My God, what a beautiful movie this is. Blade Runner 2049 looks like someone dared director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins to make the most visually spectacular science-fiction film of the century — and then they actually did it. You could watch this movie with no sound (something I don’t advocate you do, because the dialogue, music, and sound design are all incredible too) and still enjoy each of the film’s 163 minutes. Every frame here tells a story.

That’s good, because I’m not supposed to talk about the film’s actual story yet. My screening of Blade Runner 2049 began with a publicist reading a statement from Villeneuve imploring the critics in attendance to “preserve the magic” of the film by not spoiling any of its twists. I’m going to do my best to honor his request, mostly because Blade Runner 2049’s plot does have a little magic in it, and it is fun to discover things at the same time as its hero, an LAPD detective named K, played by Ryan Gosling.

As the title makes clear, the film is set decades into the future. The first Blade Runner, made in 1982, was set in a dingy neon-lit 2019 ravaged by obvious but unexplained environmental devastation. Earth colonized outer space using advanced robots called replicants as disposable slave labor. But the replicants were stronger and more durable than the humans that created them, and began to rebel against their masters, which led to the LAPD creating a “blade runner” division responsible for tracking down replicants and “retiring” them.

30 years later, things have only gotten worse. Los Angeles is even dirtier, and more overcrowded. There are garbage dumps the size of cities, while actual cities lie abandoned and irradiated. Huge walls protect civilization from rising seas. The replicants were eventually taken out of production, but a few of the old models still remain, hiding among the population. It’s K’s job to find them and kill them in order to preserve the fragile social order.

Blade Runner 2049
Warner Bros.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was a science-fiction film that looked like a detective story. The characters were dressed like they stepped out of a 1940s noir, but the movie was less about police work than the larger ethical and philosophical questions raised by the existence of artificial intelligence. The biggest mystery its blade-running hero, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), needs to solve is himself: Is he real or a replicant?

Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is much more of a detective story that looks like a science-fiction film. Against the backdrop of its astonishing future world, it follows K through a legitimately thrilling whodunit, after his latest case leads him to a shocking and inexplicable discovery and his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, at her icy best), orders him to investigate. The case puts him in conflict with the designer of the next generation of replicants, an eccentric tech genius played by Jared Leto prone to monologues that would make Roy Blatty blush, and eventually brings him to Deckard, who’s been missing since shortly after the end of in the first Blade Runner.

Ah, but which Blade Runner? Scott released and re-released his film over and over the years in various cuts, some with significantly different implications for Deckard’s fate and true identity. It gets confusing for viewers, and I suspect for Scott that was part of the point; Blade Runner is, at its core, a movie about ambiguity and uncertainty, about not knowing who or what is real. In making a movie that has at least half a dozen distinct versions, Blade Runner is almost the cinematic embodiment of that idea. To Blade Runner 2049’s credit, Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green managed to carry forward many of its enduring mysteries without explicitly contradicting anything that’s come before.

They also do a terrific job of creating in K a character worthy of succeeding Deckard as the title character. (Ford has an important role, but it is very much a supporting one.) Gosling’s part is tricky. K is an extremely internal, reactive character; most of his performance involves bottling up his emotions and letting them leak out in the subtlest of ways while wearing an insanely stylish retro-futuristic shearling overcoat that is going to become the go-to Halloween costume for film nerds until at least 2049. There’s not a lot of smiling or quipping in the world of Blade Runner, crutches Gosling can often use to power him through weak scenes. K demands a very different kind of acting from him, and he delivers.

Blade Runner 2049 Harrison Ford
Warner Bros.

Ford does too. I’ve never been a huge fan of his performance in the original Blade Runner (particularly in the theatrical cut, where he recites what really might be the worst voiceover narration in Hollywood history). The reason for Deckard’s disappearance gives him some meaty, emotional scenes to play in 2049’s third act, and he nails all of them. Whether Deckard is a replicant or not (and I’m sure as hell not telling you how the sequel addresses that lingering question), Ford brings a tremendous amount of humanity to this movie.

Ford’s memorable performance is just one of the many ways Blade Runner 2049 surpasses the original film. Its clever and compelling storyline is another. And then of course there are Deakins’ incredible images. He remains totally faithful to the look of the original film, with its skyscrapers spewing fire and massive, ominous urban pyramids, but he and Villeneuve find ways to greatly expand its world. K’s quest takes audiences on a tour of his devastated future, which is jaw-dropping in its detail and ruined beauty. There are impressive new gadgets to ogle (like a character who could be described as the ultimate version of Alexa or Siri), and even the old future technology from the first Blade Runner gets cool upgrades; the flying “spinner” cars now have advanced drones housed in their hoods that can detach, hover above crime scenes, and collect evidence.

After the film is out, there are some complaints I would want to discuss; there’s one specific plot point that’s necessary to get K to Deckard that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and Leto’s performance (and really the whole concept of a character this deeply strange) doesn’t quite mesh with the otherwise very grounded world of Blade Runner. But when a movie is as ambitious, gorgeous, daring, and flat-out entertaining as Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to complain much.


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