FreakSugar contributor Tim Avers gives his review of and thoughts on Blade Runner 2049.
Mining science fiction savant writer Philip K. Dick is a current preoccupation of Hollywood. In addition to a sequel to 1983’s Blade Runner, we also have Electric Dreams coming from Amazon.
The theatrical cut of Blade Runner did what it could to stitch up much of the ambiguity Ridley Scott would add back through the several later cuts of the film, most notable the Director’s Cut from the ’90s and the much-lauded Final Cut, which has since become the definitive version for most fans. Much of this stitching was done to make more plain Philip K. Dickean elements the studio either thought were too odd or inject weird moments of linkage back to the science fiction writer’s work.
All of this is important because Blade Runner 2049 again attempts to embrace some of Philip K. Dick’s themes of identity and what it means to be human. It also plays with the notions of determinism and the relevance of the soul but lingers a bit too long on dramatic visuals and oppressive OST for its own good.
Blade Runner 2049 follows Officer K (played by the at-large deadpan actor Ryan Gosling), a blade runner in the Los Angeles Police Department who, like his predecessor Rick Deckard, is tasked with “retiring” rogue replicants. In the world of 2049, the Tyrell Corporation, which more or less perfected replicant technology, is gone after a brief, total ban on the product. It’s been replaced by an even larger mega corp, Wallace, headed by the blind sociopathic mastermind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Wallace saved the world from starvation and for this he was allowed to revivify replicants with a new, allegedly completely compliant generation.
Let’s say a little something about replicants here. In Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” Rick Deckard tracked down rogue androids. Despite apparently having compatible sex organs for pleasure, these robots have literal heads full of gears. This isn’t true of the replicants in Ridley Scott’s original film or its sequel. Replicants are genetically designed to be nearly human in all respects. And when we say nearly human we are sometimes talking about the old Tyrell motto: “More Human Than Human.” Under Wallace’s corporate regime, replicants are no longer restricted to the off-world colonies where they still do humanity’s literal heavy lifting and wage its territorial conflicts. They also serve humans on this planet. How many of Earth’s residents are replicants is unknown but from the start it’s revealed our protagonist, Officer K, is a compliant replicant whose job it is to track down the last generation of Tyrell androids, the Nexus 8. K proclaims this with restrained pride although it’s obviously a lie. In an early scene K is subjected to a “baseline test” that has replaced the Voight-Kampff test made famous by the original Blade Runner. The baseline exam is designed to ensure replicants are obedient and haven’t formed erratic, human emotional attachments. In his first test the administrator, who is hidden behind scanning mechanisms, praises the LAPD blade runner by calling him “constant K.”
But since these tests exist it’s clear that Officer K is really not much more than a renegade slave catcher, an element not played up effectively in the narrative but that is obvious by his low social status outside his professional role. He lives in a tiny apartment in an overcrowded high-rise where his only happiness is his relationship with his holographic companion Joi (a perfectly cast role for Ana de Armas). However, his professional life isn’t simply to track down old Tyrell robots but any Wallace model that becomes noncompliant, and that’s very important although not clearly stated in the film.
K is sent to retrieve or retire Sapper Morton, an old-school Nexus 8 played to gorgeous perfection by Dave Bautista (WWE, Guardians of the Galaxy). In the process he intuits the importance of a preserved, ornamental tree beneath which lies a military crate that on later examination contain the bones of Rachel, Rick Deckard’s replicant paramour from the original Blade Runner. Rachel’s bones have been preserved in a pseudo-religious fashion and are discovered to contain evidence of a C-section. Unfortunately K and his commanding officer, Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi (most often called simply “Madame”), are a little too free with this information which is apparently communicated back to Niander Wallace by another officer present at the time.
If this is news to Wallace he’s not very emotive about it. While reviewing a newly-“born” replicant, he casually bemoans Tyrell’s triumph of creating replicants that could reproduce sexually and in a rare moment of flared temper criticizes himself for adding to mankind’s dominion only nine planets. Wallace’s vision for potential replicant progeny is nothing short of slavery and he stops just shy of a supervillain cackle when he makes he clear he must have the apparent offspring of Deckard and Rachel.
You must give the intrepid Officer K some credit: he does actual detective work. Sure, it’s his job, but Blade Runner 2049 features more research and investigation than the average whodunnit. Lt. Joshi’s order is clear. K is to destroy any evidence of an unnatural replicant birth and ultimately destroy the child as well if it’s still alive – to preserve social order. Driven forward by a memory he is beginning to doubt is artificial, he investigates the archive at Wallace and related connections, genetic birth records, and a remote dystopian orphanage. Every clue pushes him further toward a hypothesis that he is the child – that Rachel is his mother. His virtual girlfriend does her best to comfort him and celebrate this revelation. She also tries to share with him some small fraction of the happiness he has given her with a sensory upgrade that allows her to feel his touch. Joi brings into their home a working girl named Mariette (Black Mirror‘s inspired Mackenzie Davis), not knowing that she is a part of a larger plan.
The criticism we’ve already started to see that Blade Runner 2049 is misogynistic is interesting but misguided since very few of its female characters are human, and perhaps that’s how the criticism gets off track. It fails to understand that the movie isn’t dehumanizing women but humanizing robots and holograms that look like women. That is perhaps nowhere more relevant than in the importance of Rachel and the near irrelevance of Deckard, which is probably the film’s best twist. 2049 says something really interesting – that there is an underestimated power not just in being female but in femininity. Viewed more broadly this is a transgender-positive theme that has yet to be much discussed.
The third act of Blade Runner 2049 is a rollercoaster so let’s leave that to be enjoyed on its own. Harrison Ford, of course, reprises his role as “retired” blade runner Rick Deckard and the eternal question of his nature is explored. With knowledge of the fact that Ford accidentally struck Ryan Gosling during filming of their fight scene it becomes even more delightful and Ford gets to deliver one or two of the movie’s most profound lines of dialogue. Dialogue is, surprisingly, one of the most interesting aspects of 2049: it’s nearly wholly natural in context, except perhaps for Wallace’s megalomania.
Blade Runner 2049 will probably be viewed in a better light over time much like its predecessor and it says good things for director Denis Villeneuve. We can hope his version of Dune will be the triumph the source material deserves. And we can dream he and Dave Bautista get their hands on Alfred Bester’s allegedly unfilmable The Stars My Destination.