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'Blade Runner 2049' is as puzzling and striking as the original, sure to be equally revered

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If not electric sheep, of what do androids dream?

Of being human of course. The evolution of AI id propels Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve's at-last sequel to 1982's classic sci-fi noir. Villeneuve crafts a movie both cerebral and sensuous, as puzzling and visually striking as its predecessor. The experience should be likewise revered by next generations.

Be assured that revisiting Blade Runner isn't necessary. Introductory notes tidily recap the basics: Replicants are androids used as slaves until synthetic farming made them obsolete. Blade runners like K (Ryan Gosling) are cops sent to "retire" replicants. We soon see that K is point-blank good at what he does.

Both the synthetic farming industry and replicant technology are owned by industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). His plan is to manufacture a perfect blend of humanity and artificial intelligence, the sort of arch villainy that other fantasies would doggedly track. Here, it's a sideshow to deeper meditations on scientific ethics and what being human means.

Now is a good time to inform readers that Blade Runner 2049 is impractical to describe without tripping over some spoiler item. In a rare move, Warner Bros. gave critics at Monday's screening a list of topics not to be mentioned or confirmed. I'll say that one request is to not reveal who's human or not, a persistent theme in Villeneuve's movie.

Plot threads are intriguing even without knowing who's involved. Memories thought to be implanted may actually be real. Virtual reality is realer than ever, giving new meaning to menage a trois and new hope for holograms. Conception reaches a higher plane than immaculate as Wallace's scheme flirts with biblical proportions. Bold ideas, brashly expressed. How many movies can be described as philosophical escapism? Blade Runner 2049 is one.

That intellectual approach doesn't hinder Villeneuve's eye for striking fantasy images, last displayed in the equally humane sci-fi hit Arrival. Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner established a design for futuristic decadence that's still imitated. Villeneuve builds that world in decline, a grimmer urban density than before. Except for Wallace's headquarters, the only place with what must be unnatural sunlight streaked on walls like prison bars.

The enigmatic nature of Villeneuve's story is matched by his actors' performances. Gosling leans into his Drive style of sullenness, resigned to the idea that whatever happens next won't be good. Leto's handful of scenes leave a chilling impression. Perhaps closest to Gosling in screen time is Ana de Armas as K's personal assistant Joi, a different type of dame for our noir antihero.

And, yes, Harrison Ford appears as his Blade Runner character Rick Deckard, very late in K's unfolding existential crisis. It's a smartly considered reprise of a signature role, closer to Han Solo respect than an Indiana Jones cash-in. The past nimbly dovetails with the future, linked by co-writer Hampton Fancher, who also co-authored the original film.

The studio's request for secrecy sounds like a publicity stunt except for the fact that Blade Runner 2049 deserves such respect. This thrilling movie and Arrival tag Villeneuve as a visionary fantasist. If androids sleep, Villeneuve weaves their dreams.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

 
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