I love being surprised by a movie. A couple times a year, I’ll walk into a theater to see a film, either not quite sure what to expect or not feeling particularly hyped, and then I’ll end up walking out afterwards completely blown away. That was my experience watching “Blade Runner 2049,” a film that originally wasn’t on my “most anticipated” list this year but has definitely earned a spot on my “best of 2017” ranking.

I’ve only seen the original “Blade Runner” once, several years ago. Although I enjoyed it and recognized how important it was to the science fiction genre, I happened to watch it when I was going through a period of really bad insomnia. I didn’t feel like I was fully engaged with the film and the story didn’t stick with me (I had to re-read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia before seeing the sequel). I also had some skepticism about a sequel being released more than 30 years after the original. Did we really need a sequel? Was this just a cash grab?

The answers are yes, we did need this sequel, and no, this feels like far more than a cash grab. Director Denis Villeneuve has crafted a haunting, thought-provoking film with absolutely gorgeous cinematography that stands proudly alongside the original.

Like its predecessor, “Blade Runner 2049” is a sci-fi noir that takes place in Earth’s dystopian future. In the first movie, Harrison Ford played Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” or sort of bounty hunter who “retires” renegade androids called “replicants.” “Blade Runner 2049” takes place 30 years later, after Deckard has gone off the grid. Ryan Gosling plays an LAPD blade runner known simply as “K,” one of the newer model replicants designed to be more obedient to humans. The film begins with what appears to be a fairly standard mission for K, eliminating a replicant who has been hiding out on a farm. However, an unusual object buried deep underground tips off K to a larger conspiracy and leads him to question his own existence.

I’ll delve more deeply into the story in the spoiler section below, because I’m dying to discuss some of the plot points, but for those who haven’t seen this yet, I’d highly recommend it. Denis Villeneuve is definitely going on my list of directors to watch (he also directed last year’s excellent “Arrival”). Normally my local IMAX theater only offers 3D movies in IMAX (I’m still not a huge fan of 3D), but when I saw “Blade Runner 2049” was showing in IMAX 2D I decided to splurge. I’m so glad I did. “Blade Runner 2049” is probably the most visually stunning movie I’ve seen this year. Every shot feels lovingly and painstakingly crafted, and it was breathtaking to see these visuals on an IMAX screen (especially without the clunky 3D glasses). The film overall has a lonely, melancholy tone that makes the few flashes of genuine hope all the more impactful. It works as both a sci-fi action/detective film and a more thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human and what gives life its meaning.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

I managed to avoid pretty much all spoilers ahead of time, and I really enjoyed following along with the film’s central mystery, which involves K trying to hunt down the seemingly impossible: a child born to a replicant. K uncovers evidence that leads him to believe he is actually the replicant child, a fact that causes him to start thinking more independently. Although he does become more human, he later learns that he was actually just a decoy created to help hide the real replicant child, the daughter of Rick Deckard and the replicant Rachael. It’s heartbreaking to see how much this crushes him. He’s now caught in a dangerous limbo: he’s not the chosen one, but he can’t just go back to being an obedient replicant.

I thought the film used just the right amount of Harrison Ford; his appearance is more substantial than a cameo, but Rick Deckard doesn’t take over the plot, allowing the new characters plenty of time to shine. I appreciated how many layers they added to the characters; there’s more to them than you assume after first encountering them.

The movie is ultimately a fascinating study of humanity and explores the murky area of ethics and artificial intelligence. We as the audience can identify with K and want him to be treated as a human because he looks like a human. And even though he’s supposed to be an obedient android, we see he has real thoughts and emotions. He may not be the real replicant child but that makes his journey of self-discovery no less meaningful. I was also left wondering just how “real” his holographic girlfriend Joi was. She’s obviously a computer program but are her feelings for K genuine? Does she really care about him, or is this just a part of her programming? The film doesn’t fully answer this, leaving us with something to think about after the credits start rolling.

End spoilers!

“Blade Runner 2049” didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, especially considering its sizable budget. But I hope positive word of mouth will motive more people to check this out, along with the original. This is definitely one of my favorite movies of the year.

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