If you’re expecting Blade Runner 2049 to be a high-octane orgy of crazy action sequences, blinding explosions, and mind-boggling computer graphics, then you’ll probably leave the cinema quite disappointed. It does have those tropes thrown in there, but like the best science fiction and Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the great Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? before it, director Denis Villeneuve’s modern masterpiece dwells on the emotional by fusing it with the fantastical. The result: a noir-ish thriller that functions as both a tale of existential dread and a conventional mystery.
2049 picks up three decades later, after a company called Wallace Corp. has monopolized the creation of replicants, engineered androids used for the purpose of slavery. Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant himself, is a blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department, a job that forces him to hunt down replicants gone rogue. After being tasked by his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (the always amazing Robin Wright), to take on a special assignment, he uncovers a secret that could destroy the very fabric of society’s beliefs and practices. The kind that could start an uprising. A revolution. And against his superior’s wishes, the otherwise dutiful K goes on a mission to find Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired blade runner who holds the key to all his painful queries.
Like Ford, it’s Gosling’s everyman quality that lends the role its strengths. His is a face that’s a fit for the speculative genre not because of his chiseled good-looks, but because of the plainness of his features that help ground the picture, rendering it believable despite being lodged into a template that is clearly out-of-this-world.
Gosling plays the role with a flat and matter-of-fact demeanor that one can’t help but be absorbed by his every move—there’s a robotic yet dramatic quality to the performance that doesn’t feel unintentional. Ford, who has made a name for himself in cult franchises (Indiana Jones and Star Wars, anyone?), is as effective as ever, sliding back into the role as if it were an old bomber jacket he’d kept away until he needed it.
As far as visuals go, 2049 doesn’t hold back. The set pieces are magical. The imagined technologies simultaneously fascinating and terrifying, foreshadowing a zeitgeist that can no longer separate the artificial from the real. The tangible elements—the dilapidated buildings, the ravaged capitals, the colorful personalities that loiter the city streets—are crafted in such a psychedelic manner, hypnotic to the point of sensory assault.
It’s hard to discuss pivotal plot points without giving too much away. It’s easier to succumb to the feverish slow-burn of the experience. But the most impressive thing about Villeneuve’s take on this disturbing world is that he embraces the bleak and cold properties of Scott’s original without sacrificing heart. The film is at its best in the quiet moments, where Gosling’s character is allowed to ponder and question and debate the meaning of his existence. Like Alice following the rabbit down the hole into Wonderland, the answers that K finds on his complex quest teach him more about himself than the events happening all around him. Self-discovery is, after all, one of the most difficult journeys to endure.
Blade Runner 2049 opens in cinemas today.