"Do androids dream of electric sheep?" is a fine enough question, but it leads to so many others. That was one of the things that made the original Blade Runner movie so appealing in 1982. For as many things as the neo-noir film had to say, reading between the lines was often more interesting.
Thankfully, the people behind Blade Runner 2049 recognized that, keeping old mysteries intact (though nodding to them respectfully) while introducing new ones. Heck, the studio has even managed to keep some basic plot points (revealed less than half an hour into a nearly three-hour film) secret throughout its promotion, which is impressive given how many twists and turns there are to keep quiet about. I was pleased to walk into the theater not knowing too much about the ride that awaited.
What I know now is that 2049 is a sequel that, while not perfect, hits more high notes than most attempts to revisit such classic material.
Set 30 years after the original, 2049 follows a Blade Runner named Officer K (Ryan Gosling). Like Officer Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the previous movie, K's job is to hunt down and retire (i.e. kill) replicants — androids that are almost indistinguishable from humans in how they look, sound and behave. For decades, replicants have been used as slaves. Modern models are specifically designed not to disobey, but older replicants (from, say, around 30 years ago) were flawed, hence K's duty to take them off the market, as it were.
The real meat of Blade Runner has always been the philosophical, moral and even theological questions raised by replicants. In 2049 especially, the line between humans and replicants seems very blurred. Replicants have jobs and pursue social lives. But they were made by human hands, and thus humans tend to treat them like dirt. After all, their emotions are artificial, so who cares if we hurt them?
These days the replicants are made by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who bought up the remains of the Tyrell Corporation and has been continuing the pursuit of creating replicants that are "more human than human." He's imposing, scary and clearly brilliant, but makes for a rather cliched villain when he speaks of wanting to create an army of thousands of replicants.
Early on in 2049, K starts pulling at a thread that could unravel everything people know about replicants and the nature of humans' relationship with them, which could have extreme consequences for how society works. "The world is built on a wall that separates kind," K's boss "Madame" (Dallas-born Robin Wright) says to him. "Tell either kind that there's no wall and you've bought a war. Or a slaughter."
K's search for truth eventually leads him to Deckard, a role that Ford returns to well. That said, while Ford is in 2049 more than Mark Hamill was in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this clearly isn't Deckard's story.
The themes presented here aren't exactly uncharted territory (especially for sci-fi), and the symbolism can get heavy-handed. On the surface, Wallace speaks plainly of God, angels and storming the gates of Heaven. There are characters named Joi and Luv (you know, like "joy" and "love." Get it?) and a reference to a disease called called Galatians Syndrome, which is different from the original movie's Methuselah Syndrome except that both names seem to be ripped from the pages of the Bible.
But while the big questions are sometimes in your face, they're still interesting questions. Is the soul the only thing that separates humans from the things we create? Can a person be "real" if they don't have a body? Does any created thing (humans included, if you allow for the existence of God) have free will, or is every action the result of mathematical precision? The journey isn't as intellectually impressive as the one in director Denis Villeneuve's last sci-fi movie, Arrival, but the discussions you can have while leaving the theater will likely still have plenty of depth.
Big questions aside, the world of Blade Runner 2049 is fascinating. Impressively advanced technology has impressively declined into entropy, leaving us with flying cars and incredible hologram technology that is taken for granted (and sometimes collects dust) in an environment ravaged by destruction and decay. We never see what is "off-world" in the Blade Runner universe — where most of humanity has supposedly escaped to — but one presumes that it's heavenly. Earth, on the other hand, is a beautiful mess.
And yes, this makes for visual splendor. Whether you're in awe of the visual effects of a lifelike hologram, the ruins of a once-opulent American city or a very wet fight scene in the rain, there is much for your eyes to marvel at. The lighting in every shot evokes the feel of the original movie without mimicking it too closely, and quiet scenes impress on you just how much more lonely Earth can feel when so much of humanity has left or died.
There are imperfections. It runs a bit long. The film's replicant antagonist is good, but no Roy Batty (but then, who is?). Some of the connections to the original Blade Runner, while making for enjoyable continuity, could probably have been toned down or even done away with entirely. Like most sci-fi movies, pieces of it begin to fall apart if you stop suspending disbelief and start poking too hard at the outer edges. And the door is left open for a sequel that could potentially go in a direction away from what makes this universe so interesting in the first place.
Still, there is much to admire. While Blade Runner 2049 may not end up being the classic the original is, in some ways it's as good of a sequel as you could ask for.
Blade Runner 2049 (B+)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. R (for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language). 163 minutes. In wide release.