I will admit upon initially hearing of the sequel to the original film I had some concerns. It easily could have been a lazy cash grab similair to Ridley Scott's Alien Covenant. What gave an obvious glimmer of hope though was that it was being helmed by director Denis Villeneuve whose previous efforts were that of a devoted filmmaker who only seems interested in projects with at least some ambition. Coming into the film the first time I had no idea exactly what to think, though I was developing some random theories in my head, where they were going to take the original story given that the promotional material was more focused on images than the actual plot. My theories of where this film would take us was instantly turned on its head from the opening scene of the film where we meet our lead played by Ryan Gosling. I suspected he was going to be a replicant but I thought it was going to be a revelation further in the film. This is one of the many brilliant decisions in the narrative as it begins with an alternate perspective as we follow this Officer with the serial number KD6-3.7 known for short as K. The replicant who works as a titular Blade Runner aka a police officer who specializes in retiring replicants who have committed any form of rebellion from their original intent. Unlike Harrison Ford's Deckard from the original film, who may or may not be a replicant, here we know that Officer K has the job of killing his own which offers a very different viewpoint in which to broach this vision of the future.
If I had known more clearly of this casting and character I might have had some concerns. Obviously Ryan Gosling is one of the most talented actors of his generation however, despite loving his turn in Drive, his performances as more understated characters were starting to become a little stale, and in 2016 he thankfully offered two memorable extroverted turns. The concern of this return of course could never inspire itself since I was not aware of it until I was already engrossed into the film, and more importantly, in regards to that concern, Ryan Gosling's performance. From the outset of his performance a great task is impressed upon his work, and to a slightly lesser extent Sylvia Hoeks's performance as the replicant Luv the girl Friday to the malevolent creator of the replicants Wallace (Jared Leto), which is to realize this new form of replicant that is described in the opening text of the film. A replicant that does not run, and is no longer like the rather emotional androids we found in the original film through Sean Young's Rachael or Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty. They are suppose to exist in a different way in which free will is not a concept. Gosling's portrayal of this not only establishes that but perfectly differentiates his work from his previous minimalist turns. Gosling's work is fascinating here in this exact creation of K from the opening which is to define K essentially through his profession, which is as a blade runner obviously.
Gosling's performance finds this way of the new replicant which is this almost exact amount of humanity required for existence and interaction. Gosling's performance is incredible in this consistency of the portrayal of this as he makes K enough of a human in that he would not be overly off-putting to actual humans, but also separated enough to clearly denote that he has been made rather than born. In his opening scene where he interrogates and then executes a rogue older replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), Gosling portrays the part with essentially this exact precision. Gosling projects this manner of an intelligent though perhaps too direct detective in the way he speaks to Morton. He does not do it in a truly robotic way, but almost a too effective of a fashion in terms of the interrogation. It's remarkable as Gosling reveals a machines way of being the perfect detective, which includes the right bit of humanity. He offers just a bit of that in his gentle small talk for a moment when he speaks about not wanting to try Morton's garlic until he's done with the "harder part" of his day. There are no mistakes in this act as Gosling shows the efficiency of someone not bread but created for the purpose of being a detective. This includes just enough of the courtesy, that most humans would appreciate being there, but only enough of a courtesy. Gosling shows this small talk as basically part of the detectives method as he attempts to calm the man into giving himself up, but when he doesn't Gosling is equally effective in delivering the cold brutality needed for a hired killer.
Gosling's performance is amazing in how well he fashions this state that establishes what is this future replicant. After he disposes of Morton Gosling portrays again this directness in K as he surveys the area to fully understand the situation as required by his duty, though again with just enough of a bit of comforting asides for his superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) when describing his injuries from fighting Morton. This little aside though is again so effectively portrayed by Gosling as this enough of an emotion not to be eerie when describing the situation, but not enough that K could ever define himself as a person to another person. When returning to the station Gosling only all the more develops this compelling idiosyncratic creation of what a replicant is now. K, even as he walks by hostile humans, Gosling grants a retiring subservient body language as he almost hides from those calling him a "skin job" as confronting a human would be against his very nature as programmed. He is instead is attuned to avoid and stay very much in his place. One of my favorite scenes in this film, in which I have many, is when K is run through his base line test as though he is a computer where he is given a series of potentially emotional prompts that require a mechanized response. Gosling effortlessly depicts this strange juxtaposition where he hones these pointed delivers, and nearly vacant stare, but only with just this threadbare connective emotional tissue Gosling gives the most minor evocation of as though it is a required cushion for the replicant, an ever thin one.
Although K is clearly designed for a purpose we still follow him as he goes about his day even past working directly as a detective. Gosling uses essentially that programming baseline as this anchor as a starting point for use to remove that distance, as even though he is clearly not a human there is something human there. Again though that human factor seems a comfort for the replicant to function correctly as we see him go home where his only company is a hologram designed to be anyone's company named Joi (Ana de Armas), and he lives a life of very slight escapism within his small apartment. Gosling carefully does not change the nature of K outside of performing his duty and properly still portrays the replicant that is K even outside of his work. Gosling instead exudes just the right degree of contentment in this escapism again that is this certain core within K, but also faint in a way. Gosling naturally discovers this unique dynamic within his performance as he shows enough of a detachment in these moments to still be artificial, but he places that beyond what lies in his eyes that grants just that undercurrent of the stabilizing emotional connection required for such a complex being to exist at this level. Gosling's work provides such an unique foundation for who officer K is. He creates an understanding of how this replicant works and behaves, but also provides how there may be more though in very atypical way.
The first hint of the core of emotion perhaps shifting within K comes when he along with the lieutenant figure out that Morton was part of a group of replicants hiding a child born by a replicant. The initial breakdown of the information Gosling again delivers quickly and efficiently as K once again doing his job just as as a loyal worker should. When Joshi tells K to continue the investigation and find and destroy all evidence of this child, that breaks the very nature of the replicants, there is just a glimpse of something else. It is a brilliant moment of acting by Gosling as though his state is suddenly momentarily broken, as he holds in this gasp of emotion that Gosling seems to show as this conflict between the programming of subservience against that baseline of more empathetic emotion. Gosling realizes this in a second long reaction before portraying K seemingly having reestablished himself as a servant when firmly stating that K is incapable of saying no to the request. He seemingly then begins the investigation to destroy the child. The investigation is not performed alone though as K brings Joi along with him as he tries to uncover the mystery. Gosling's performance is again wholly remarkable in the way he subtly reveals this minor change within K as he reacts to the idea of this child born yet still of the same nature as him. The transition of this is so carefully and delicately handled by Gosling's work which so effectively realizes the emotional crux of the film.
There is no moment in the investigation that is taken for granted by Gosling's astonishing portrayal of K slowly unraveling the truth. This is in part in that relationship with Joi where I would argue Gosling and Armas have the most heartwarming chemistry out of any onscreen couple from 2017 despite neither character being human, in fact one barely has a physical form. The two together though find something so special by finding the limitations and creating this very specific form of expression that comes within that. On Armas's end it is interesting as she seems to show here move past Joi's base programming by having moments of not just overwhelming simplistic affection but rather something more complex. Gosling matches this through his depiction of K slowly having more than just minor comforts in his interactions with Joi. He begins to look her as more than just this distraction from the hellish landscapes around them, but in his face he grants a deeper meaning as he looks at her that conveys a definite love as they go on their journey together. Gosling gradually creates a growing attachment that he offers a more defined concern and care for her, even though she technically is just a hologram. Although most even disregard his choice in having a "fake" girlfriend, Gosling finds the attachment along with Armas that makes Joi seem so much more than just this pleasure hologram. Their relationship seems to mean more as K looks to her as a true companion while she attempts to give more than an idea of a life, even trying to give him a real name by calling him Joe instead of just the first letter of his serial number.
The investigation leads seemingly to K's implanted past involving a memory of his as a boy where he hid a wooden horse. When Gosling originally delivers the story it is in that fashion of the machine recounting it on the surface as something phony just to grant him solace, however Gosling infuses the words with a certain haunting quality quietly within that at the same time as K knows the memory to be false however he does find a type of comfort in it still. Gosling's work is stunning as he maintains that replicant status, but tests it. The first being when the mystery leads him to seemingly the same wooden horse that he remembers from his false memory. Gosling again has such a simply incredible singular moment as he portrays this internalized burst of emotion, that he plays as this withdrawn outburst as though it is the machine trying to maintain the man, yet is struggling to do so. Gosling shows this way the emotion changes though as that undercurrent switches from this core of comfort to now an almost searing pain. Gosling in the second baseline test in his expression now attempts vacancy yet a terrible intensity lies within it, his words attempt repetition to suit the programming of robotics yet malfunctions as even the mechanized response now seem messy with sentiment. Gosling's portrait of this barrier breaking as the function against emotion is becoming imbalanced is absolutely awe inspiring. My favorite moment of this is when he has his memory of the horse tested to see if it is real. When he is told it is Gosling delivers his only major overt moment of expression and it is earth shattering. Gosling's single moment of this primal yell of sheer anguish is heart wrenching as not only is it so flawlessly implemented and earned within his performance, but it also captures this torment of K both in regards to what the memory means but also as it clashes against what is to be his very nature through this expression.
K chooses to follow this revelation, that he is the child, and therefore the son of Rachel and Deckard from the first film. K tracks down Deckard in his hideaway in an abandoned Las Vegas. Gosling carefully maneuvers this scene in portraying this passivity again in K, but now with a different intention within it. K tries to not harm Deckard, even when he originally attacks K thinking he has come to kill him, and Gosling shows this as not a programming design rather a genuine desire. When they speak eventually about his past Gosling is outstanding in finding this nuance in the way he speaks of the child with this level of curiosity and concern. He speaks underlining some hopeful intention to see this connection between them particularly with his almost loving delivery of "stranger" towards Deckard, after Deckard had explained that sometimes to love and protect someone you have to be a stranger. Finding Deckard though leads to nothing but tragedy though as Deckard is captured by Luv and Wallace who wish to dissect his child, and Joi is "killed" by Luv. If this was not enough K is left to learn that he also was not the child, since it was a girl not a boy. Gosling's work is devastating by wearing the sheer impact of this within yet still staying true to K's character. It leaves all the greater impact because Gosling exudes this within this internalized way still realizing the nature of his origin still, but now the emotion overwhelming the center of his being.
One of the most moving moments is when there appears as respite as K comes face to face with a "living" advertisement for the Joi program. For a moment in Gosling eyes there is a comfort as he looks at her that turns to all the greater sorrow when it calls him "Joe", and Gosling conveys K understanding that possibly Joi was only acting on her programming the entire time. Gosling though finds this conviction through the emotion to be more than the machine making it entirely convincing that he would go to save Deckard from his captors. There is a very simple moment at the end of the action sequence after K has saved Deckard, but it is the evidence of the greatness of Gosling's work. Oddly enough though it comes from Deckard as he calls out to see if K is okay by calling out his name as Joe. It isn't so much Ford's delivery, although there's nothing wrong with it, but I find the moment so very affecting because of Gosling. The reason though is Gosling's work through the film gradually granted such humanity to K's journey to the point that seeing him recognized as a person and not a machine is a deeply poignant revelation. Gosling's creation of this arc couldn't more graceful or resonate. He gives the story of Deckard's child its real power through his reflection of what it means within this individual finding his own purpose and sense of self through it. His final moments of the film one no longer sees a detached machine making its way through the world, one sees a man finally finding contentment fully on the surface. Gosling's performance is masterful as he gives us the machine in his realization of the replicant that is K in the opening of the film, but by the end of the story he reveals the man within.