“More human than human” was the incantation of Blade Runner, which appeared in 1982 to “mixed” reviews and mediocre box office, only to attain iconic sci-fi status. And if that film asked “What does it mean to be human?” its sequel asks “What does it mean to be a replicant? Can nonhumans create something more human than human?"
The highly anticipated and already much-celebrated Blade Runner 2049 shoots us thirty years forward into the original-story-future’s future, which doesn’t look that much different from the future’s past. This despite the Black Out, a terrorist-spun nuclear blast that, in the years between the films, wiped a lot of digital databases (paper seems to be the perennial safe bet—see Fail Safe) and produced an ecological disaster from which California is still recovering. Among the winners for post-apocalyptic survival is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), an “industrialist” (Hollywood-speak for Bond villain). He geo-bio-engineered enough fake food during the nuclear-fallout years that he emerged as a kind of savior, or at least the leper with the most fingers, not to mention the most replicants.
Yes, Wallace has followed in the Tyrell Corporation’s slave-robot-making business, only his newer iterations, while also possessing real-seeming memories, do not enjoy one key feature that at least some of Tyrell’s models had: the ability to reproduce.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to an LAPD Blade Runner named K (Ryan Gosling), whose job is to retire the extant Tyrell Corporation replicants. These old “skinjobs” are still deemed threats to public order. As they evolved to experience feelings, their slave-like status began to grate, as well as their four-year built-in lifespan. A rebellion thirty years earlier resulted in the mass slaughter of humans, creating terror in an already terrific world. As K hunts down a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he learns of a “miracle,” a strange word for such a mechanistic universe. Buried on Morton's farm are some old bones, which prove to be the remains of a long-deceased female replicant, who was either murdered by Morton or, mirabile dictu, died in childbirth. But how does a clone reproduce? And with what? A human, or another replicant? We know that clones could conceivably build other clones, given the right programming—but gestate one?
K (the Kafkaesque nome has got to be deliberate) is quickly commanded by his order-craving Herodian boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) to find the child of that deceased synethetic Eve and terminate it. Should the general public learn that these older replicants are able to reproduce, a universal panic would set in, and who wants to hear from the commissioner downtown? The ever-compliant K is nevertheless taken aback by his mission. A baby born “naturally” of a replicant would have to be something closer to human, no? He’s never had to kill something with a soul before, which for him, or for his programmers at least, is what separates non–skin jobs from their programmed creations. “You’ve done just fine without one,” Lt. Joshi consoles. So has she, apparently.
Lt. Joshi is not the only one interested in finding the wunderkind. Wallace laments his inability to produce a sufficient number of mechanical slave laborers to realize his dream of intergalactic imperial glory, and so must learn the secret of Tyrell Corp.’s self-reproducing models. (Tyrell’s records were destroyed in the Black Out, the purpose of the atmospheric blast in the first place.) Why, or better how, replicants can push out more babies the old-fashioned way than Wallace can manufacture them is never made clear. In any event, Wallace needs a sample offspring, and so he sics his deadly assistant “Luv” on K in the hopes that the robo-cop will lead her to the child. After a visit to the orphanage in which both he and the child grew up, not coincidentally set down in the middle of a horrific garbage dump, and a staggering discussion with Dr. Ana Stelline, who works for Wallace crafting fake memories for his replicants, K believes he knows the child’s identity. By the time he reports back to Joshi, however, he is so shaken by his discoveries that he is now deemed a threat even by the authorities for which he is working. Having temporarily shaken off Luv, K must now run from the LAPD too. Can't we all just get along? The detective as wanted man is a hoary but still effective genre trope, which at least provides fodder for the handful of genuine action sequences that give the languid pacing the rare jolt.
By the time the original Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), makes his appearance, bringing the two films full circle, almost two hours of screen time have passed. After listening to some audio of Deckard’s 2019 Voight-Kampff empathy test of a replicant named Rachael, K is convinced the old man holds the key to the child’s official backstory. We soon discover what happened to both Deckard and Rachael after the first Blade Runner faded to black, which entailed a lot of running from authorities and obfuscating of identities and watching of hologrammic reproductions of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and…Liberace. Together K and Deckard set out to redeem the past and save the future from the clutches of both the Wallaces of the world and the fascistic law-and-order types (are there any other in Hollywoodland?).
While 2049 is a long film (2 hours, 44 minutes officially), I was rarely bored, as director Denis Villeneuve is kind enough to deliver new visual information with some regularity. This is a story about discoveries, which take time, I get it, and there are enough false tracks enhanced by vague physical resemblances to keep you guessing at who is whom. The sets are startling (especially in IMAX), some matching the best work of a Ken Adam (Goldfinger, Dr. Strangelove). Master cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Dennis Gassner, and the art direction team are undoubtedly destined for the Oscar red carpet, although here, too, there is nothing exactly revolutionary. The geometries, colors, and perspectives are arresting, but no more so than were the original Blade Runner’s, and certainly not more original than those encountered in Kubrick’s 2001 or Clockwork Orange (of which there is a reflection in at least one scene in 2049).
As for the acting: Gosling needs to do more than merely sulk to remind us he’s there, as opposed to Ford, who doesn’t appear to be doing much, much of the time, yet manages to leave a larger-than-life impression. (Part of that effect is owing to his long career, and legacy, surely.) Jared Leto’s Wallace is blind because, I guess, the screenwriters thought that was profound. He speaks in a sententious monotone intended to convey high seriousness. This fails either to terrorize or to impress. In other words, his role could have been filled by any of two hundred actors. (They may as well have given it to Werner Herzog. Now that would have been a hoot.) If there is a breakout star, it is Ana de Armas, as K’s hologram lover and companion, a kind of Her who manages to incarnate by means of an “emulator,” which requires a real live girl (or at least in this case, a real live prostitute). The role women play here is "interesting," in the sense of the fabled Chinese curse. Most are easily disposed of, or copied over, or swapped out, like hard drives that have gone haywire or now carry too much bad data (memories). (See also mother!.) And while it may be tempting to see the miraculous replicant mother as a kind of Mary, or new Eve, and the child as an echo of the Incarnation, these allusions don’t amount to much. I’m sure some able Christian reviewer will draw neat connections, and perhaps even alude to the Eucharist as the lost interpretive key for determining what is “real.” But not I. If there are parallels, they are mere accidents, not essences.
Villeneuve is the hot director of the moment, coming off the success of the much overfeted Arrival, a tedious ET-contact film, with dull, poorly wrought characters but a good (and pro-life) M. Night Shyamalan ending that at least enabled you to believe the time and money spent were not totally wasted. 2049 will no doubt keep his professional momentum moving in the Spielbergian direction, with talk already of his directing a Bond or a Star Wars film, I believe. And while Villeneuve gets an A for mise en scène (fancy cinema-studies word alert), he still has a bit to learn about storytelling (not to mention pacing). And if one were to try and pinpoint an identifiable something missing from the heart of the script, it is a character comparable to Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in the ’82 original. While Armas’s “Joi” is quite possibly the most sympathetic mirage in film history, her character lacks a sense of narrative urgency or, dare I type it, the “gravitas” to produce the twinge of tragic woe that Batty’s story arc managed to evoke.
Strangely, if I were to compare this film to another, it would not be to its progenitor but rather to Roman Polanski’s 1974 flick Chinatown. There a gumshoe played by Jack Nicholson is set on the trail of a mystery that opens onto one so unexpected that it leaves him with not only a hole in his nose but one in his heart, not to mention another kind of “miracle child,” all set in a world where natural resources are hogged by rich interests.
There is much to admire about 2049, including its ambition, and I do wonder if over time, with repeated viewings, those admirable qualities will increase in number (as was the case with the first Blade Runner). Yet I never felt I was being exposed to a richer, more captivating, or more intriguing world than was introduced in 1982. 2049 is not so much an expansion of the original, or explication of it, as a kind of Ted Turnerish colorization. It’s fresher, that’s for sure.
With fears of robots replacing human workers, and the tyranny, even the divinity, of AI looming, you could say that 2049 is a film of the moment. (And it may prove a very brief moment.) More questions are asked than the filmmakers dare try to answer. For example, What makes a memory real, since we all misremember, interpret, and embellish? Does something human-like have a right to life? Do humans in 2049? In 2017? Should you set out to play God if you don’t have a game plan to deal with the Fall? And why does Hollywood hate Sean Young? Etc. And of course, anyone who thinks there ever could be a cinematic answer to what constitutes “reality” needs to read more Nabokov (whose über-meta Pale Fire is blink-and-you-missed-it in the film). Even as the identity of the child is finally revealed, we don’t learn anything of philosophical, or for that matter technological, consequence. It merely brings our, and Deckard’s, story to a close. As for the mystery everyone wanted solved once and for all—Is Deckard a replicant himself?—that seems to have been answered by Ridley Scott several years ago. If we do receive confirmation one way or another in 2049, it still doesn’t answer another riddle: Whose memories does Deckard remember as his own? And do they link him to K?
“I know what’s real,” Deckard says, defensively. So do I. It is the inevitable, inexorable, inexhaustible need for cheap labor.
Now that's something worth exploring before 2049. Or its sequel.
Note to filmmakers: Consider projecting your futuristic stories further into the future. There has been an overly optimistic view of how long it will take to obtain flying cars and interplanetary travel. It's 2017, a mere two years before the first Blade Runner is supposed to have taken place, and we still can't manage decent, cheap Wi-Fi.
 The original essay used the terms replicants and robots interchangeably, which is technically not correct. Thanks to @swgoldman for pointing this out.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of ISI Books and Modern Age.