Review: ‘Blade Runner: 2049’ is a visually breathtaking techno-noir

“Blade Runner: 2049” is the sequel to the “Blade Runner” released in 1982. (Courtesy of Vimeo)

Science fiction isn’t for everyone.

Just ask Ridley Scott, whose early work in the genre catapulted his career to acclaim but initially harmed his box office impact. The legendary filmmaker is no stranger to futuristic world-building. In 1982, his third film “Blade Runner” — techno-noir years ahead of its time — established a “broken-down” version of the future. The technology was otherworldly, but the style of the sets, costuming and spaceships recalled a scrappy industrial complex. Its influence is undeniable, even to contemporary directors.

But “Blade Runner” was a box office flop. Fans blame studio meddling, which added a half-baked “happy” ending and reduced complex themes down to a simple detective story for the initial theatrical release. Now there are seven different cuts of “Blade Runner” out there, and each one presents a different version of the story. If it sounds overwhelming and unnecessary, it is.

And yet “Blade Runner 2049,” a direct sequel to the original film, has arrived in theaters. Helmed by acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve and starring Ryan Gosling, “2049” is a testament to both the longevity of Scott’s original vision and how powerful visual filmmaking can overcome narrative missteps. The movie is emotionally resonant, well-acted and the best-looking film audiences will see all year.

The story picks up 30 years after the original “Blade Runner.” In the universe, humanity has developed an entire species of androids called replicants who are so lifelike they’re indistinguishable from humans. They’re used as slave labor, performing tasks from which “real” people shy away. Should a replicant develop consciousness and start to rebel against its human handlers, assassins called “blade runners” are tasked with hunting them down before they cause too much damage.

“2049” follows Agent K (Gosling), a young Blade Runner who happens across the bones of a long-dead replicant during a routine mission. An analysis reveals a shocking discovery: this replicant gave birth before she died. K’s handler Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is fearful instantly. If replicants can reproduce, they truly have no use for humanity anymore. To stifle the discovery, she tasks K with hunting down the child.

Elsewhere, the wealthy industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) creates replicants, but worries that his supply will soon run low. To find the secret to replicant reproduction, he sends his brutal agent Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) after K.

To call this world “dark” would be an understatement. The original film dealt almost entirely in shadows, with streams of light offering glimpses of a beautifully realized world. Villeneuve and master cinematographer follow suit, with more touches of daylight. Deakins’ work behind the camera has always been outstanding. Here, he has completely outdone himself. Every shot could be shown in a museum with zero irony. It’s hard to think of a more gorgeous film yet released. Thanks to a pulsing, bass-y synth score from Hans Zimmer, the film completely envelops its audiences. It belongs on the largest screens possible.

If there are flaws, most will emerge from an audience’s tastes. “2049,” like the film that precedes it, is dreamlike and long. At nearly three hours, its near lack of explosive action will bore a lot of viewers. But the film is emotionally resonant and so visually striking that Villeneuve makes up for a lack of narrative action. For fans of the original, it’s a must-watch. And even if it feels like nothing is happening, be patient. This is a finely crafted movie that rewards those looking for the spectacular hidden in plain sight.

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