– J.W. Fox –
WARNING!!! SPOILERS FOLLOW
Movie-goers were long overdue for some heavy, heady science fiction. We got it in Blade Runner 2049. The absolutely stunning, epic sequel to the cult classic expands upon the compelling themes of the original, stays true to its aesthetic appeal, and gives us plenty to think about over 2 hours and 45 minutes. It may not appeal as much to general audience and fair weather sci-fi fans, but it is a unique and rewarding experience for the hardcore fans.
Ryan Gosling plays “K”, a replicant blade runner hunting down the remaining Tyrell Nexus models that are still at large. A routine case takes an extraordinary turn when he discovers a replicant may have given birth. Something that was thought to be impossible. Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is terrified of what it could mean and sends K to hunt down and retire the child. Replicant manufacturer and corporate tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) wants to learn the secrets of replicant reproduction to help increase his production capacity. The race is on to find the miraculous replicant child.
Stunning Vision Honors the Original
Blade Runner was a groundbreaking film in a number of ways but the one way that has withstood the test of time is its cold, sterile cyberpunk aesthetic. The Los Angeles of the future looks cold, dark, rainy, and lonely. You are bombarded with massive holographic advertising, all pitching products form mega corporations like Atari and Coca-Cola. People live in tiny apartments that all look cookie- cutter, assembly line style domiciles lacking in warmth and character. It is urban living taken to extreme as seen in some modern cities like Tokyo or Rio de Janiero.
The urban sprawl, overpopulation, tech-dominated life styles, and inequality are distinctive qualities of cyberpunk. Blade Runner was the first to deliver such a vision. The sequel builds on top of it, utilizing modern CGI to show a little more of the cyberpunk future. We see the dump sites outside of L.A. proper and the massive sea wall protecting the city from the rising sea levels. It snows in southern California and Las Vegas is a sandy orange dead zone after a dirty bomb detonation. The only light is artificial light coming from buildings and hologram ads. There are no trees, other than a single dead one at the beginning of the movie.
There is no green unless you count the neon green on holographic ads. Nature is dead. Only dark monoliths and genetically modified food remains.
Then there’s the music. It feels a lot like the soundtrack of the original and gives off a very desolate, creepy vibe. Perfectly sets the tone for the movie.
What it Means to be Human
Blade Runner and its source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, challenged us with the question of what it means to be human. The Tyrell Corporation built replicants so realistic that most humans were unable to tell them from real humans. A sophisticated test had to be developed to prove someone was a replicant. The artificial beings struggled with demonstrating appropriate emotional responses to provocative questions.
Blade Runner 2049 takes place after several replicant rebellions. For a period, replicant manufacture was banned until a new mega corporation rose from Tyrell’s ashes. They have developed superior replicant models that are totally obedient, along with newly devised tests that can detect potential problems before a replicant goes AWOL.
In this movie, the threat from the replicants is far more terrifying than violent rebellion. What if a replicant could become pregnant and give birth? The power to reproduce is a fundamental feature of life. As Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright’s character) explains, it potentially destroys the metaphorical wall between human and replicant. Without that wall, society would collapse.
If they look like us, bleed like us, feel emotions like us, and can now give birth like us, is there really any difference? If we cannot tell, does it matter anymore?
Niander Wallace and his Slave Race
Niander Wallace is a creepy, megalomaniacal tycoon played by the talented Jared Leto. His ghostly eyes, soft voice, and profound pronouncements place him a cut above the forgettable Dr. Tyrell (played by Joe Turkel). Watching him greet one of his new models and his exchange with Deckard was chilling. Wallace cannot make enough replicants to supply the new colonies with the slave labor they need. The solution is to give them the ability to reproduce, diminishing the need to mass produce them.
The ability to reproduce moves replicants one step closer to the human slaves of centuries past. The children of slaves were born into bondage, dooming generations. The analogy does not bother Wallace at all. Instead, he sees replicant reproduction as the way of humanity’s future: a self-perpetuating labor force.
The rebel replicants see the capacity to reproduce from the exact opposite perspective. They see it as a symbol of their sentience and essential to their claim to freedom. Unfortunately, the movie sets up the premise that the new generation replicants are totally obedient, thanks to new programming. Once again, a programming failure leads to violent uprising of machines. This is one of the few weaknesses of the movie and, thankfully, is not the central conflict of the film.
The question at the end as whether replicant reproduction would bring violent revolution or provide a stable, ethically acceptable source of labor for the human race. Are they truly conscious, self-aware beings? Do they have souls? Should we be bothered by their programmed enslavement?
Joi and the Girlfriend Experience
The AI hologram Joi (played by Ana de Armas) was a fascinating feature of the movie. She begins as an impressive but limited holographic girlfriend for K. He treats her like a real woman, although they cannot really touch one another. As the movie progresses we see that her programming is sophisticated as she demonstrates moral and empathetic dimensions equal to any other “real” character in the film.
Her hiring of a replicant prostitute to act as a surrogate was an incredibly thought provoking scene. In it, she syncs her movements with the replicant body so that she may touch K. She wants more from her relationship, desperate to get closer to K.
Recent developments in robotics and AI have produced some very early prototypes of AI companions. The movie Her, explored the potential relationship between a man and an intelligent operating system of a phone. There has also been a profound cultural shift in the western world away from the traditional life goals of love, marriage and family. In some countries, men have openly sworn not to marry or father children, preferring the independence and simplicity of solitary life.
The shift makes it possible for someone to have an artificial companion rather than a real one.
K mourns the loss of Joi when Luv, Wallace’s henchwoman, destroys her. Note that “love destroys joy.” It isn’t clear what the name play was supposed to convey or if it was intentional. At the very least, Joi’s developers chose the name as part of a marketing strategy. In a devastating scene, K observes a building-size holographic advertisement for the Joi program. The holographic ad calls him “Joe” the same pet name Joi gave him earlier in the film. K’s feelings to her are cheapened, knowing that her responses to him were preprogrammed and probably focus-group tested.
Deckard and Rachael
At first, it was a little troubling to learn of the birth replicant’s parentage. It was a little too convenient. Yet, Rachael’s importance to Dr. Tyrell in the first movie does suggest that could have been the reason she was so special to him, aside from her emotional responses to the test. He never mentions it in the first movie, but later Wallace does suggest that Dr. Tyrell introduced Deckard to her intentionally because of their compatibility.
Quite a leap, one that doesn’t have much to back it up.
It felt a little too clean for two important characters from the original to provide the revolutionary basis for the sequel thirty years later. Combine that with the ongoing question of who the replicant baby is, and you get something that could have been a major suspension of disbelief issue. Thankfully, the writers did not go in that direction. Harrison Ford is strong in his first few scenes but seems to fade. Edward James Olmos was nothing more than fan service as was the Rachael lookalike. The movie also shows you the remains of Tyrell’s pyramid shaped corporate headquarters.
Most of it was pretty cool and did not feel like shameless fan service. A nice mix of old and new.
Blade Runner 2049 is slow and long compared to the other sci-fi movies of the past couple years. The visuals are cold, sterile, and depressing. These elements are what appealed to fans of the cult classic but will probably turn others away. At the same time, the film is far more complex and thought-provoking than any other this year. It isn’t for everyone, but for those who loved the original, 2049 delivers in a big way. Go see it.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.