What does it mean to be alive? To be an individual? To possess memories? To be worthy of rights? How do all these things connect in to what we might call an identity?
Blade Runner 2049, the long awaited sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 classic Blade Runner, is mostly straight to the point with these questions over it's nearly three-hour runtime, and in being so blunt, surpasses its predecessor in ambition, if nothing else.
Picking up some 30 years after the original left off, the film plunges you in to an only slightly darker vision of the future than Harrison Ford's Deckard took us through three decades ago. Director Denis Villeneuve brings a modestly harsher edge to Scott's original vision. Sunlight and humor seem even harder to come by, a sense best embodied by the LAPD. It's an official police function now to track down rogue replicants - not something left to private eyes like Deckard - and it is replicants, albeit refined, more obedient ones, tasked with the job.
Ryan Gosling's K is one of these "detectives," and if a robot can be depressed, lonely and humorless, then he certainly qualifies. That's even accounting for his hologram of a girlfriend, Joi, played, sweetly, by Ana de Armas. His boss - a real human, apparently - is played by Robin Wright. Her hair is slicked back and her wardrobe seems inspired by The Matrix. She orders K around not with overt malice, but certainly in the manner which you might talk to Siri or Alexa.
That is all to say that the world Scott let us peek in on in 1982 was not a warm and cuddly place, but Villeneuve's vision of it is less so by orders of magnitude. The neon lights are brighter. The skies are more gray. The wealthy seem even more fabulously so, and even more out of touch than ever. In the case of the film's villain, Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, that is a quite literal description. Wallace is blind. He meets with people on pads set in the middle of cavernous, wood-paneled rooms that are only accessible by a set of wooden steps floating on water. His whole modus operandi is feeling distant - untouchable even - to anyone with whom he might come in to contact.
In the context of the original, this feels wholly appropriate - a perfect bit of world-building, even, in the way in which it builds logically on what we were first introduced to three decades ago. The expansion of Scott's vision feels both bold and fresh and a snug little fit tonally. This is not a film to be confused with a reboot or a reimagining.
The extra bit of ambition all lies in the themes. Knowing from the outset that K is a replicant, and that he lives and works in world where replicants have been brought under better control - indeed, have been clearly and conclusively stratified as a sort of slave labor - changes the nature of the conversation the film is having with its viewers. There is more morality and ethics to dissect, and there is also more existentialism on offer as you grapple with K's "memories" and how they inform what seems like a very real personality.
This is fun stuff to chew on, but the meat of Blade Runner 2049, as it was with the original, is in how fully realized this world is. It is the through-line between the two films - what makes them so enchanting. Whether it's a worm farm in Greater Los Angeles, a landfill in San Diego or a deserted Las Vegas set against a Martian-like landscape, that is down to Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner.
Blade Runner 2049 is an interesting - if not particularly subtle or groundbreaking - rumination on artificial intelligence. First and foremost, though, it is gloriously beautiful - a film so visually stunning that it almost overwhelms everything else the tale has to offer.