Speaking of avatars of alienation, K moves through his days with the unhurried shuffle and downcast baby blues of Ryan Gosling. This is impeccable casting. Mr. Gosling’s ability to elicit sympathy while seeming too distracted to want it — his knack for making boredom look like passion and vice versa — makes him a perfect warm-blooded robot for our time. He is also, in 2017, something close to what Harrison Ford was 35 years ago: the contemporary embodiment of Hollywood’s venerable ideal of masculine cool, a guy whose toughness will turn out to be the protective shell encasing a tender soul.
At first, of course, we must take that sensitivity on faith. K does his grim job thoroughly and without complaint, showing the weary, cynical patience of an old-time shamus. His commander (Robin Wright) is a human who believes that everything depends on policing the border between her kind and K’s. The whole point of “Blade Runner,” though, is that such boundaries are always blurred and porous. K comes home each night from work to the company of Joi (Ana de Armas), his devoted girlfriend, who happens to be a commercially produced artificial intelligence application.
We are prepared to acknowledge the pathos and the paradox of her condition, which is a version of K’s own. The idea that synthetic humans harbor feelings, desires and dreams — that they are mirrors of us, that we are replicas of them — has long been a staple of speculative cinema. “Blade Runner 2049” does not wander as deep into this ontological thicket as, say, Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” or Spike Jonze’s “Her,” but like those movies it uses the conceit of the suffering cyborg as ethical and emotional ballast, a spur to the audience’s curiosity as well as our compassion. A political theme also asserts itself: These replicants are an enslaved labor force; their exploitation is the fuel on which this civilization runs.
There is a something to think about here, a fair amount to feel and even more to see. Mr. Villeneuve has conspired with the cinematographer, Roger A. Deakins; the production designer, Dennis Gassner; and the special effects team to create zones of strangeness that occasionally rise to the level of sublimity. The movies Mr. Villeneuve has directed — his recent English-language features include “Sicario,” “Prisoners” and “Arrival” — are full of violence and psychological intensity, but what distinguishes them from other high-end genre spectacles is an unnerving calm, as if he were exploring and trying to synthesize the human and mechanical sides of his own sensibility.
Movies are by their nature hybrids of technology and sentiment, machines for the delivery of human emotion. The first “Blade Runner” approached this as a philosophical problem and an artistic challenge. Mr. Scott used imagery borrowed from old Hollywood, German Expressionism and the nascent art of music video to create a dazzlingly artificial environment where authenticity was out of the question. Except, of course, that it was the question: How do we know what is real, ourselves included?
“I know what’s real,” says the hero of that movie when — at long last! — he shows up in this one. K finds Deckard, the original Blade Runner (Mr. Ford, as if I needed to tell you), in an abandoned Las Vegas casino, surrounded by shimmering bottles of whiskey and primitive 3-D projections of Elvis and Frank Sinatra. Mr. Gosling, suddenly overmatched in the masculine cool department, acquits himself well enough, and Mr. Ford does exactly what you expect him to do.
Which is not something I’m going to explain, at least as far as it relates to the story. The studio has been unusually insistent in its pleas to critics not to reveal plot points. That’s fair enough, but it’s also evidence of how imaginatively impoverished big-budget movies have become. Like any great movie, Mr. Scott’s “Blade Runner” cannot be spoiled. It repays repeated viewing because its mysteries are too deep to be solved and don’t depend on the sequence of events. Mr. Villeneuve’s film, by contrast, is a carefully engineered narrative puzzle, and its power dissipates as the pieces snap into place. As sumptuous and surprising as it is from one scene to the next, it lacks the creative excess, the intriguing opacity and the haunting residue of its predecessor.
As such, “Blade Runner 2049” stands in relation to “Blade Runner” almost exactly as K stands in relation to Deckard before the two meet: as a more docile, less rebellious “improvement,” tweaked and retrofitted to meet consumer demand. And the customers are likely to be satisfied. But now and then — when K and Deckard are knocking around the old gambling palace; when K visits an enigmatic mind-technician played by Mackenzie Davis — you get an inkling that something else might have been possible. Something freer, more romantic, more heroic, less determined by the corporate program.
Then again: Who knows at this point if that sense of loss, of lost possibility, is even real? It might be nothing more than an artificially implanted memory.