On Blade Runner 2049
I cannot write about this movie. There’s no way I can explain to you, the reader, how I feel about it. I can explain the plot (which I won’t do), and I can talk about how faithful it was to the 1982 prequel, and I can talk about the “quirks” of the almost 3-hour film, but there is absolutely no way I can provide the most important part of the film in words: the atmosphere.
Without spoilers, 2049 takes place 20 years after Blade Runner, and while word on the street is that you need not have seen the 1982 original, the narrative is far more coherent if you have since a good chunk of the plot focuses on the fate of Deckard and Rachel and the consequences of their flight. 2049 is still primarily concerned with replicants, the genetically engineered labor force pioneered by the Tyrell Corporation and later adopted by the Wallace Corporation. After off-screen events that saw an even greater animosity aimed at replicants, Wallace convinced the population that his Nexus 8 line would solve the problems of Tyrell’s Nexus 6, but the undercurrent of distrust still remains — hence the continued need for the “blade runners”, special law enforcement branch that is tasked with “retiring” replicants who act up. Ryan Gossling plays “K”, a blade runner and himself a replicant who is only respected — not necessarily liked — by his superior officer.
The story is important and hasn’t been given away in any of the marketing materials, but at the end of the day, the plot felt less important the more one considers it. The original Blade Runner was all about the nature of being human. In 2049 they attempt to up that ante by making the question of the nature of humanity far more overt by throwing out questions about the “soul”, Biblical references, and more subtle cues that can be read about here (with spoilers). When the ramifications of Deckard and Rachel’s flight are made apparent early on in the film, it’s meant to be the focal point for the audience as much as it is for the characters within the film, but in writing this post, I think there’s a more important message beyond “what is human”?
The atmosphere of the Blade Runner movies is what I call “classic cyberpunk” (as opposed to the “nouveau cyberpunk” that tries to cut the dystopia with something more palatable, like Shadowrun‘s inclusion of high-fantasy). In these settings, humanity has worked itself into a species and civilization dead-end. Corporations rule from afar simply by convincing the population that they can’t live without their products. The pursuit of shareholder equity leads to the exploitation of natural resources to keep up with the manufacturing demand necessary to supply an increasing population first with creature comforts and later — when resources begin to dwindle — with basic necessities. Overpopulation causes growth both up and out: massive blocks of semi-highrises sprawling well beyond current urban borders offering the bare minimum of living space. There are fewer national borders as people move around the world towards inflection points of greater opportunity, which is an act that only serves to overburden systems that are already struggling to keep up. In between all of this, technology slides in not just as something to take minds off the oppressive situations of daily life, but as a last-ditch effort to give a dying species some last measure of solace as they decay alongside the world around them.
This is where the deeper message came from. In the Blade Runner films, replicants were designed as slaves we could feel good about. They weren’t considered human and could be tailored to the jobs that needed doing both on Earth and in the off-world colonies. The question the first movie asked was whether or not the experiences and memories served as the basis for emotions, and whether the ability to feel those emotions made replicants more human — or more human than human. 2049 takes that a step further, and that forms the crux of the actual plot of the movie (which I can’t explain for obvious reasons), along with questions about free will and the relationship between creator and created.
Still, what I came away with this morning after some reflection isn’t that these movies are about “what is human”, but rather “what does being human mean”? In the Blade Runner universe, humanity has brought Earth to the brink of destruction through wars and exploitation, stripping it bare to feed the corporate engines of consumerism — a fear that was much greater in 1982 when it was a possible future that’s no less scary in 2017 when it’s our actual present. Humanity has created colonies on other planets — 9, according to Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace — but it’s not enough for him. He believes that humanity should expand throughout the universe on the backs of replicant labor, and his all-consuming quest is to find a way to increase replicant production in order to realize that goal. He envisions trillions of replicants, which is what should demand a pause: wouldn’t that equal or even exceed the number of actual humans? And if subserviant replicants achieve superior numbers over their human masters, what could that mean for natural humans?
Blade Runner and 2049 movies prefer replicants to humans. Humans have destroyed Earth, which is obvious in every single establishing shot in both movies. In 2049 we see K flying back to Los Angeles: a continuous plateau of low-rise apartments cut with narrow thoroughfares that lead to the central district of corporate high-rise buildings. Those who inhabit these skyscrapers are the only ones who can see the sky, although there’s not much to see as the constant haze of acid rain clouds is everpresent. There is no good reason to live in Los Angeles, yet millions apparently do and are content to continue to live their lives in the neon canyons of the buildings that have been built up around them. This is humanity’s legacy. It’s what humanity has done to and for itself. Replicants, however, are genetically superior to humans. They are newborns in the epochal scale. Although they are initially used only as disposable resources — mirroring the general philosophy of practically everything in the Blade Runner universe — they express that “more human than human” tendency to position themselves as the inheritors of the humanity that actual humans put aside in their desire to exploit and expand.
We could call these movies “cautionary tales” of the consequence of human greed, but that’s doing these films a grave disservice. These movies are meant to be experienced, not just watched and absorbed and dissected for the first low-hanging-fruit moral that we can extract. Both Blade Runner movies are art house films, and while that sounds pretentious I believe it to be true. Each scene is relevant both to the plot and to maintaining a cohesion of cyberpunk oppression so that we never feel like there’s going to be salvation for anyone at the end of the line. The replicants have the best chance of extracting themselves from the decline of Earth, but humanity has already proven that its decisions and values make them unworthy of being saved. It’s a sad realization as a human who can’t transcend to become a replicant and adds to the layer of inevitable dread that these movies provide.
I both can and cannot recommend Blade Runner 2049. If you liked the first one, you will love this one. If you hated the first, you will despise the second. If you cannot sit for three hours filled with scenes of silence, long establishing camera angles, and (after having read this far) whiffs of director Denis Villeneuve’s French-level pretentiousness, you will be miserable. 2049 has a lot going for it, though, if you are open to it. It’s a beautiful movie even when it’s presenting the direst predictions. Although it’s difficult to consider how no dialog makes a performance, everyone involved on-screen did a fantastic job (even traditionally manic Jared Leto). Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a message movie or a blockbuster movie, but it is a thinking movie and more importantly, a feeling movie that affects the audience at various emotional levels when we open ourselves to it.