Where’s the line between importance and self-importance? Denis Villeneuve has made a career out of obscuring the difference with films like “Sicario,” “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” and “Arrival.” With “Blade Runner 2049” he finally gives in to his most messianic urges. The new film — a sequel to the Ridley Scott dystopian neo-noir that debuted to mixed responses in 1982 but has since become a generational classic — is so swollen with purpose, so titanically self-conscious in its mythmaking, that at times it nearly paralyzes itself with solemnity.
Is it a good movie? There are extremely good things in it, including Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks as the chilliest villain in quite a while, the standard astonishing camerawork from Roger Deakins, and a visionary production design (by Dennis Gassner) that suggests humanity hanging onto the edge of the apocalypse by its fingernails.
Is it a great movie — one of those towering epics that define an era? Villeneuve seems to think so. If you have a taste for pop nostalgia reframed with as much portentous heavy breathing as $185 million and 163 minutes can buy, you may agree; many early commenters already do. But somewhere in “Blade Runner 2049” is a terrific 100-minute movie struggling to get out.
Should you still see it? Sure. Should you see the original movie first? Yes; the version called the “Final Cut.” What’s the new movie about? Actually, I’m not supposed to tell you, since Villeneuve had a studio publicist read a statement before the press screening asking reviewers not to reveal anything plot-related — in effect, he wants critics to discuss the movie without discussing the movie. (I’ll try to dance as best I can around a revelation that occurs about 30 minutes in and essentially drives the rest of the film.)
It’s not a spoiler to tell you that life on planet Earth has gotten much worse since the events of the original “Blade Runner,” which took place in 2019. Near-total environmental collapse has delivered civilization into the hands of the Wallace Corporation, whose shadowy CEO (Jared Leto with bespoke suits and a bro beard) has solved the global food shortage through bioengineering.
The human-like droids known as replicants, now purged of their homicidal tendencies, are more plentiful than ever. In fact, our hero is one: LAPD officer KB36-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), his name shortened to the not-at-all Kafkaesque “K” by his grim-lipped boss (Robin Wright). In a scene that consciously echoes the opening of the original “Blade Runner,” K interviews a hulking farmer (Dave Bautista) who may or may not be a renegade Nexus 8 replicant, all of whom are allowed only to work on off-world colonies.
The Big Plot Thing I’m not supposed to tell you about arouses the curiosity of a number of parties in this dying husk of a future. K develops a personal interest in getting to the bottom of the matter, as is made (somewhat) clear from memories that may or may not have been implanted. (Do androids dream in electric flashbacks?) The villain noted above, a prim, unstoppable replicant named Luv (Hoeks), has a lethal roundhouse kick and no scruples about getting what she wants. There’s also a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis of “Halt and Catch Fire”) with a heart of who-knows-what, and K’s personal digital assistant, Joi (Ana de Armas), who’s more or less Scarlett Johansson from “Her” with girl-next-door eyes and a stripper’s body.
And, yes, there’s lonesome Harrison Ford, grumpily and gamely reprising his role as Deckard from the first film. I watched the original “Blade Runner” earlier this week (the “Final Cut” mentioned above) and was struck both by how well the film holds up and how plotless it is — how, in adapting Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” Scott fashioned a brooding elegy for the fall of man and the rise of his cybernetic successor. Playing his detective hero with a deep, deep sorrow, Ford seemed to load all our sins of ambition and self-destruction on his stalwart shoulders.
By contrast, Gosling portrays K as what he is — a confused robot — so our emotional engagement with him remains thin by comparison. The director compensates by slowing down the pace, drawing out the shots, cranking up the groaning industrial score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch until you can feel it rumbling in your colon.
There are bravura sequences in “Blade Runner 2049,” art direction that’s off the charts, and big ideas advanced with much strained seriousness. For what its worth, though, the central big idea — at what point do the things that humans create become more human than the humans? — was hashed out more organically in the first film and has been parsed to death in movies and TV shows like “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” “Her,” “Westworld,” and “Humans.”
Villeneuve seems to think that if he inflates the movie enough, the ideas and the audiences will become proportionately large (although at points you may suspect “Blade Runner 2049” exists mostly to reestablish the franchise for a new wave of sequels). While he’s never been one to prize fleetness and economy in storytelling, here he finally and firmly joins the ranks of filmmakers who mistake weight for meaning.
“Blade Runner 2049” feels like an epic carved in concrete, and too much of it just sits there, brilliant and unmoving. God help us if the man ever decides to make a comedy.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 163 minutes. R (violence, some sexuality, nudity, and language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.