Is cribbing from “Orphan Black” a Philip K. Dick move? Not necessarily.
Synthetic beings are still a thing in the future of 2049, and the ones who hunt the dangerous among them are still called Blade Runners. Essentially a noir refuge for those who can’t afford to move off-world, Earth refuses to die from centuries of neglect, but those who remain appear aimless and disconnected. A lone officer named “K” (Ryan Gosling) continues the hunt for hidden replicants living among the ruins and rebirth of the world, uncovering an elegant mystery among synthetics. After being told to bury the lead and lose all evidence of the new case, K risks his career and life to solve the puzzle, but only a long-believed dead Blade Runner named Deckard (Harrison Ford) may ultimately hold the clue to reveal the truth.
The are plenty of versions of the original 1982 Blade Runner, not to mention more than a few conspiracy theories toward character motivations and the characters themselves. The sci-fi film noir was set back then in the bleak future of — wait for it — 2019, and the Earth-that-we-knew was already being abandoned. Plenty of films have borrowed from the look, feel, and sound of the original, but few had the idea that this story could or needed to continue. Flash forward thirty-five years later and here we are again, but if rogue replicants are so dangerous, why are they still around? They say you should find the thing you love and let it kill you, but is this new film taking that concept too literally?
To call Ryan Gosling intense is a misnomer; one could argue he’s just really thinking hard about his next line and when to deliver it. For K, however, this works to his advantage either way. Don’t look for inner monologue voiceovers here, but this is really Gosling’s show. Yes, there’s someone else on the poster because we’re connecting a franchise. Your other suspicions are correct, too: this could easily be a setup to continue with Sony already referencing the word “franchise” as if there a multiple trilogies already floating around on Netflix. The trailers tell the story of an ambitious project with sequels in mind, so know that going in.
That said, here’s what you want to hear: they nailed it. This is Blade Runner through and through, flaws and all — including the watch test, because as pretty as it all is, there are more than few lingering shots that go on far too long (get on with it!) But you can’t fault a story that takes its time when it has something to say, whether its digital dating moved up into a virtual reality video game or a world where everyone hates or fears interaction and relationships so much they prefer pre-programmed compatibility over risk of rejection. The original Blade Runner felt lonely even with people around, but 2049 takes that further into both social and actual isolation. If there was ever a case for going to your family holiday gatherings and high school reunions, look no farther — and it wouldn’t hurt you to be nicer, either. Moving on…
It’s difficult to break down this story without giving anything away. Secrets are unleashed from the first frame, confirming and condemning long-argued conspiracies. In fact, the studio also asked reviewers not to mention, well, anything of substance.. and it’s all substance. The best way to dance around this is by reference rather than specifics, and by reference, let’s say “Orphan Black.” If you exchange the word clones for replicants, you’ve got a pretty good idea of where this plot goes — and possibly the source of inspiration for it. Let’s stop short of calling it theft because it’s a natural progression and one that’s been explored in sci-fi before as well as toyed with in HBO’s reboot of “Westworld.” Yes, entertainment venues no longer have any shortage of disposable dejected sentient Pinocchios all yearning to be real people… or at least to be accepted as real people, even when they are often preferred over those to whom they aspire to.
And for that, the film succeeds, flaws an all, and fans of the original should not be disappointed. With questions of human worth, value, choice, and sacrifice, it’s what big sci-fi should be: holding onto humanity in the shadow of technology. Anything less would be uncivilized.
Blade Runner 2049 is rated R for violence and smiling at the idea of Tatiana Maslany playing every single replicant.
Three skull recommendation out of four.