I need to start out saying I've never been a fan of "Blade Runner." Both times I've watched it I fell asleep; both times I left the experience feeling I either didn't get it or was above it. Upon my second attempt in 2013, I found the three-hour making-of documentary on the DVD infinitely more interesting than the film itself.
Ergo, my expectations for "Blade Runner 2049" were low. However, the new film had the notable benefit of Denis Villeneuve behind the camera. Mr. Villeneuve, the French-Canadian auteur behind "Arrival" and my personal pick for best film of the 2010s thus far, "Sicario," has consistently presented a worldview that is at once bleak yet unblinkable. You cannot turn away from his films' searing exploration of the complex morality of a universe in perilous vacuousness, whether it's the bleak nihilism of the drug war of "Sicario" or the scientist played by Amy Adams in "Arrival" who can see the future and yet makes decisions anyway that will nonetheless bring her pain.
My hopes were tepid. Ridley Scott, director of "Blade Runner," stayed on as executive producer, but thankfully excused himself from the director's chair due to his, uh, "duties" to the increasingly laughable "Alien" prequels.
I say that all in prologue that "Blade Runner" is far from my favorite film. However, "Blade Runner 2049," I am happy to report, is a modern sci-fi masterpiece.
"2049" picks up three decades after the 1982 original, which saw L.A. detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) hunting down "Replicants," humanoids made to look and seem like real people - a subcaste slave labor. Mr. Ford's Deckard is nowhere to be seen as "2049" opens on a bleak, sun-drenched California pastoral of the future, with Officer K (Ryan Gosling) awakened in his flying car just as he is about to touch down at the farm of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, whose talents far outweigh his past as a WWE wrestler).
The filmmaking genius is evident right from the start. Mr. Villeneuve takes his time with the scene, toying with blocking and space: Both men know the other is there, but he doesn't force the confrontation. It becomes clear from their first hushed words that Officer K is a Blade Runner and Sapper a Replicant. K is here to carry out his duties to "retire" Sapper; Sapper, in an almost Bergman-esque growl, grunts at K that he has never "seen a miracle."
It's an outstanding opener, worthy of the greats of the cinema. Mr. Gosling at first struck me as "wrong" in the part, but I was relieved of such notion as the ensuing scenes played out. Rather, K is acting according to dictums that perhaps even he cannot fathom. Or, if he does understand his own internal directions, is helpless to resist.
Of the plot I must say absolutely little in order to give you the maximum viewing experience. What I have described thus far is but the first 10 minutes of screen time, but it is enough to hook the audience thanks to Mr. Villeneuve's expert staging and pacing, as well as a taut, expertly wrought screenplay by Hampton Francher, the co-writer of the original film, and Michael Green ("Logan").
What I can say is that what Messrs. Francher, Green and Villeneuve present in "Blade Runner 2049" is the classic 1940s noir detective drama set forward a century into a future where the levels of society are but tentative in relation to one another - awaiting to burst at the seams. The beats are all there for the classic gumshoe storyline, what with Officer K stepping into situations well above his head and getting into verbal scrums with his stentorian cop boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, once again expressing so much so naturally). Secrets long buried are revealed, and the deeper K gets into this futuristic melee of corruption and the blurring of line between man and machine, the greater is the peril both to himself and the societal order long accepted.
In Mr. Gosling we are given a private detective avatar not precisely unlike the flawed Bogart and Dana Andrews models so prevalent during the Second World War. K is cynical, disconnected, lonely and aloof and uncanny - in more ways than are at first evident. He gets beaten up plenty, has his share of dealings with women both duplicitous and caring, trusts no one and yet follows his nose to that thing most rotten that will crack the case wide open. Like classical detective authors Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, screenwriters Mr. Francher and Mr. Green seek not so much to bring us through the successful "solving" of a case as to pull back the scab of a society on the brink.
The preview has long let you know that K eventually finds Deckard, now a grizzled recluse who can only be portrayed by the aging Mr. Ford, now 75 and enjoying somewhat of a re-renaissance in looking back at his most prominent roles of yore. Personally, I yawned at his reviving Han Solo in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and found his apostolic "it's true, all of it" in praising the Force and its veracity a bit untrue given the scoffing Solo bore in the original trilogy.
Mr. Ford's Deckard 2.0 I find far more palatable and believable: broken down and beaten, mistrustful and not ready to resign himself to the fate his own choices hath wrought. Wisely on the part of the filmmakers, he is kept in background of "2049" for much of the running time to allow Mr. Gosling to anchor the new picture, yet his resurgence, when it comes, feels neither forced nor obligatory. Deckard is there not for fan service but because "2049" has a plot that makes use of his past and his present.
Too often I foresee where a movie is going, yet "Blade Runner 2049" continually pulled the rug out from underneath me. Where its story goes continued to elude me, and yet when it zigged and zagged, it never felt cheap or manipulative. Its plot reversals and revelations are earned rather than obligatory, and it does what "Rogue One" last year, what with its "Hey, look, stuff you recognize!" failed to accomplish. For this I credit Mr. Villeneuve, who will not bow to nostalgia or sentiment, even if (as happens in the new film) references and actors of the original are present but never used as cheap props to stoke our yearning for what came prior.
Everything is right, from the poetic musings of the script to the unnerving music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer. Irony is entirely absent, which is a nice change from the self-knowing MCU and DC Comics multiverses we have now had to suffer through for years.
There is so much I wish to chat about "Blade Runner 2049," but I must leave it here for you to discover the wonders of its story and the truly satisfying way in which it unfolds. Mr. Villeneuve and his writers have surpassed the 35-year-old original in every way, and have accomplished what almost no other sequel in film history has.
They have created a sequel that can stand entirely on its own. And with this accomplishment, Mr. Villeneuve further cements his status as one of contemporary cinema's great filmmakers.
One of the year's best films, and among the most singular sci-fi flicks in years.
Now playing at District area theaters.
Rated R. Contains violence, language, nudity and Harrison Ford's facial crags.