This may not be 2017’s most important film, but it’s without a doubt one of its best.
As technology continues to advance exponentially in the 21st century, the idea of artificial intelligence taking on a form that’s virtually indistinguishable from humans seems far more plausible—perhaps even inevitable—in 2017 than it did in 1982. After all, millions of people routinely speak to Siri or Alexa each day, we’re tinkering with realistic sex robots and the holograms of dead musicians can perform live concerts. Perhaps this is why the filmmakers behind Blade Runner 2049 chose to avoid delving too deeply into the philosophical implications of android technology, which could otherwise distract from the sumptuous worldbuilding in the long-awaited sequel to the Ridley Scott classic.
Scott is back as executive producer, months after his Alien: Covenant dealt with its own rogue A.I., but this film is Denis Villeneuve’s show, a year removed from the director’s extraterrestrial linguistic triumph, Arrival. Teaming with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s dystopian Los Angeles both remains loyal to its dark, rain-drenched predecessor and imbues the future world with phantasmagoric new layers of bleak majesty. Enhanced by a massively ominous Hans Zimmer score and stark, evocative sound editing, Blade Runner 2049 is a feast for the senses and offers just enough meditation on the nature of reality to keep the synapses rapid-firing, all while offering a compelling story that evolves the franchise’s mythos.
Warner Bros. has done its damnedest to prevent spoilers, dictating what its stars can discuss in interviews and even foisting detailed guidelines upon critics regarding plot points deemed off-limits for reviews. This bit of self-importance isn’t necessary, given that the film’s big twists are simply icing on the cake. Villeneuve has made a relatively self-contained film that may offer diehard Blade Runner fans some red meat, but one that could also easily be appreciated by casual movie fans who previously only associated the word “android” with a type of phone.
The film opens on familiar ground. Even as circa 2049 technology has advanced to the point where sophisticated new models don’t run away, disobedient older replicants still need rounding up. Stepping into the titular profession is K (Ryan Gosling), who brings a workmanlike approach to the gritty job of “retiring” rogue replicants. To unwind, he spends time with his virtual girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), a state-of-the-art operating system (partially recalling Spike Jonze’s Her) who manifests as a lifelike semi-tangible hologram. With this addition, the film folds a new wrinkle into its central “what is real?” conceit; if replicants aren’t considered fully real because they are manufactured rather than organically born, to what degree does augmented reality have any sort of essence?
As K obtains information that leads him on a quest for long-lost blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, completing the trifecta of reprising his iconic ‘80s roles), he’s pursued by the powerful replicant-manufacturing mogul Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a Steve-Jobs-meets-Lex-Luthor type with a penchant for waxing poetic. Though Leto slathers on the cartoonish supervillainy, he also offers some sociocultural heft, sermonizing that great civilizations can only be built on the backs of slaves, but that society has “lost the stomach” for enslaving anyone but the manufactured. When he’s not talking someone’s ear off about the worlds he wishes to create or the millions of replicant children he’s produced, he’s siccing his brutal, martial-arts-trained henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), on K or his boss (Robin Wright).
As it unfurls, the film increasingly deals with the nature of memory and its role in shaping a living being, served with heaps of Philip K. Dickian paranoia about implanted memories and the disorientation they cause. With both its more virtual characters and its tangible yet manufactured ones, Villeneuve’s film seems to boil down to a meditation on what constitutes a soul: when does sensation and perception—the impossibly complex circuitry of brains and bodies—become something more than the sum of its parts?
And yet, Blade Runner 2049 refuses to get bogged down with rumination on big questions. It deftly dips its toes in rabbit holes it has no intention of diving into, and its breathtaking spectacle remains on some level a popcorn movie at heart. By syncing so many moving parts into a seamless, spellbinding whole, Blade Runner 2049 is both heady speculative fiction and action thriller at their finest. This may not be 2017’s most important film, but it’s without a doubt one of its best.