The shortest possible review of “Blade Runner 2049” is this: everything you loved or hated about 1982’s “Blade Runner” you will probably also love or hate about its new sequel. Both are simultaneously ambiguous and heavy-handed, both are bleak and beautiful, both are meditations on what it means to be human. Neither are popcorn movies, meant to be watched and enjoyed the way you ride and enjoy a roller coaster. They are art, and they know it.
In the world of “Blade Runner 2049” replicants are bio-engineered humans who are not considered actually human. Our protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant who works as a blade runner, a police officer who hunts down and “retires” rogue replicants (even if the only “wrong” thing they’re doing is trying to have the same life a regular human might have). Replicants have been upgraded significantly since the events of the first film, blurring the line between them and regular humans even further. K discovers evidence of a decades-long coverup, and as he investigates, the lies and implications grow larger and larger.
All of this takes place mostly in a dystopic future Los Angeles that is crowded, aggressively multicultural, and protected from the high seawater on its coast by a massive wall. Director Denis Villeneuve has meticulously recreated the grimy and bleak environment of the first film, and while characters aren’t constantly smoking cigarettes in this installment, pretty much everything else matches up well with the later cuts of the first film (without the heavy film-noir-style voiceover).
There are a handful of cameos from the characters who survived the first film, and Harrison Ford reprises his role as blade runner Rick Decard. The newcomers include a whole new kind of person: Joi (Ana de Armas) is an artificially-intelligent hologram girl. She’s in the massive hologram advertisements for her manufacturer, and K has his own Joi in his apartment. Like Deckard falling for a replicant in the first movie, here we have a replicant who’s fallen for a manufactured person with less agency than himself. There’s a lot to say about agency and humanity in this movie, more than enough to keep film students busy writing essays for as many years as the first film has.
The cast are all meticulous in their acting, as deliberate with their movements as the rest of the film is with its settings. The whole thing adds up to an almost trance-like experience. Indeed, where “Blade Runner 2049” will run into trouble with some viewers is its pacing. At a whopping 2hrs 44 minutes and without a ton of action sequences, this is a slow movie. It’s meditative, lingering on wide shots of desolate and miserable scenes and scenes with mundane dialog that gives us insight into the characters but doesn’t move the plot along.
This is a movie for people who like to chew on their films, to savor them and return to them to find new details that affect their interpretations of the rest of the film. If you just want the film equivalent of some popcorn, something straightforward and familiar, give it a pass.