Over thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s noir-classic Blade Runner debuted and became a cult sensation, Denis Villeneuva has returned with an installment that does away with much of the religious and authoritarian zeitgeist of the former. Instead, Blade Runner 2049 focuses on the human.
Villeneuva’s most decisive jumps from Scott’s iteration are the use of voice over and change of soundtrack. Most of Blade Runner sounds like it should be a Bogart film set in a dark alley of Brooklyn, with its plaintive horns and Decker’s (Harrison Ford) monotone voice. 2049 dispenses with that signature mainly because K’s (Ryan Gosling) voice is flat out boring (I kid). Its real “drive” isn’t to observe the world around K, but to observe K.
2049 has two mysteries. Its foreground mystery is the discovery of Deckard and Rachel’s (Sean Young) child. Yes, replicants can have children. The ability for a species to procreate means that they are real, and to a point, autonomous. In a society that depends on slave labor, this is a big no-no. Nevertheless, there are two main factions (the third I’ll leave out because it’s a spoiler), Wallace (Jared Leto) and Luv (Silvia Hoeks) who want to breed more slaves through procreation, and Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) who is afraid of how this revelation will destroy society.
2049’s background mystery is the questioning of what it means to be human. The original Blade Runner touches on the effect that lifespan and memories have on humanity. However, the two do not constitute complete humanity (Dogs have a decent lifespan and have memories too, but they’re not human). While 2049 certainly focuses on implanted memories and lifespan, its addition of Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s holographic girlfriend, adds a layer first brought about in Spike Jonze’s Her. It is how we tie procreation and sensual contact to humanity (And yes, dogs do procreate too if you didn’t already know).
While Bautista plays his role as the large guy who gets into a fight, and Robin Wright is the cold-hearted shrill, it’s Joi who is the most indelible of the secondary characters. Though she’s one-dimensional and doesn’t have the human quality of self-preservation, she is searching for humanity. One of the most touching moments of the film is when she’s able to walk outside into the rain because K has bought her a device that allows her to now be trapped to a projector. Though we don’t know if she can feel the rain, we do know that the rain can feel her. And somehow that interaction with the outside world is telling us that nature says she’s real.
In fact, it says something about our culture that visions of the future no longer feature neon, but holographic and interactive screens. Lights don’t constitute the future, the immersion and animation of our surroundings do. The grandest and most melancholic visual of 2049 is K walking through the snowy streets of Los Angeles, hiding his face in his dusty green coat as the futuristic city, its giant-sized ads, its fur-coat-covered-prostitutes, and its mixture of run down and brightly lit Asian-character-laden-buildings pass beside him. It’s an image that brings to mind Rorschach of Watchmen, and it’s one that will be of the most iconic portions of this film. It will also earn the Cinematographer, Roger Deakins, an Academy Award.
Nevertheless, what was most surprising about 2049 is the lack of screen time for Leto. Though Tyrell’s character wasn’t greatly featured in the first installment, his name seemed to be everywhere. Yes, the technology for K’s girlfriend Joi is made by Wallace’s company, but it’s difficult to know how much power Wallace really has. He has an assistant who has to kill to get things done. Shouldn’t a despotic Amazon-like figure have more power (And yes, Amazon will make replicants. They’ll be going for $5,000 each with free shipping, limited lifespan)?
One of the keys to 2049 is the fact that we know K is a replicant. The journey isn’t to find out if he’s a replicant, the journey is to find out how human a replicant can be. The answer to this question can only be answered by Deckard, a retired Blade Runner who lives in an abandoned casino where a dirty bomb once landed. He is a relic inhabiting a land of relics. It’s not often you get to see Ford cry in a role, but he still is one of the best actors when it comes to using his eyes. His crying over the memory of Rachel, his long dead wife, as he is surrounded by the cold wooden austerity of Wallace’s “office,” is the clear humanity Vileneuva has been searching for.
Though Blade Runner 2049 is different from the former Blade Runner in style and content, it still retains the central question that Philip K Dick was searching for: “What does it mean to be human?” I don’t think the question is ever fully answered.
Maybe the ability to procreate does create a more tangible transaction from sex, but it doesn’t make one human. Instead, I believe it is the ability to share an emotional connection. It’s the relationship K and Joi have and Deckard and Rachel had. Their relationships are more human than we’ll ever find in our everyday lives. The ability to feel loss is the most human emotion possible. In a world with replicants and holographic ads, where nothing seems real, the fear and sorrow of losing is the only thing that is real. That’s what blade runners are really wiping out, love-based emotion……….
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