “I don’t know, ask him.”
What’s real and what’s not—and how we draw that line—is the primary concern of Blade Runner 2049. If the original film was a sci-noir meditation on mortality, with the artificially intelligent, limited-lifespan robots known as replicants standing in for vulnerable humanity, Blade Runner 2049 ups the existential ante. It questions the nature of reality itself.
The movie is at its best when it does this visually. If there was a contemporary director capable of matching the bravura imagery of Ridley Scott, who helmed the original Blade Runner, it is Denis Villeneuve. The opening establishing shots, which display the Los Angeles of the future as a series of geometric patterns, echo the arresting God’s-eye-view shots of the Mexican desert in Sicario (legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins worked with Villeneuve on both films). The dark interiors of the corporate headquarters where the replicants are made, meanwhile, recall the minimalist but evocative production design of the alien spacecraft in Arrival. And the umber mist that engulfs Las Vegas, which is visited about halfway through the picture, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen—it’s as if the entire city had been engulfed in Agent Orange.
Blade Runner 2049 excels, however, when this visual aplomb is applied to its thematic concerns. Ryan Gosling stars as K, a “blade runner”—a hunter of AWOL replicants—who early on is revealed to be a replicant himself. (The movie does this wittily at first, with K asleep at the wheel of his flying car. When a dashboard alert jolts him, he seems to be “activated” as much as he is woken up.) Back home in his dingy apartment, K shares a cozy, domestic evening with a hologram companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), who “cooks” him food and “shares” a drink. She’s like a combination of Betty from Mad Men and Samantha from Her in the—well, not exactly flesh, but close.
Just about everything in K’s world is a facsimile of some kind: his memories (implanted, which he accepts); his own skin (after a brutal confrontation with a resisting replicant, K “repairs” his awful knife wound); and especially his relationship with Joi (during a “kiss,” her image is put on pause to make way for an incoming voice message from K’s superior). K understands all this as the natural order of things, but then the lines begin to blur. The movie’s plot proper—and its connection to the first Blade Runner—kicks off when K comes across evidence that a replicant, years earlier, might have somehow given birth. If that proves to be true, then who can say what’s real and what’s not? Is he perhaps “alive” in a way he didn’t understand before? Is this the reason he likes to listen to Sinatra and read Nabokov—activities that wouldn’t seem to offer much to a soulless robot?
What’s real and what’s not—and how we draw that line—is the movie’s primary concern.
K’s investigation brings the two films together in a fairly satisfactory way, one that doesn’t lean too heavily on pandering nostalgia or dense mythology. Ford’s presence could have been the movie’s Achilles’ heel, but—as in Star Wars: The Force Awakens—he’s used sparingly and he participates agreeably (arguably giving a better performance than he did in the first film). It doesn’t hurt that Deckard is part of the movie’s showstopping scene, which takes place in that hellish vision of Las Vegas. K tracks down Deckard to an abandoned casino, where they have a showdown in a theater once designed for hologram performances by iconic stars. As a glitchy Elvis stutters and stops—the soundtrack alternating between Elvis crooning and sudden silence—K and Deckard trade blows. Once again, the real and the unreal intermingle; Blade Runner 2049 gives virtual reality a startling verisimilitude, so that the stuff of robots and holograms becomes a matter of life and death.
Like its predecessor, the movie isn’t perfect. Despite its potent visuals, Blade Runner 2049 still feels the need to be talky. “We’re all just looking out for something real,” says Robin Wright, who plays K’s superior. Just about everything Jared Leto says—as the spooky, vaguely defined corporate mastermind behind the new generation of replicants—is equally, obviously, thematic. And while Gosling is fine, he doesn’t have the dexterity of, say, Michael Fassbender when it comes to capturing the inner life of a supposedly lifeless creation. Gosling and Ford both have extended, emotional reaction shots—set in the same room, no less—and grandpa acts the kid off the screen.
But those are minor quibbles. Blade Runner was a daunting production to follow; that 1982 movie was as influential on the sci-fi dystopias that came in its wake as the silent masterpiece Metropolis was influential on it. 2049 is a worthy successor, a moody, broody visual feast that taps into our unease about the advent of artificial intelligence—and the questions of what it means to be alive that will inevitably come with it. Perhaps Deckard has a good point: if the dog believes it’s real, who are we to question it?