Writing about Blade Runner 2049 is immediately problematic. Within the first five minutes, you know, “I can’t talk to anybody about this film until they see it.” I had asked an entertainment reporter about review embargoes and whether it was for spoilers or because studios were concerned about how reviews will affect the audience (the rotten tomatoes effect). He said it was the spoilers but, additionally, he’d had to sign an NDA for Blade Runner 2049 because apparently, “the whole movie is a spoiler.” We didn’t get it then…now I think we do.
All that being said, OMG SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW. This movie is a case in which I generally can’t talk about it except to spoil it. I’m going to talk a little bit of background for Blade Runner, and then I’ll start focusing on the actual modern film, I’ll warn you before I pivot to the plot discussion. After seeing the film, I can’t imagine how tough it was even to make the trailers.
I am actually not a particular fan of the first Blade Runner. The style, cinematography and design was amazing and influential, but as far as the plot, acting, and writing go, I find it lacking. The film is about design and style first, plot and writing seemed to be the least considered parts. Rutger Hauer apparently ad libbed his far too on-the-nose, “tears in the rain” speech, and lets just say he’s not exactly Shakespeare. I’m not sure director Ridley Scott even really likes Blade Runner himself, considering how often he’s recut it depending on how convinced he is feeling about whether or not Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant (I know he didn’t recut every version, simmer down). The movie is nominally based on Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” but like most adaptations of Dick’s works, it merely starts with the grain of the story and then deviates wildly from the source material. Even the title, Blade Runner, is not from the book. It was another book title (about literal knife smugglers) that Scott thought sounded cool, so he bought the book’s movie rights and then grafted it onto this story.
The mystery of whether or not Deckard is a replicant is also only from the film version, and apparently only came about because a writer in some version of the script wrote that as Deckard was contemplating his career of killing sentient beings, he wondered who had created him. Which is a natural philosophical point, right? But Scott came across that line and it haunted him through thirty years and five different cuts of his damn movie. Even though, when it comes right down to it, that just doesn’t matter in the course of the story. What the point is, is that humans built a slave race and then got frightened by their creation that too closely reflected themselves, and pushed it off into the colonies so they wouldn’t have to see what they had wrought, then tried to kill the ones that attempted to return home. That right there is a fascinating and potentially fulfilling story, I think that was the central theme of Battlestar Galactica, so there’s plenty to explore.
The original Blade Runner gave us that philosophical question, an implied love story, and perhaps a questionable plot point about making androids so humanesque you have to ask them a strange series of questions to determine whether they’re synthetic or not, but I’ve suspended disbelief on less. However, at no point does Scott imbue this story with any emotion or heart. He leans so hard into making it film noir that it becomes a great looking film and little else. There’s nobody to care about in this film. Even our hero is a drunk who mostly seems depressed about his depressing life, stares at photographs, and struggles with the existential question of whether it’s right to kill an android, a being that so closely resembles humanity and seeks a soul. That’s a lot of wasted potential. So I struggle to enjoy the original.
But all those things that Scott failed at, Denis Villanueve wanders off with easily.
Up and to the left if you haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 yet! It’s time to get into why the sequel succeeds. Spoilers from here on in!
Villanueve kept something from us. Actually, a few somethings. To begin though, he failed to tell us whether or not Ryan Gosling’s K was a replicant or not in the trailers. Unlike the original, however, 2049 answers that question almost immediately. As K flies over a protein farm, he receives a warning that he’s nearing his destination, and in a way that could look as if he’s powering up, he wakes up and prepares himself for the confrontation. At the farm we meet Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, whom I will see in anything), a protein farmer, and a rogue replicant who appears to be aging and speaking of miracles. K is here to retire Morton, and if we had any doubts about K they are soon put to rest. Morton has no intention of going quietly, and smashes K through a wall in an attempt to escape, there’s no way a human could have suffered that abuse.As K prepares to leave, something catches his eye. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is bleak and unyielding. Everything is dead or dying, there is no open prairie land, cities are so dense the streets rise up like canyons, and the rising ocean is held back with giant walls. It is stark in its oppressive monochromacity. A tiny yellow bloom by a dead tree shines like a beacon and sets him on a path that an obedient replicant would never have traveled.
He finds the body of a dead replicant buried under the tree, and upon examination, realizes the dead replicant was a mother. Replicants are believed to be sterile, and procreation adds another layer of humanity to them. Niander Wallace (a surprisingly un-annoying Jared Leto), blind but visionary builder of androids, realizes this discovery could help him continue to build new workforces to supply to the stars as he looks to colonize the solar system. The language of colonization and owning a fellow creature come naturally to him. He is a successful tech god, entitled, and understands how to supply what the population demands. Also, the open-office feel of future offices looks just as horrifying as it does today.
When K gets back to his station to meet with the always brilliant Robin Wright (who is having such a YEAR) as Lieutenent Joshi, he first faces a gauntlet of humans who call him “skinjob” and try to take a quick swing at him. He quickly and deftly moves away, and does not respond. The replicants scare humans so much, our mirror images frighten us to violence. However, the clear reason that Villanueve wanted Gosling for this role was in these moments. Much like his character in Drive, Gosling says little but acts volumes. K clearly does not enjoy these hallway interactions, and seems relieved to see his boss who, while not treating him as human, treats him with respect for the job he does.
At home, K greets his holographic wife, Joi (Ana de Armas), who acts like a housewife might act if a man from the 1950’s had programmed her. She fusses over a (digital) marinade. She makes small talk. She even lights K’s cigarette. Others have written at length about the treatment of women in this film better than I could. But I will simply add, there were strong women in this film that failed to interact much about anything other than the main male characters. Yet K clearly feels guilty for having Joi, for needing somebody or something to support him. I think his need for Joi expresses for K an emotional depth that replicants aren’t supposed to have, a need to connect with another being. She is his weakness.
Additionally, his memories are starting to nag at him, he knows they’re somebody else’s. But his seem very specific and unhappy. Are his memories, perhaps, real? Is he possibly the natural born child of a replicant? And as he contemplates a baby replicant-human hybrid, and wonders about the state of his soul, Joi senses his dissatisfaction and switches between costumes to better please him. It’s not her fault, she’s just programmed that way (that’s a Jessica Rabbit joke, youngsters). He knows she’s programmed to be supportive of his needs, but he still loves her. K’s love for Joi, his knowledge that he needs to connect, was again well played by Gosling with a small smile and such sad eyes.
The better question of the original Blade Runner was never, “Is Deckard a replicant?” It was always, “Are the replicants human?” They are biological beings, programmed, but with the ability to make choices and live independent lives. Niander Wallace sees them as a cheap labor force as humanity strains to escape the dying earth. But if they are considered human, do they get to come home? Can they be recognized as people with all the inalienable rights that any other person considers part of their natural condition? Do they get to have a family? We never understand how humans can tell that Gosling is a replicant, they’re more clearly labeled in 2049 than in the original, no test full of questions testing empathy here, but there does not seem to be any outer indication. But humans and replicants alike pick up on K immediately. Perhaps there are dozens of Ryan Gosling K’s running around future LA. But there is something that defines him as “other,” and his ostracization from society makes him lonely, in need of companionship.
K, as his detective programming likely instructs him, has been wondering where his memories came from. If they’re his, if they’re real. When he visits a memory maker, Mariette, he notices she creates happy memories, of which he has very few. He asks Mariette to examine his memories, and she quietly tells them they are real, not fabricated. He thinks this partially confirms that he could be the child of Deckard and Rachel (Sean Young)?
Finally, K tracks down Deckard in an abandoned casino in Las Vegas. The city is now abandoned and covered in sand as the desertification of Nevada seems to have finally taken over. Deckard, after a mildly unfriendly reception, finally sits down with some whiskey to explain himself. And the dog. He explains that they faked the baby’s death and his so the baby could live.
This is where I think the Deckard question gets answered. Deckard aged. Most replicants don’t. Now, you might say, but didn’t Dave Bautista’s Morton also look aged? Yes, but he also slammed K through a wall. Deckard was not strong enough to take K out even with several surprise attacks. And K has a startling propensity for crashing through walls, so I feel like he would have given Deckard a head start on that too. That’s just my interpretation though, I know a lot of people are sticking to the “Deckard is a replicant” interpretation, and that is fine.
Wallace’s personal replicant Luv has been keeping an eye on K, she followed him from Wallace’s company, to his home, and to work. She stole evidence, killing a lab tech who got in her way. Luv begins her story as an obedient assistant to Niander Wallace, a helpful (if snarky) guide through his company, and terrifying in her ability to become rapidly violent. She’s fast, strong, and determined, perhaps beyond her programming. And once she sees Deckard she no longer has much use for K. After she thinks she’s defeated K, she claims, “Now I’m the last one!” The last independent replicant? The last replicant that Wallace might love? The girl not only has a survival instinct, she wants to win at living.
The strength of Blade Runner 2049 is that this isn’t a “Chosen One” tale. We discovered along with K that he is NOT in fact the child of Deckard and Rachel. Villanueve let us believe that was a possibility, the memories were a huge clue, though in hindsight the viewer is reminded how Mariette reacted to K’s memories, shaken, and sad. When K meets the rebellion he doesn’t get all Katniss Everdeen or Luke Skywalker and lead the revolution, he decides on a smaller act of rebellion. He finds a way to reunite father and daughter. K makes the most human choice, and dies as he brings Deckard to Mariette. It’s a small but emotionally impactful reaction from a replicant who understand that when you love someone, you need them to be close. They may be your weakness, but they’re also your strength.
Blade Runner 2049 is a more than worthy successor to the original. And because I failed to publish this in a timely manner I can add this little addendum: I’m really disappointed that it failed financially in theaters. If we want studios to create more high-quality films, especially more great sci-fi movies, we have to go support them. We can’t both demand better movies and not support actual high-quality films. There’s nothing wrong with our candy-colored, popcorn, blockbuster, tent-pole, superhero, action-adventured, featuring Vin Diesel, summertime delights. But go support quality film making! Studios want to make money, and we want good movies. To make that Venn diagram overlap we’ve got to support quality filmmaking. Getting off my soapbox, but go support great films!