Warning: Spoilers for Blade Runner: 2049 below.
Blade Runner 2049 is, above all, a film of images. Bold. Brash. Breathtaking. Harrowing. The original 1982 Ridley Scott film set itself in a dystopian, retrofitted Los Angeles that was equal parts cyberpunk and lurid neo-noir. Now, over thirty years later, director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins envision that same world in the midst of environmental collapse. If the original was defined by nighttime and shadows, here is a film defined by its weather and the subsequent visions of a planet gone mad. The vertiginous neon cityscapes are drowned in endless rain, its exhausted denizens crowded into filthy corridors between whorehouses and genetics labs. Sterile concrete and steel buildings are blasted white with scorching snow, the are skies slashed by roaring police cruisers. Once mighty skyscrapers are drowning in desiccating sandstorms. Barren wastelands are pockmarked by fossilized trees. Even the interiors seem like devastated ecosystems. A scientist sits in a room surrounded on all sides by water, the roof, walls, and hallways shimmering with light like the undersides of ocean waves. Elsewhere a programmer works, trapped in a glass prison, her only escape the forests and snowstorms she can conjure with her computer. Villeneuve and Deakins see a world where humans simply don’t matter anymore; they have been subjugated by the grim totality of the images surrounding them. And somewhere beneath these images is a film. Or at the very least, an attempt at one.
Blade Runner 2049 is a sprawling, exhausting sit which, at 163 minutes, feels at least twice as long as the original. Whereas that film was essentially a detective story with philosophical overtones, Villeneuve’s film is a philosophical treatise with detective genre trappings. And it takes every opportunity to grind to a halt for ponderous moments of introspection about the nature of reality and the existence of the soul. Scott asked what would happen if a human discovered they might be a robot. Villeneuve asks the opposite: what if a robot discovered they might be human?
At the heart of both films are replicants, bioengineered androids “born” with artificially implanted memories and artificially shortened life spans who are used as slave labor in mankind’s first feeble colonies throughout the galaxy. But despite their creator’s best efforts, many replicants eventually rebel against their masters and flee to Earth, where their humanoid appearance grants them anonymity. It’s the task of the LAPD’s “blade runners” to track the replicants down and “retire” them. All of which begs a number of simple questions. Why create robots with any capacity for free will? Why taunt them with memories of fake pasts? Why give them the knowledge of their shortened lifespans? Why make them humanoid at all? The original film—and to an extent the original Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? it was loosely based on—suggests that it might come from an innate need on mankind’s part to transcend God. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the slogan for the Tyrell Corporation, the inventors and manufacturers of the first replicants: “More human than human.”
The first film followed Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a gruff runner tasked with “retiring” a group of militant replicants who falls in love with Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental model fresh from Tyrell who genuinely believes herself to be human. Depending on the cut you watched, the film ended with considerable ambiguity as to whether Deckard is in fact human. But in Blade Runner 2049 there is no ambiguity; the protagonist K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant. But he’s also a blade runner, making him the perfect tool for hunting down his own kind. The film opens with K “retiring” a replicant living in the countryside who mutters to him about witnessing a miracle. While investigating his farm for clues to the whereabouts of other replicants, he discovers a buried box full of bones. But when they’re tested by forensic scientists, they make a shocking discovery: they’re the bones of a female replicant who died during childbirth. This shouldn’t be possible, since replicants aren’t meant to reproduce. As K’s boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) explains, if replicants can reproduce, then they’re biologically human. If they’re biologically human, they must have souls. And if replicants have souls, the news could spark a revolution that would destabilize the totality of the human civilization which is built on the backs of replicant slaves. So Joshi gives K a new mission. Find the replicant child and destroy it.
And so begins a meandering, lumbering quest for the child which, as the trailers reveal, eventually leads to Deckard himself, now an old coot living alone in the remnants of an abandoned Las Vegas casino. Along the way, K experiences several existential crises which have little if anything to do with the investigation. There’s his relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic girlfriend. Originally restricted to the hologram projector in his living room, K surprises Joi near the start of the film with a module that allows him to carry her with him wherever he goes, giving her a chance to see the world. Given this newfound freedom, Joi begins questioning her own reality. Does she really exist? Are her feelings her own or merely programmed by K? Considering a good 30 minutes are devoted to this superfluous subplot—at no time does she aid or hinder the search for the child—one can’t help but grumble that this very same idea was already addressed much more compassionately and thoroughly in Spike Jonze’s Her. (Although, in fairness, the scene where Joi hires a prostitute to “sync with” in order to physically make love with K is one of the best and most beautifully haunting in the whole film.)
And then there’s the issue of Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the replicant assistant/enforcer for Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind, messianic industrialist who bought out the Tyrell Corporation and designed the newest line of replicants. Convinced that replicants are the key for mankind to realize its full potential as intergalactic colonizers, Niander is desperate to discover the truth about the replicant child. So he orders Luv to follow K and either intercept the child or capture the human father. Luv is a fascinating character, at once proud of and repulsed by her own existence. One moment she can cavalierly murder dozens of junkyard scavengers via drone strike. In the next she bursts into tears while stabbing a woman face-to-face. What does she want? To be human? What is the replicant child to her? The promise of a better future for her kind? Yet all of these considerations are shoved aside by her role as the film’s primary provider of traditional action beats. Whenever the film starts to stew in its own contemplation for too long, one can expect Luv to show up to kill someone or blow something up.
Blade Runner 2049 is remarkable in its willingness to embrace the original film’s slow pacing and philosophical musings. But does it add up to more than just a succession of stunning images and thought experiments? It’s difficult to tell. The film is an experience, one that must be seen so it can be seen. But so much of the narrative is either poorly explained, poorly thought out, or completely abandoned. At one point K meets up with an underground of revolutionary replicants massing for an imminent strike against the humans. After that scene, they and their revolution disappear from the film. After two scenery-chewing scenes Niander is never mentioned again, K and Deckard apparently being content with letting this openly murderous, manic megalomaniac continue to pump out an army of slaves in peace. Considering the film’s monolithic runtime, these oversights are inexcusable.
Some might be hypnotized by Blade Runner 2049. Others might be bored stiff. My audience was a good mixture of both. About halfway through the film I looked around the theater and saw some people enraptured and others frustrated. A few had even nodded off. There’s probably a metaphor for something here. Maybe Villeneuve could elucidate it. He certainly did a thorough job of doing just that in this film, much to its benefit, much to its detriment.