Even 35 years after the release of the original Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s future feels like an invention modern cinema is still trying to catch up to. Other movies’ notions of nuclear-blasted dystopias or whiz-bang Jetsons kitsch seem to pale next to the haunting, soulful specificity of his vision: the Fritz Lang-meets-’40s-noir metropolis; the paranoid-android flair; the deeply un-sci-fi moments of melancholy. It was enough in some scenes just to watch the smoke curl from Sean Young’s cigarette, or follow the dust drifting through a bleached-white sunbeam.
Not that style substituted for plot — namely, the enigmatic tale, loosely adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel, of four genetically engineered slaves, known as replicants, on the run from Harrison Ford’s titular hunter in an apocalyptic Los Angeles circa 2019. The big reveal (or was it?) that Ford’s Rick Deckard may also be a replicant landed in an era long before internet spoilers and subreddit deep dives. Three-plus decades later, its sequel arrives in a cone of secrecy so fiercely guarded that unwise reviewers could meet a bottle of chloroform in a dark alley just for disclosing what happens in the first five minutes. Suffice it to say that Ryan Gosling’s stoic Officer K has picked up the badge approximately where Deckard left it, and that 2049 doesn’t look all that different, aside from the obvious improvements in high-def technology. The director’s torch has also been passed, to French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival), who faithfully retains Scott’s dusky golds and grays and retro ’80s pastiche (K’s official police vehicle is a steel-colored DeLorean straight out of Doc Brown’s garage; the LAPD computers look like standard-issue Eastern-bloc IBMs, with a few necessary upgrades). K’s boss, played with brisk, ruthlessly tailored hauteur by Robin Wright, sends him to a remote protein farm to hunt down possible replicant Sapper (Dave Bautista, a human Humvee in coveralls and stubble). There’s more than wriggling grubs beneath the neat rows on his property — a discovery that eventually leads K to the mad blind genius Niander Wallace (a bearded and robed Jared Leto, preening like a fashion-model monk with cataracts), Wallace’s watchful assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the outer limits of both the city and his psyche, and ultimately, to Deckard himself.
Villeneuve, one of the few filmmakers working today for whom the word auteur doesn’t sound like an unearned affectation, may have fallen a little too in love with his own creation; at two hours and 40 minutes, aesthetic shock and awe eventually outpace the narrative. But how could he not, when nearly every impeccably composed shot — a surreal six-handed love scene; a shimmering hologram of Elvis, hip-swiveling into eternity; a “newborn” replicant, slick with amniotic goo — feels like such a ravishing visual feast? Even when its emotions risk running as cool as its palette, 2049 reaches for, and finds, something remarkable: the elevation of mainstream moviemaking to high art. A–