Blade Runner 2049 (15)

Five stars

Dir: Denis Villeneuve, with Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto. Running time: 163mins

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WHILE Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner had to wait to be hailed as the classic it undoubtedly remains, Denis Villeneuve’s belated follow-up should experience no such delay. As visually ravishing and intellectually stimulating as its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning achievement that continues science fiction’s recent resurgence – in the wake of Arrival, Westworld and Ex_Machina – in the most emphatic way possible.

Villeneuve has asked that plot details be kept to a minimum. But it’s not giving too much away to say that the story revolves around a new generation blade runner named K (played by Ryan Gosling), who is tasked with hunting down the last remaining Nexus 8 replicants that occupied the first film.

After a near-lethal encounter with a protein farmer (Dave Bautista), K makes a discovery that threatens to uncover a potentially life-altering secret, and which puts him on a path to finding Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the rogue blade runner from the original.

On the surface, Villeneuve’s film is a neo-noir missing person thriller that unfolds using an ultra slow-burn approach (it clocks in at two hours and 43 minutes). But far from feeling stretched, the story – co-scripted by original screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Alien: Covenant’s Michael Green – also tackles issues as big as the nature of existence as well as the complexities of love and social standing.

If anything, it’s also more decisive than Scott’s original, which notoriously found the director toying with multiple endings.

Villeneuve, just as he did with the similarly stunning Arrival, seamlessly blends the expected with the unexpected. He retains the signature look of Scott’s beautifully bleak future vision with a highly affecting emotional kick. It means that for all of the stylistic flourishes on show, the film resonates on a surprisingly human level. Actions have consequences that are deeply felt.

Gosling’s K, for instance, may seem cool and calculated for the most part, in keeping with his programming as a loyal yes man, but he convinces in the odd moments of anguish and compassion. His relationship with a virtual reality girlfriend named Joi (Ana De Armas) lends the film much of its soul and is beautifully played between the two of them, while his decision to follow his latest case beyond the parameters of his briefing leads to an existential crisis that forces him to question his own reality.

Ford, meanwhile, makes his somewhat limited screen-time really count by turning in one of his best performances in years, even tapping into a rarely observed vulnerability that helps to make the climax of the film so satisfying.

There are plenty of strong female characters, too, with Sylvia Hoek the pick of the bunch as a new model replicant named Luv, a clinical right-hand to Jared Leto’s eerie corporate villain Niander Wallace, and Robin Wright also notable as K’s no-nonsense, yet oddly sympathetic boss Lieutenant Joshi.

In terms of look, Villeneuve has preserved and enhanced Scott’s original vision, making the most of advances in CGI to create the kind of world that absolutely has to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

There’s the obligatory rain, with LA often awash in it, as well as neon-lit city-scapes that are alive with seductive holographs of women. But they are offset by red dusty desert landscapes and even the odd moment of snow. The film’s visual palette is immense.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins ensures that no frame is wasted, delivering one eye-popping spectacle after another, while Villeneuve himself also creates some memorable set pieces, including a crash into a rubbish dump and a climactic chase and brawl, which is as exciting as it is bone-crunching.

Even more impressive is the way in which the director finds room for ingenuity – a three-way love scene, for instance, emerging as a surreal highlight that is both playful and romantic without feeling voyeuristic.

And the score, by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, cleverly combines the futuristic electronic elements of the Vangelis original with the wall of sound thump of a lot of Zimmer’s recent work.

Blade Runner 2049 is that rare cinematic triumph: a big film that isn’t afraid to be intimate or intelligent. It’s the complete package.

Rob Carnevale