'Blade Runner 2049' is worth the three-decade wait

The worth-the-wait Blade Runner 2049 is pegged to rake in some $50 million on its opening weekend, which means it stands to make all the first-run money the original never did.

Though now regarded as a sci-fi classic, Ridley Scott’s original fizzled when released in 1982, and opened to indifferent reviews. Detractors didn’t like the way the movie plodded along, but what they missed was the weird pull of Scott’s dark vision — one that completed the U-turn in our collective imagination that he started with Alien.

That movie, released in 1979 — just a decade after the Kennedy-era optimism of Star Trek and two years after the gee-whiz outer space fun of Star Wars — gave us a new and disconcertingly plausible view of a galaxy not so far away, where nobody is boldly going anywhere. Alien made Stanley Kubrick look like an optimist, or at least a neat freak. Scott’s Alien spaceship was grimy, industrial, gritty, staffed by workers who were exploited, miserable, and expendable.

He doubled down on all of it with Blade Runner, borrowing and expanding Philip K. Dick’s conception of Earth circa 2019 — the environment and the sunlight in retreat, mankind branching out to outer space “off-world,” left-behind people squeezed like sardines into megacities of perpetual night, cultures and languages merged into a boiled-over melting pot.

This movie was grim, but also hypnotic — a version of the future that felt eerily like a memory of something that has yet to happen to us.

That tone is embraced and embellished in Denis Villeneuve’s effective, exotic sequel. It is often a captivating visual marvel, using newfangled special effects in ways that aspire more to the poetic than the kinetic.

‘Blade Runner 2049’: How director Denis Villeneuve approached a sci-fi classic

I’d like to tell you all about them, but the producer of the movie, Andrew Kosove — who, by the way, is from Wyncote — actually called me personally to ask that key details not be revealed. And having scanned a few reviews, I understand his concern. Beans are being spilled right and left, so take care.

The setting is 30 years down the road from the original, on an Earth further deteriorated but still habitable, populated by humans and synthetic human “replicants” who aspire to humanity and at the same time resent humans for consigning them to second-class status. This resentment leads to disobedience — sometimes the replicants go AWOL.

When they do, police officers known as blade runners hunt them down and destroy them. So begins 2049, with blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) tracking a fugitive replicant (Danny Bautista) to a remote outpost away from the city.

The two have a boffo fight that opens the movie with an action jolt, but it’s brief and secondary to the way Villeneuve uses the opening moments to establish the movie’s haunting, melancholy mood. (The sequence is dominated by the spectral image of a dead tree, not unlike the images so important to George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.) The photography is by Roger Deakins, who is well on his way to his first well-deserved Oscar.

When the dust settles, K finds artifacts that turn out to be bread crumbs on a trail — the movie has a more linear narrative than the original — leading to still more fugitives: people who hold the keys to a mystery that could seriously upset the balance of power between humans and replicants, or the forces that control the synthetic creatures.

These clues are of great interest to K’s boss (Robin Wright), and to the messianic tech wizard (Jared Leto) who builds the replicants, and who safeguards his empire with the assistance of a remorseless henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks).

The linchpin to this mystery is Deckard (Harrison Ford), a blade runner missing for 30 years, who will be familiar to those who know the original. K pursues him into the wasteland beyond the city, a surreal landscape that allows Villeneuve to stretch his considerable imagination in ways that explore and amplify classic Blade Runner themes of technology as it relates to identity and memory and humanity.

The director has clever new ideas, extensions of blade runner mythos, that lend themselves to striking visuals — Mackenzie Davis and Ana de Armas appear together in a scene that may end up having them nominated for supporting actress trophies. Blade Runner 2049 is teeming with such moments, and for two hours holds you in its spell. It falters late, when an action sequence outstays its welcome and the storytelling slows to make room for elements that point the way to another sequel.

The movie could have been way shorter. Still, its length comes from its admirable reach and ambition, and it’s the rare sequel that honors and understands the original while creating a cinematic world that feels new and unique. And it has the advantage of playing to audiences that have seen advances in technology that have brought us closer to Dick’s conjecture about of the future, one marked by technology that both enhances and diminishes us (the movie anticipates Apple’s facial recognition technology, and makes a grisly joke about it).

The original left folks wondering who was human, and who was replicant. But 2049 is more interested in what is human. We see mercy, self-sacrifice, and nobility and we wonder: Does it emanate from the soul, or the software?

MOVIES

Blade Runner 2049

  • Directed by Denis Villeneuve. With Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, and Dave Bautista. Distributed by Warner Bros.
  • Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.
  • Parents guide: R (violence)
  • Playing at: Area theaters