‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a Daringly Different Sci-Fi Sequel

Audiences may be surprised to discover they’re getting something this odd and potentially alienating.

There’s a sequence late in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 when Ryan Gosling is wandering through a vintage casino, and he comes upon a hologram Elvis in the showroom. Don’t ask how or why, it doesn’t really matter (and frankly, considering the length and the complexity of the no exaggeration NDA I had to sign on my way into the press screening, I’m not sure I could tell you anyway). But that Elvis simulation is a striking metaphor for what the audience of BR2049 may be expecting – a careful recreation of a beloved pop culture artifact, one that’s acquired the protective coating of “classic” in the many years since its initial, somewhat disreputable appearance. Viewers may be a bit surprised to discover that, instead, they’re getting something this odd and daring.

It also doesn’t require too much familiarity with the original; if you remember the broad outlines you’ll be fine, and the on-screen explainer that opens the movie does the rest of the job. It seems that the “replicants” who turned on the human race have been replaced by “a new line of replicants who obey,” performing menial tasks and farming jobs – y’know, slave labor. A few rogue early models are still out there, and LAPD “blade runners” still take on the job of tracking them down and “retiring” them; one of those officers, himself a later-model replicant, is “K” (Ryan Gosling).

And honestly, that’s probably about as specific as I should get. Suffice it to say that the screenplay (by original Blade Runner scripter Hampton Fancher and Logan’s Michael Green) cross-pollinates its Philip K. Dick roots by dipping into the questions of “implanted memories,” that “K” ends up searching for the first film’s protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), and that the film winkingly leans into the “Blade Runner Curse” by featuring prominent advertisements for Pan-Am and Atari, among others.

The role of “K” presents a real challenge for Gosling, who has to engage us with a character who is, by design, emotionless for most of his screen time. Gosling calls upon his deep reserve of offhand charisma and quiet cool, and pulls it off. Ford (who appears much later than you’re probably expecting) is wildly effective, a haunted and tortured presence, full of cynical axioms like “Sometimes to love someone… you’ve got to be a stranger.” But the look on his face in his last scene, well, that’s the good stuff, folks.

Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t really look or feel like Ridley Scott’s original, and that’s wise – people have been ripping it off for years, usually poorly. Dennis Gassner’s production design complements the iconic rainy metropolis with snowy, wintery cityscapes and barren deserts, and each of them is just comically well-photographed by cinematographer Roger Deakins; frame after frame is simply jaw-dropping. (It’s the first movie since Road to Perdition that legitimately made me feel bad for other cinematographers.) And the aggressiveness of the sound design – particularly Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s music – helps underscore the scary efficiency of the brutality.

But there’s frankly not much of that. The picture’s most surprising stretches are its genuinely emotional portraiture of solitude and loneliness; a healthy chunk of its first half-hour is a sort of extended haiku on authenticity and companionship between K and his virtual girlfriend (shades of Gosling’s earlier Lars and the Real Girl), and while it works, it’s a truly unexpected place for Villeneuve to go so early.

Yet that’s the movie, brazenly peculiar and potentially alienating, unafraid to go off on all sorts of odd variations. It occasionally stumbles; it’s so solemn that it ends up twisting around and risking silliness, and yes, at 163 minutes, it could probably be shorter. There are points at which Villeneuve seems to sacrifice narrative momentum to pursue a cool idea, scene, or even image. But when the results are both this challenging and stylish, who’s complaining?

It’s sort of thrilling, frankly, that what could’ve been an exercise in IP maintenance takes this many chances. In most ways, it’s more a Denis Villeneuve movie than a Blade Runner sequel; for some, that’ll be an endorsement, and for others, a warning. (Act accordingly.) But it does something sci-fi movies rarely do anymore, and sequels do even less: it shows us things we’ve never seen.

“Blade Runner 2049” is out Friday.