Denis Villeneuve has gone out of his way to make sure that no spoilers escape early screenings of Blade Runner 2049, that every person seeing this—created, with a self-awareness that is very on brand, amidst the thickets of the Golden Age of Spoilers—goes in with the least amount of available information. And so: this is a sequel to 1982’s still-iconic Blade Runner, taking place almost 30 years later, starring Ryan Gosling as another titular android-hunting cop who seeks out the help of former blade runner Rick Deckard, because Harrison Ford is in this movie, which might have been a rewarding spoiler were Harrison Ford not all over previews and movie posters and interviews. He doesn’t enter the film until almost 100 minutes in.
Which is to say: The spoilers from which Villeneuve et al. are shielding you have very little to do with what an astounding achievement Blade Runner 2049 is, and even less to do with how the director has transformed the idea of a follow-up that nobody wanted into a coherent vision that both parallels and deepens the world Ridley Scott once extrapolated loosely from Philip K. Dick’s novel. What J.J. Abrams has and will do with the post-Lucas Star Wars universe is only half of what Villeneuve has done, explaining the director’s obsessive struggle for control over even what you, audience member, are willing to ruin for yourself, because past the very real themes of control his movie explores, Villeneuve is attempting to craft an auteurist franchise sequel, something closer to the Mission: Impossible serials than the Kathleen Kennedy paint-by-committee behemoth. Maybe that’s way overqualified praise, but Blade Runner 2049 should resonate deeply with anyone who’s ever held love for the original.
Scott’s Blade Runner ends right before—in the lore of this shitty future world, which is available in plenty of ancillary short films and material online—a world-ending disaster which exacerbates the ecological peril under which humans already live, essentially “rebooting” (sigh) society. In 2049, humans apparently have a much more locked-down relationship with Replicants (bio-engineered, super-strong humanoids which, as the previous film taught us, were mostly indistinguishable from humans, given implanted memories, even, to close that Uncanny Valley as much as possible), but that doesn’t mean there still aren’t the last dregs of Nexus 8s (the last unregulated Replicants, built by the Tyrell Corporation before the blackout) hiding out, avoiding “retirement.” The Wallace Corporation, started by bajillionaire quasi-mystical cardboard cut-out Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, Jared-Leto-ing all over the floor), pioneered synthetic food, solving the world’s famine problem, making the company rich enough to acquire whatever was left of the Tyrell Corporation to reinstitute the Replicant program, because if there’s anything human beings can’t let go, it’s slavery.
Enter Officer K (Gosling), a sexy, stoic blade runner who we meet moments before he disposes of one of those old Nexus 8 models, played with bittersweet fatality by Dave Bautista, because Dave Bautista is the fucking best. The audience is shown, gracefully it’s worth noting, that K is a Replicant, and the reasoning is valid: There’s no one better to hunt down Replicants than one of their own. In the sense that Villeneuve is adhering to some of the same neo-noir elements as Scott once did, K is a strange anti-hero to have at the core of this chiaroscuro world, because he ostensibly has no choice, no say in his destiny, and accepts that reality as an ineluctable fact. Arguably, what he knows of the world is only made clearer by the end of the film, a bleak result he accepts not because the veil has been pulled away, as is the case in most noir, but because he has no ultimate choice. And unlike Rachel (Sean Young) in Scott’s original, there is no femme fatale who pulls K to the dark side; instead, Villeneuve trades in noir tropes for the relationship behind those tropes, and behind Deckard’s attraction to Rachel. K falls in love, which, just as was the case in the 1982 film, questions the nature of the emotion as complicatedly as those who hold it. Who’s to say what isn’t love when you are not the entity experiencing it, defining it—as humans do—from within.
So Villeneuve is pondering similar questions as his progenitor, posing them to the audience in similar environs, within similar genres, ditching some of the mystery surrounding Deckard’s humanity as implied in Scott’s film to more intimately litigate the non-mystery surrounding K’s. Blade Runner 2049 is a film about the difference between creation and birth, if there really is one, but it boils that difference down even further into issues of control: Do we, in fact, sedately claim our humanity because we indulge in the illusion of control, or do we actually have control, and therefore are human? K tells his superior (Robin Wright, slight) that he knows his memories aren’t real, but that knowledge hardly seems to matter. One senses that K might prefer the ignorance of a Replicant like Rachel, someone who, sitting before Deckard’s Voigt-Kampff machine 30-something years earlier, assumed she was just as organic as the man asking her about butterfly jars. When K finally meets up with Deckard, the haggard detective has a haggard dog—K asks if the dog is real (because most non-human “life” in this world is synthetic), to which Deckard smirks, “I don’t know. You should ask him.”
The debate between what makes something “real” or not has become a staple of adult-minded sci-fi fare in the three-plus decades since Scott made one genre masterpiece after another dithering over the same debate, but the strength of Blade Runner 2049 is in how intimately Villeneuve (and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) attempt to have us experience this world through the unreal eyes of K. Ideally, we are forced to think about what “humanity” is when empathy—caring for these robots—is the natural result of the filmmakers’ storytelling.
Revisiting Blade Runner, one may realize that there isn’t much of a story there. The same could be said for Dick’s novel, as well as many of his novels: There is breathtaking world-building, impressive use of language and speculative ideas expanded and thought out to thoroughly conceived ends, but our characters are just people existing in this world, and Blade Runner is really just the story of a cop hunting down four dangerous criminals. 2049, despite its heavy themes and heavier exposition, is about a cop who must find a very special robot before the evil mega-corporation does. The brilliance of Blade Runner, and now its sequel, is that the majesty of the imaginations behind them—the sheer sci-fi magnanimity on display—is enough to bind us to these characters. To care about them. The spoilers we’re bound to keep under wraps will not elicit the same gasps from the audience as will a few stark images on which Villeneuve fixes: The faces of Replicants as they die, held for an uncomfortably long few moments of the film’s run-time, during which the audience must confront that horrifying line between death and nothing. If a Replicant has no soul, then death is meaningless, just a shutting off. But by resting on these faces, watching all movement leave them and sentience wink out, we care, because we recognize in these moments a similar oblivion awaiting us, tearing down the already translucent wall between whatever we are and whatever they are.
Blade Runner 2049, then, is undoubtedly the most gorgeous thing to come out of a major studio in some time. Roger Deakins has inculcated Jordan Cronenweth’s lived-in sense of a future on the brink of obsolescence, leaning into the overpowering unease that permeates the monolithic Los Angeles Scott built. The scale of the film is only matched by the constant dread of obscurity—illumination shifts endlessly, dust and smog both magnifying and drowning the sense-shattering corporate edifices and hyper-stylized rooms in which humanity retreats from the moribund natural world they’ve created. There is a massive world, a solar system, orbiting this wretched city—so overblown that San Diego is now a literal giant dump for New L.A.’s garbage—but so much of it lies in shadow and opacity, forever out of reach. What Scott and Cronenweth accomplished with the original film, placing a potboiler within a magnificently conceived alternative reality, Villeneuve and Deakins have respected as they prod at its boundaries. There’s no other way to describe what they’ve done other than to offer faint praise: They get it.
So does Gosling, who, like Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, appears to understand exactly from where his starpower shines brightest, playing Officer K with the impeccable poise of someone not-quite-human, while owning the charm (and the humor, which the first film has fucking none of) that comes with him looking too good to be human anyway. In that liminal space Gosling can better wield the emotional beats in which he breaks from his neutral baseline. When he finally has an epiphany about himself, cracking the film’s tension with a blistering yawp—a glimpse of which the film’s previews give us—the sound of his scream carries saliently through the rest of 2049, all the way to the brink of life, to the images of the dying faces of Replicants who knew they were Replicants, not that it mattered. We feel, even if we know we really can’t, what kind of mania comes from questioning the fabric of one’s own mind. Spoiler alert: Probably none of it matters.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis, Sylvia Hoeks
Release Date: October 6, 2017
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.