Blade Runner 2049 may feature the classic’s oppressive dehumanising cityscapes of its predecessor, but like its storied forebear, it is heartbreakingly and effusively human in its emotional and thematic outlook.
A film as self-contained as Blade Runner never seemed to need a sequel to complete it, but BR 2049 achieves that rarest of things – it takes the first film and iterates on it, providing a fresh new experience while drawing on the same primordial themes. 30 years after the first film, replicants have been re-introduced on Earth; this time, they are made to be pliant and unquestioning in their service to humanity. K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant Blade Runner who dispatches previous iterations of “dangerous” replicants, follows a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to a secret long thought buried and forgotten – the fate of Rick Deckard and Rachel, and the existence of an impossibility – a child born of a replicant.
First off, BR 2049 is a darned good hardboiled detective story. K broods in his tiny apartment, accompanied by his AI companion Joi (played to perfection by Ana de Armas) while his implacable detective instincts lead him inexorably on the chase. The film is long – almost three hours – but it unravels in a stylishly noirish slow burn. Some have called it slow, but personally, I never felt bored at any point – every scene seemed to drip with tension and atmosphere and foreboding. The aesthetics of this film – in the rainy, ocean-buffeted megalithic cityscapes of Los Angeles, to the parched radioactive wastes of Las Vegas – are brilliantly realised, and the thundering, discordant score suffuses each scene with a barely contained power. The film may take its time, but it is filled with viscerality, and every scene is plastered with visual interest.
Where BR 2049 really shines, though, and takes its place as a worthy sequel to the original, is just how emotionally resonant its character relationships are. In particular, K and Joi are a sweetly tragic pairing, two created beings at the bottom of the hierarchy that, despite everything, love each other. While the film is deliberately ambiguous about whether Joi’s affection for K is just a manifestation of her programming, the visceral sincerity of their affection for each other on screen always cuts through that ambiguity and makes their relationship feel authentic. Every scene with the two of them together was a wondrous technical and emotional achievement on Villeneuve’s part.
(NB: although if you take the position that Joi is just a glorified interactive dakimakura, you might be of the opinion that the relationship has chauvinist undertones. But I’m kind of with Daniel Dennett on the notion that there’s probably no quantum leap between consciousness and not. If it looks, acts feels and thinks like a person, it probably is a complex enough gestalt to be person, notwithstanding that it follows some rules of engagement with respect to behaviour. Humans are no different. Can we truly be said to be free of biological programming, to love, have babies? There is probably no philosophical zombie, no Chinese Room).
And it’s that relationship, coupled with K’s own journey of attempted self-actualisation, that underlies the film’s core theme – that to be human isn’t about what you are made of, but about one’s ability to make human choices. Joi’s selflessness may be due to her programming, but if she, at some level, demonstrates her agency to choose, then she is human. Gosling’s K momentarily believes that he is the Replicant version of the Chosen One – a trueborn of his kind, with a real childhood. But when disabused of this notion and told that he is – after all, just another regular Replicant Joe – he chooses to exercise his human agency to ensure that Deckard gets to see his daughter (and that final scene where he peers through the glass to see her – that cautious but yearning look – is pure catharsis that makes K’s efforts seem even more worth it. Bravo, Harrison.) . It doesn’t matter that he, like Pinocchio, wasn’t made of flesh – his choices made him a real boy.
There is a pleasing symmetry to the first film – where the Roy and his gang fought to give themselves a future (in trying to extend their lifespans), K sought to give himself a past (by trying to find out if he was realborn, and that his implanted memories were not fake). They both failed, but in the process, their actions bequeathed them the humanity that society denied them. And the respective scenes near the end of both movies, where both K and Roy rest their weary heads, are equally emotionally charged. For while our heroes didn’t fulfill their original quests, they have self-actualised in another, very human sense.
This is something the Replicant Resistance doesn’t quite understand. Like Roy and his gang of dancing replicants, they are in a quest to give themselves humanity by fixating on its essential attributes – long life in the first film, childbirth in the second. It may break the world, but the ability to have kids doesn’t make Replicants human – even if they think it is. That is why K defies their order to kill Deckard and instead saves him – because he knows they got it all backwards. I both loved and was emotionally devastated by the film’s quite masterful sleight of hand in making audiences think K was someone special – the revelation that he was not broke me emotionally. But K pulls through his despair and does what he thinks is right, and claims his humanity even as he loses his happy ending.
Many science fiction films have played with this trope – to varying effect, but BR 2049 is one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant renditions of this theme I’ve watched on film. It’s a testament that great film can’t just appeal to the intellect, but to the heartstrings as well.
It’s not a perfect film – I thought Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace was a ham-fisted Ridley Scott-esque play at the megalomaniac corporate villain, and his ambitions to create a race of self-replicating replicants a bit wool-headed given the implications. But most notably, he is just evil for evil’s sake, lacking any human empathy or capacity for understanding that cloning someone doesn’t bring them back. He kills for expository effect, too. Just an all-around narmy clown. His Replicant henchwoman, I thought was well-executed for her role as the baddie, but I thought there was a lot of scope to make her character more complex than just being Wallace’s tool with the occasional pang of sympathy for a fellow Replicant.
But beyond that, BR 2049 does what it sets out to do so well – and with such grace, style, beauty, and economy of storytelling – yes, I think that running time is justified – that it will be taking its place in my personal list of the all-time science fiction greats.
I give this film: 5 out of 5 emanators