The sequel to 1982’s cult sci-fi hit Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford arrives, backed by the tremendous talents of director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and actors Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, and Sylvia Hoeks. Set thirty years after the events of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 follows Officer K (Gosling), a newer model of replicant tasked with hunting down older models, as he unravels a potentially world-altering mystery about himself, society, and humanity.
For nearly three hours of glorious screen time, the visual and philosophical world of 2049 is unveiled through the astounding work of Deakins presenting a neon-noir dystopia swathed in dust, precipitation, and dramatic shadows. Breathtaking shots painted in glowing colours, blended holograms made with stunning CG effects, and expansive darknesses cut with slivers of light make this film one of the most beautiful sci-fi spectacles to ever grace the silver screen. Japanese anime influences, which are in constant stylistic exchange with American cinema, also are apparent in the elegant work, clothes, and abode of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind creator of the newer, more obedient replicants with delusions of grandeur.
Also turning in some of his all-time best work, Gosling excels as the stoic but compelling K. His affectless police officer façade at the beginning of the movie slowly chips away as he is confronted with questions about his origins and memories. K’s detachment from everything and everyone—except for his AI hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas)—is changed by the possibility that he is not merely a created replicant, starting life as a bioengineered, perfectly servile adult worker, but may have been born from one. 2049 upgrades the visual shorthand of planted memories from the first film from an ephemeral, origami horse to a carved, wooden one that prompts K to believe that he was once a real child. His identity as a replicant is shaken and his search for answers leads him to Deckard (Ford), but other forces also come closing in, namely a replicant named Luv (Hoeks) who works for Wallace.
Other subtle upgrades and references are made to the original Blade Runner. Los Angeles is still overrun with massive billboards and ads for companies like Sony and Atari. The Voight-Kampff machine is still being used to determine whether or not someone is a replicant, although the testing process has become far more perfunctory and jarring (“INTERLINK”). The biggest connection is, of course, Deckard (Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young). Audio clips from their first meeting in the original film are used as clues for K’s investigation, and Young’s likeness, untouched by time, is presented to Deckard, presently wizened and weary, to tempt him to give up information.
The potent motif of water, particularly rain, is used effectively to illustrate the yearning for humanity that many of the sentient non-humans in both movies share. As a hologram, Joi is technically unable to feel the rain on her skin but is ecstatic when she is allowed to leave her physical trappings and step out onto the balcony when K buys her a mobile emulator. Her humanity and free will is a constant doubt in K’s mind, even though they have fallen in love with each other. In a scene that echoes one in the Spike Jonze movie Her, Joi finds a surrogate pleasure replicant named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) so that she and K can consummate their relationship in a surreal love scene. Later, when K has to flee, Joi begs him to download her memories onto the emulator and erase her from the larger system in his apartment. It puts Joi in a precarious position as the emulator becomes her only home and thus she is far more easily destroyed. Joi’s programmed loving service and protection feels very real and her unique memories and interactions with K do point to a humanity that viewers can understand too. After all, are we not also made up of our unique memories and relationships and also housed in a perishable form?
Returning to the water motif, it appears that it is a double-edged sword. As in the real world, water can give life but also kill (Luv is drowned in the end). For Joi, the ability to “feel” rain was a blessing, but in one of K’s darkest moments, destabilised by a realization somewhere in the middle of the film, snow begins to fall on him like a cold curse. However, at the very end, snow changes meaning as K lies down on the stairs and experiences a deeply personal and peaceful moment beneath a delicate snowfall, having fought (and died?) for something he believed in, fading away almost like “tears in rain”. (This scene also unintentionally or intentionally references the ending of Drive as Gosling also lay still with his eyes open, baiting the audience with the question of whether or not it was truly the end for his character.)
As incredible and masterfully crafted as 2049 is, surpassing all of my expectations at least in terms of visuals and plot, the depiction of female characters and women’s bodies are problematic. Many images of anonymous female bodies are on display, usually naked, selling a product or being placed under inspection. They are often treated as disposable flesh, useful only if they can reproduce or seduce, and critical female supporting characters (Joi, Mariette, and Stelline) are often dehumanized by their status (AI, replicant, or girl in a bubble). Lt. Joshi (Wright), K’s boss at the LAPD, and Luv do transcend those limits as freer agents with more power (although they still work to serve something or someone more powerful) but their characters are not very fleshed out as they are mainly seen through their relationship to K. However, finding out that K was not the “chosen one” but that it was in fact a minor character named Stelline (Carla Juri) was an interesting plot choice.
There is much more to consider in Blade Runner 2049 and fans and critics are sure to enjoy slowly picking apart the philosophic questions, symbolism, references, and ties to the source material (especially the endless debate about whether or not Deckard is a replicant). By continuing to expand on themes set in the first movie—namely those of truth, memory, humanity, and love—while still delivering an entertaining and satisfying story, Villeneuve again proves to be one of the most assured, meticulous, and simply best directors working today.
Ratings (out of 5):
Overall Average: 4.6