Originally published on October 9, 2017; republished in celebration of Director Ridley Scott’s 80th birthday.
Overview: 30 years after the events of the original film, Blade Runner K uncovers the body of a replicant who died in childbirth. Investigating this seeming impossibility unravels a mystery that can change the world and stop human progress dead in its tracks. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 163 minutes.
Fearful Symmetry: Blade Runner 2049 begins with an eye, before the scene shifts to a spinner vehicle moving through dark, towering structures. This opening directly recalls the opening of Ridley Scott’s film, all that’s missing is the fire. Scott created a hellscape, a steaming gutter that swallowed up both human and replicant alike. In Scott’s film, the characters dripped with sweat and pushed against the unmoving wall of time. Villeneuve, aided by unequivocal perfection of Roger Deakins’ cinematography, in which every shot is a thing of near tear-inducing art work, has created a world of frozen breaths and cold comforts, resulting in a kind of purgatory that’s not quite as dark and eerie as Scott’s film, but it’s no heaven either.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about Blade Runner 2049, a film in which there are surprises aplenty, is how much it sets itself apart from the original film, despite the original film’s screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, returning for this film. Rather than serving as a mere decades-later sequel in the way we’ve come to expect them, Blade Runner 2049 feels like a true step forward, and a companion piece to the original. Villeneuve doesn’t attempt to replicate Scott, and while it’s clear that both films inhabit the same world, Blade Runner 2049 charts its own path, building on the mythology before it and charting a course defined by the failures of the past and our fears of the future. “The world is built on a wall that separates kind,” Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi tells K. Villeneuve, ever the patient filmmaker, isn’t interested in tearing that wall down completely, but in creating cracks that will grow over time. Where time was crucial and pressing in Blade Runner, symbolized by Roy Batty’s clenching fist, in this film time is supercooled. Every action becomes crystalized like the cracks on that dividing wall, allowing us to not only see the expanse of the world but the expanse of a life that’s defined by more incept dates and things seen, but by actions that define a soul.
Out of the Black and into the Blue: Ryan Gosling’s K, who is revealed to be a replicant himself within the first ten minutes of the film, is possessed of a quiet melancholy and loneliness. There’s a sadness Gosling can portray, a demeanor born of whispers, that sets him apart from his fellow thespians. Thus, K feels like the role was made for him. There’s a moment early in the film, where K walks through the station and a cop says, “fuck off, Skinner!” K’s eyes immediately look down; he draws into himself as he passes the rest of the officers who see him as a tool rather than a co-worker. There’s a shame in his status, that separates him from the escaped replicants of the prior film, who reveled in their status of being “more human than human.” K doesn’t feel human at all, despite his efforts to replicate that experience through his dedication to the job, and a wife comprised of 1s and 0s in the form of Joi (Ana de Armas) holographic pleasure model, of which there is oddly no male equivalent. K’s desire is to have a soul, to be a real boy as it were, and the insistence that he doesn’t have one, that, as Joshi says, “he’s gotten along just fine without one” is painful. Yet the discovery of a child born of a replicant, gives him hope that he may be special, a replicant messiah who was wanted through an act of love rather than made out of necessity.
K’s investigation into the replicant skeleton, revealed to be Rachel (Sean Young), leads him to the Wallace Corporation, makers of both replicants and artificial livestock that sustain the world. The Wallace Corporation, who have enveloped the Tyrell Corporation, is headed by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a blind visionary who believes that human expansion to the stars, and the survival of our species is predicated by the need for the mass reproduction of replicants. “Every civilization was built on the backs of a disposable work force,” Wallace says. Yet, his supply cannot keep up with the demand, so he’s driven to uncover the secret that Tyrell once discovered and then hid, the creation of replicants who can sexually reproduce. K becomes caught in the middle of trying to cover up a secret that would lead to war between humans and replicants, once the divisible lines between them blurred even further, and the Wallace Corporation’s reach towards the stars. Thus K’s investigation, which plays far less like the noir-steeped original and far more like a modern procedural, becomes a series of questions built around the existence of his kind and the existence of those who built them. The entire film, punctuated by subtle emotional orchestrations of Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s score, works as K’s Voight-Kampff test, a measure of his empathy.
Unicorn: Every character made by humans in this film has a dream, a dream of a life defined by emotions recognized as real, or a body in which those emotions can inhabit. In Blade Runner, dreams were defined by a unicorn, a creature based in reality, but imbued with a slight alteration that makes it fictional. In Blade Runner 2049, we see this idea conveyed by several characters’ desires for a reality in which they are cut off from. Joi, given radiant life by Ana de Armas, longs for physical companionship with K, to mutually find a way out of loneliness. She, in her intangible and fleeting form is love. As an extension of K’s desires, she unlocks his own potential for love, and a love for himself that begins to build when he starts to believe he is the child of Deckard and Rachel. Contrasted to Joi is Luv, Wallace’s “best angel,” a replicant secretary and bodyguard who is all built-up emotion without an outlet. Sylvia Hoeks’ performance is a stand-out in the film, and she teeters on the edge of villainy while prompting compassion. When K meets her he says, “He named you. You must be special.” The corner of her mouth twitches, provoked by the unfilled potential of her name. Like K, Joi and Luv both dream of being special, of being chosen, and “[seeing] a miracle,” as Dave Bautista’s replicant Sapper did, in order to give their lives meaning, design, and rid themselves of the horn that makes them feel like fictional creatures.
But Then Again, Who Does?: When K finds Deckard (Harrison Ford), hiding away as a recluse in the radioactive bones of Las Vegas, we’re shown how much the former Blade Runner has changed over the course of 30 years, but also how little. While he no longer sees replicants as machines, he’s still a man holding onto pain and has a very loose sense of who he is without that. Like K, Deckard is also a lonely man, who may have discovered his own capabilities for empathy years before, but was never able to form a full life for himself. As Gaff says earlier in the film, “I suppose he found what he always wanted. To be alone.” Gaff, the cynic and pessimist, points out the fruitless endeavor of loving a replicant who will ultimately die. But as Joi points out to K, to live without a safety net and face the possibility of death is the most human thing there is. Deckard chose to live for a time, but after Rachel’s death and the secreting away of his child, he lost his sense of purpose, his desire to experience, and thus stopped being a human and instead became an antique like everything else in his city of ruins.
One of the biggest questions going into Blade Runner 2049 was whether or not the film would do a disservice to the original film by answering the decades old question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant. The film cleverly leaves the possibility open-ended while opening up further ramifications that Deckard was designed either by the mathematics of man, or the love of some higher force to mate with Rachel to see if a replicant could reproduce. Yet, even with the implications for Deckard, Blade Runner 2049 remains K’s story of self-discovery.
K’s realization that he is not the child of Deckard and Rachel, but a male replicant made of their daughter’s DNA, meant to create a puzzle, has far more value to the story than any answer of Deckard’s origins ever could. Villeneuve, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green disassemble the traditional chosen one story line, not only breaking away from the male messiah figure, but revealing that our protagonist isn’t what he thought he was, the very thing that would seemingly allow him to love himself. The chosen one is the thing everyone wants to be, but Blade Runner 2049 composes a narrative in which self-love and purpose must be achieved regardless of that. K’s decision to place more value on human connection and experience than in rules and rebellions is ultimately the thing that makes him more human than human. K, the replicant of Rachel and Deckard’s daughter, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who herself is the personification of empathy, becomes the thing he’s always wanted to be in his final act of reuniting Deckard with his daughter. In the final scene, a scene that mirrors Batty’s death, K smiles with the satisfaction that he won’t be lost in time, that his actions will shape the course of human and replicant future. Blade Runner ends with a door closing and the promise of death. Blade Runner 2049 ends with a figurative open door, juxtaposed by the glass divider that establishes Deckard and Ana’s meeting, and promise of new lives.
Overall: Blade Runner 2049 is a melancholy and existential story of the ghosts we carry from the past into the future. It is also a deeply compassionate film, one that eschews rebellions and wars for personal discovery. The most integral mystery solved is a way out of loneliness, and defining one’s own terms of exceptionalism amidst exceptional beings. Blade Runner 2049 does nothing to counteract what makes Scott’s film a masterpiece, and thus this film work on its own merits, a masterpiece in its own rights.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures