“All the courage in the world cannot alter fact” . Wallace
Of all Ridley Scott’s creations, Blade Runner’s shine has perhaps remained strongest across the shroud of memory. It’s had multiple releases with countless edits, spurred controversy with its production, and benefited from a cult following strong enough for the neo-noir to catch the attention of even younger viewers. Blade Runner 2049 is it’s unexpected sequel, made thirty-five years ahead since the first and faces off against inevitable comparison and high expectations. Fortunately Blade Runner 2049 lives up to the soul and style of the original, and although there are disappointing flickers to its neon glow, most viewers will still appreciate its individual charm. For those new to this cornerstone of science fiction this film is kindly accessible, and holds all the emotional depth, complexity and style demanded from modern cinema.
K is a blade runner, a policeman whose single job is to hunt down and kill illegal replicants hiding on Earth. Replicants are artificially built human beings intended for slave labour, who are almost indistinguishable from real, naturally born people. K himself is a replicant and he understands that he exists only to serve as a tool by those who built him. But when he discovers a replicant woman had managed to give birth, it spurs both the question that maybe they’re more than just organic machines, as well as the fear of a replicant rebellion. Sent by the police with a kill order and shadowed by the Wallace Cooperation desperate to learn the secret of this miracle, K sets off to investigate the vanishing of the world’s first born replicant.
What gave the original an edge was its style. Based on the novel ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?”, Ridley Scott adapted the bones of the story to suit his own vision. Blade Runner 2049 has done well to mimic the grit and inhospitable image of the first film, and gone as far as extend it. The over crowding, the relentless rainy nights and the fluorescent adverts hung off towering city blocks are all still present, and given the full CGI makeover. But beyond that, K occasionally leaves the city too where we can see a little more of the world; the grey deserts of synthetic crops, the deep hazy orange of radiation in the abandoned metropolis and the heavy snowfall in the last scenes, all bring a new palette to the environment. While K might only see most of this from his car, the backdrops and long transition sequences are a sight to behold, bringing new flavour to the screen. Regrettably its daylight scenes, most notably at the waste dump and orphanage, are visually dull and tarnish the spectacle momentarily.
The sound too takes its lead from the original, striking out of speakers to shock and overwhelm. The sudden jump from quiet to booming does well to build the dread. In the scene where K is interviewed by the computer, the aggressive and frantic voice of the computer is not only imposing but its sharp subsequent quiet as K awaits the results is also threatening. The score aids in this too, and the film succeeds in its frightening moments, but there’s little wonder to it. Unlike the music written by Vangelis in the previous film which carried a psychedelic and dreamy feel to help illustrate the human interaction, the music by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch has far less objective beauty, and hardly adds to the film’s more emotional scenes.
While the first film hinted that Deckard might not have been human, Blade Runner 2049 wastes no time in condemning K as a replicant. While the first only implied the pain of the Nexus Six Roy being a slave, this film ventures at exploring deeper what it means to live as a replicant with K. This is portrayed not only by the way he’s treated but also in terms of his own self-worth; a point that every replicant in the film regardless of circumstance seems to experience. They all desire to be, as Joi in the film calls it, special. Knowing they are factory produced, as we see with unnerving clarity in Wallace’s complex, we are shown how they are not unique, sharing the same models of bodies, minds and even dreams. The film delivers this pain of lacking a distinguishable identity excellently, giving K’s dreams their weight and his relationship with Joi its tenderness. It also serves to direct K, played by Ryan Gosling, as the protagonist and his downtrodden air perfectly completes an impression of the abstract torture.
This need for individuality is what drives many of the characters, and more importantly helps viewers care for their plight and come to the same conclusions as K does. In the film’s climax, this is apparent in even the antagonist ‘Love’ who declares herself the best made model of replicant. Like K she has no sense of self, but if she’s the best tool, then this at the very least can make her special. As K is reminded in the police station that unlike real people, he has no soul, so he’ll have to find some way of finding one.
Additionally, the detail that grounds the plot is our understanding of reality or rather our potential doubt of it. While Deckard may or may not be human in the first film, Blade Runner 2049 asks if K is or is not who he thinks he is. But beyond the physical reality, the real and harder to answer question is with regards to emotion. The director Denis Villeneuve has portrayed the doubt behind real emotions perfectly with the love between K and Joi. Their relationship seems genuine despite her existence as a hologram, from the way they speak to each other, their presents or their anxiety for each other’s safety. Even Joi’s desperate declaration of love and the name she gives K to make him real, helps build a sense of intimacy.
So when Denis Villeneuve presents us with Joi as an advertisement, the dread is a defining point of the film. We see Joi in her factory settings, eager to please anyone who will buy her program, calling out to those who pass the same name she’d given K in their private moments. We know K and Joi aren’t human but what we can’t know is whether or not their love was real. Similarly as Wallace hints to Deckard’s relationship with Rachel, how can we be sure its love or cold, mathematical precision in software programming. Perhaps more readily terrible to feel, is that if there’s a formula to create love, then perhaps love is not as special as we would like to believe.
Slavery remains a key theme but in this film, replicants are painted as tools rather than people far more vividly. This feels ever more present when we see the birth of a new replicant opened up from a plastic bag and fresh from the factory. The prostitute too seems more an object after Joi uses her to impress K, and even the orphanage full of real born children handling junk under their taskmaster , shows them more as assets and income than as people. They are dehumanised, which compares greatly to the older statues and holograms of abandoned cities, which are not alive and yet remain as the ghost of the real thing that replicants mimic. The film’s melancholy flourishes under these images of long dead people, that seem to have more life than current, living replicants, and their ghosts exist as haunting reminders.
The film is not without flaw, with several moments that trip the story. The introduction of the replicant rebellion is sudden and feels strangely irrelevant while K lacks social interaction beyond Joi. K has no emotional attachment to other replicants, personally or even as a whole, which makes the concept of rebellion fall a little flat. The police are bizarrely ineffective at their own security and at adequately supporting K. Wallace and the replicant Love are forgettable antagonists without a hint of the charisma that Roy had in the original. The climax too is largely underwhelming, exchanging K’s journey for Deckard’s, and the problem with that is we don’t see enough of Deckard in the film for us to feel invested in him. None of this spoils the film but it does regrettably break the atmosphere and immersion.
Blade Runner 2049 presents us with a beautiful dystopia that any audience can find themselves drawn into. Although perhaps not as great as its predecessor, it still manages to live up to its spirit and tone without losing the fresh angle that makes it unique. Ryan Gosling gives a strong performance as the replicant torn between what and who he is, and the mystery is as gripping as the lack of concrete reality is terrifying. The film will satisfy fans and newcomers alike with only a few flaws that hold it back from being listed among the very great. It might mimic the style and tone of the first film, but what makes it special, is its search for a soul of its own.