A Guide To The Conversations You’ll Have After Seeing ‘Blade Runner 2049’
Blade Runner 2049 was released last week on a wave of hype and nostalgia. Clocking in at two hours and 43 minutes (!!!), the film is a beautiful mix of science fiction and romance that stands up well to a beloved classic. But it might also leave you with some questions.
What will it mean for the state of modern blockbusters? Why is no one seeing it? Are humans defined by their biology, their souls, their actions or something in-between and, further to that point, how do we reckon with this in a near-future capitalist wasteland where the definition of ‘human’ is disintegrating at the same speed as the arid Earth. Let’s get into it!
Here, Hari Raj outlines seven things you’ll almost definitely talk about after seeing the film. Heavy spoiler warning ahead.
It’s So Beautiful… But Still Flawed
You should see Blade Runner 2049 on the biggest screen possible. Every shot is gorgeous and perfectly calibrated and also somehow organic — the replicant analogue of a Wes Anderson film. It’s a $150 million blockbuster that burns bright and slow, one that spreads out and twists and folds in on itself with the lovely, languid inevitability of a drop of milk in a cup of tea.
The score is loud and luxuriant too; you could bathe in it, slip beneath the surface and let it envelop your senses. The cinematography will earn Roger Deakins yet another Oscar nomination, and Denis Villeneuve’s direction is just as assured and deliberate. His take on this vision of the future is almost as smart and as soulful as last year’s magnificent Arrival.
But Blade Runner 2049 isn’t without its frustrations. Where the bare-bones plot of its predecessor conjured a haunting ambiguity, here there are threads deliberately kept loose for a sequel — a particularly modern affliction. The film meanders, enthrallingly, for almost three hours, then rushes to a conclusion.
The central mystery is so indicative of the film’s flaws: a huge question, with far-reaching implications, asked and answered in a way that makes this bleak, beautiful universe a little smaller than before.
Are We In The Future?
We’re only two years away from 2019, when the original Blade Runner assured us humanity would move off-world, accessorise with corporate logos, and continue to treat the most expendable members of the workforce with deadly prejudice. Two out of three isn’t bad, as far as predictions go.
Watching the sequel is a bit like watching the unfairly maligned John Carter — a film that had the ideas of its core text strip-mined for a century, to the point that the original carried the whiff of something trite. Blade Runner’s impact was so immense that its influence has metastasised into fetish. In 1982, the future looked like nothing we’d seen before. In 2017, the future of the future can’t help but look familiar; there’s a scene in which the fashion of a 1982-vintage character (shoulder pads for days) somehow seems like the most cutting-edge piece of design on screen.
“There’s never been a better looking post-apocalyptic film.” https://t.co/UDQrPyvXx2
— NYT Fashion (@NYTFashion) October 8, 2017
Gosling v Ford
The film does two very smart, very sensible things with its lead characters. First, the film very quickly establishes K, the character played by Ryan Gosling (who is great in this, weary and sensitive and energised by impossible hope) as a replicant. Second, Harrison Ford (who is great in this, weary and sensitive and devoid of hope) plays Rick Deckard, and the decades-old question of whether he’s a replicant is teased a little, but never answered.
It doesn’t matter, of course. What matters is how he feels. What matters is who each of them cares for, and how each of them prevents absence from festering into an abscess by filling the holes in their souls with love.
Yes, It’s Clever
Joi is K’s soul. Blade Runner 2049 makes a point of noting that replicants are born without one; that this metaphysical deficiency is what ultimately prevents them from being human. The film then gives us a sweet, aching love story between two different brands of artificial intelligence. Replicants have emotions, and holograms have a heart.
As Joi, Ana de Armas is an absolute revelation. She’s clear-eyed and generous in her feelings for K, but she’s also indiscriminately affectionate in the oft-repeated advertisements that identify her a product marketed to the lonely.
K knows she’s as manufactured as he is, and that knowledge results in a feedback loop he can’t reconcile: if their relationship is a corollary of her programming, does it truly exist? How can he love her freely when he isn’t sure how much of what either of them feels is free will? Joi never falters and never doubts, going so far as to sacrifice exclusivity for intimacy in one of the film’s most astonishing scenes, and her unbreakable commitment almost breaks K’s heart.
It’s a paradox as excruciating as it is exquisite, and that powers the entire film.
K is questioning the building blocks of his reality, finally understanding that the caste system forcing him to hunt and kill other slaves is worth rebelling against, and all the while he’s fallen for someone created and sold with the express purpose of servility to him. It’s a paradox as excruciating as it is exquisite, and that powers the entire film.
The economy and society of Blade Runner 2049 are built on institutionalised layers of inequality. Humans punch downward at the replicants built to work and fight and die for them. Replicants — as we see Mariette (Mackenzie Davis, channelling Daryl Hannah to great effect) do to Joi — take aim at holographic AIs, the lowest rung on the ladder of consciousness.
It’s a searing, subtle examination of the way the oppressed — desperate for any form of relevance or power or control — inflict violence on other marginalised people. Legitimising yourself by delegitimising others is much easier than removing or reforming the systems that entrench and weaponise prejudice.
If Blade Runner is about what makes us human, Blade Runner 2049 is about what makes us alive. The Voight-Kampff test determines whether or not someone is a replicant; the way the characters treat a replicant, or an AI, determines their humanity.
Great! But this would work so much better — in a film so very aware that the word “robot” is inextricably intertwined with the concept of forced labour, and so very keen to examine the intricacies of emancipation — if the cast weren’t so overwhelmingly white.
In the capitalist wasteland of 2049, the evil plan concocted by replicant manufacturing tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, turning his creepiness into something sharp and serrated) is to seize the means of production by literally seizing the means of (re)production. Making replicants himself is too slow; he wants to create a disposable workforce that can breed, exponentially increasing the rate it can be used and discarded.
It’s a very clever, very painful take on the way women’s rights over their own bodies are legislated by men.
Unfortunately, it’s also a very male-oriented take. Blade Runner 2049 is a film with some great roles for women, roles that are fleshed out enough that it almost doesn’t matter how so many of them are defined by or in the orbit of the men in the cast. But the women are also viewed with a veneer of objectification — right down to the colossally unsubtle erotica in the Vegas desert — that seems to mirror the real world rather than critiquing it.
It’s also a film with a very high body count, brutal and unforgiving in its violence, and it’s uncomfortable seeing the oddly cruel ways in which many of the women are dispatched. Men die too, yes, but it’s not handled the same way. Maybe that’s the point, but it’s not really a point that needs to be made; Blade Runner 2049’s commentary on social strata works a hell of a lot better than anything it has to say about gender dynamics.
“The Chosen One” Trope
Blade Runner 2049 delivers one of the all-time great fuck-yous to Campbellian chosen-one claptrap: K, emerging from the trials of a vision quest with the hard-won knowledge that he is special, is quietly and gently told that he is not.
He’s lost all he cares about, he’s replaced his reason for existence with a false hope, yet he accepts the truth without self-pity or rage. What comes next is a riff on the power of potential that made up such an important part of Villeneuve/Ted Chiang’s Arrival. K realises that the shackles of destiny are no less a chain than the servitude he was created to fulfil, that he is in command of his own future, and he has to make a choice. It’s perhaps the first real one he’s made in his entire life.
Of course he thought he was special, though. He’s only human.
Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now.
Hari Raj has worked as a journalist and editor in Malaysia, China, and Australia. He tweets about pop-culture ephemera at @jarirah.