How does one make a film to follow up a work recognized as a classic not only in the genre, but in the nascent medium itself?
Denis Villeneuve's answer is Blade Runner: 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, itself inspired by a Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. All of these works posit essentially the same scenario: humanity now lives in a world where it can create such convincing facsimiles of itself that distinguishing between the genuine article and the artificial being has become no easy task. In the cinematic works, this task is left to the titular Blade Runners, a police unit that is trained to identify Replicants (the name for the androids in the series) and hunt down rogue individuals to maintain societal order.
Just on this premise alone, one can ask some important questions about how this work interprets the future of humanity. In what is ostensibly still a class-based capitalist society; evidenced by the spectacular shots of the setting that contrasts the mega-corporations and their lavish, warmly-lit interiors against the undergrowth on the streets, cold neon signs piercing through the dark; what is the role of these Replicants in society?
Through the sparse exposition of the first film, glimpses into the lives of the androids reveal base purposes. They are foot soldiers in wars fought solely by their own kind for larger political entities, they are laborers made to do menial tasks, they are sex slaves meant to “comfort” humans and androids alike; they are, in essence, the new underclass of this dystopian reality, beings manufactured to be exploited, to do the things humans no longer want to do.
And thus, the crux of the conflict. If Replicants are nearly indistinguishable from humans except for the nature of their creation, should they be subjected to this life of servitude that “real” people no longer accept? In the original film, this problem was an existential one, with the Replicant antagonists searching for a meaning to their lives beyond the basic purpose they were designed for. The sequel maintains this, but focuses it sharply into Ryan Gosling’s K, while broadening the idea with tertiary characters to imply a critique of the arrangement.
One would be remiss to fail to note how relevant this thematic element is in the current time. 2017 was a year fraught with social issues, ones that question the socioeconomic structure of modern society. Today’s capitalist world is indisputably built on the backs of the exploited global underclass, tinged with the nasty colors of racism and bigotry that serve to maintain a societal order that perpetuates the same sort of inequality Blade Runner: 2049 nods toward.
For a deeper look at those themes, one must turn to one of the companion pieces that Villeneuve commissioned that precede 2049. Blade Runner Black Out 2022 was directed by the vaunted Shinichiro Watanabe, the man responsible for the anime classics Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. His piece of the puzzle tells the story of how the Replicants were persecuted by humans, directly paralleling the white supremacy movements in modern-day Western society. The Replicants sought freedom from this oppression, and were able to win a victory within the narrative, but just as in the modern world, the problem did not end so simply.
2049 doesn’t lose itself in this social commentary, however, preferring instead to focus on the much more personal story of K. He, like Deckard from the original film, is a Blade Runner. He, like Deckard, lives largely in solitude, a social outcast due to his profession, and also because of the fact that he is a Replicant. His only true companion throughout the narrative is an artificially intelligent hologram made by the same Wallace Corporation that also manufactures the new models of androids.
The film almost exclusively takes after the cyberpunk aesthetic of the original. Still, it extracts the maximum possible humanity out of this setting, using the artificiality of its world to simultaneously isolate and humanize Gosling’s K, making him an acceptable target of the audience’s empathy while maintaining a longing for true intimacy that drives him down a twisted path of self-actualization.
In this, 2049 drops the subtlety and ambiguity of the original in order to tell a more ambitious tale. K’s search for a baby born to a Replicant eventually becomes a search for himself, at least for a time. During this sequence, he literally sticks his hand into a bee’s nest as the film ramps up into its climax, a bit of overt symbolism that foreshadows his inevitable entanglement in the events of the rest of the film. It is, in no small way, a story of an identity crisis, manipulating the audience in the same way K himself is manipulated into believing he is something special.
The truth, however, was there all along, displayed clearly to everyone in the theater. It is a distinctly human virtue, after all, to suspend one’s disbelief in the service of a greater idea. Once all illusions are shattered, all pretense of some greater meaning thrown out the proverbial window, K’s search for purpose boils down to an intensely personal one. He has served someone else’s ideas his entire life. First, as a Blade Runner under his Lieutenant; and now, as an assassin, pushed toward attempting to protect the secrets the rest of the Replicants in the film have been hiding for some time.
His ultimate decision to save Deckard from Wallace instead of killing him is the final plot point that drives home the film’s existentialist message. We, as humans, have agency over our lives. Our purpose is to be decided solely by ourselves. Any attempt to take that agency away from us is an affront to our nature. The tragedy of the film is that K had to die to realize the dreams of someone else. Left out in the cold, all he could do was sacrifice himself to reunite father and child, finding some satisfaction in fulfilling a mission that he deemed worthy. In this, he completes the full subversion of the Hero’s Journey; not only is he not the abandoned child of special parents, but he also rejects the purpose the rest of society has placed upon him.
K could never escape the reality of who he truly was, but he did still have control over his own existence. In this way, 2049 echoes the death of Roy Batty, where a Replicant designed to kill instead made the choice to save someone else in his final moments. This is not the only call back to the original film, and it’s certainly not the only one to rise above mere allusion; 2049’s references to the original are laden with commentary on the ideas of its predecessor and more thematically complex symbolism that fleshes the narrative out nicely.
The film toes the line of answering the question left from the original of Deckard’s true nature in the latter half of the film, but backs away from making any definitive claims as Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace emotionally tortures the scarred heart of Blade Runner’s protagonist. Wallace is 2049’s counterpart to the first’s Tyrell, the head of a mega-corporation with a god complex. While Tyrell was more of a passive figure from the events of Blade Runner, Wallace takes an active role in driving forward the plot of the sequel, chasing the creations of his predecessor in an attempt to use them to his own ends.
Again, the divine symbolism is more overt in 2049. Wallace calls his Replicants angels, while Tyrell’s godhood was more a function of his view as the father figure of the original Nexus models. The incorporation of the Christian conception of angels adds an interesting element to analyzing the role of the Wallace Corporation in the themes of the work. Wallace’s motivations are unbridled expansionism, recalling to mind the idea of Manifest Destiny that drove the pilgrims of the early European colonies in North America to head westward. This, too, fits into the larger social commentary that the universe is involved in, dragging the relationship between exploitative expansionism and religion into the light, even going so far as to use the soundtrack, set design, and color scheme to make Wallace’s headquarters into an Egyptian pyramid, with he its divine Pharoah.
In continuing with the discussion of Christian symbolism, Rachael’s role in the surrounding narrative cannot be ignored. If Tyrell was something of a god, then Rachael was something of a divine mother, with the birth of her child being called a miracle by her fellow Replicants. Wallace’s attempt to recreate Tyrell’s miracle is a defining characteristic of the megalomaniac, and his failures in doing so are a testament to the flaws in his philosophy. Not only is Sylvia Hoek’s Luv a twisted version of Rachael, but Wallace even attempts to recreate Rachael for Deckard, but still fails at making a believable facsimile.
Wallace’s desire to control the reproduction of his androids is also a religious commentary. Many organized religions often wish to dictate when, how, and why people have sex, preferring them to simply reproduce in order to create more people that can be indoctrinated and exploited to further expansionist goals. As Wallace says, this sort of conqueror’s mentality necessitates an ever-expanding population, and controlling the sexual lives of that population is the most effective way to ensure that they continue to procreate at an effective pace.
The feminist critique of this arrangement is present throughout the film, with Mariette and the other Replicants using their sexuality to further their own goals in the rebellion. Controlling reproduction is important to them as it allows them to freely explore themselves while still maintaining agency over their own bodies. K’s exploration of his sexuality is much more muddled, with his wholesale rejection of the advances of the women in front of him in favor of a holographic projection. He has been sold this idea of the perfect companion, ultimately just another corporate product, and doesn’t find himself attracted to the prospect of a “real girl” as Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette observes.
This element of the story is obviously inspired by Spike Jonze’s Her, a much more optimistic and warm science fiction film that nonetheless asks the same questions about the pervasiveness of this technology and its role in the life of the individual moving forward. 2049 hits many of the same beats, going as far as to incorporate a sensual sequence that takes the surrogate aspect from Her and adds a surreal visual component, with the hologram of Ana de Armas’ Joi attempting to synchronize with the movements of Mariette.
The evolution of the scene is beautiful, nothing less than mesmerizing. Seeing the initial hesitation of Joi as her movements lag behind the practiced motions of Mariette give way to more passionate, needy embraces adds a warm layer of depth to a scene that could have otherwise been much more cold and alien than its counterpart in Her. It is the aesthetic high point of a visually striking film that also manages to be thematically complex at the same time.
If nothing else, that scene will be remembered in the future as one of the best in this era of cinema. 2049 is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of visual storytelling that went criminally underappreciated in the box office. It is fitting, however, that 2049 be a cult classic to live up to its heritage. Denis Villeneuve has made a marvelous film, it’s a shame that more people won’t appreciate it.
As Carla Juri’s Dr. Ana Stelline rightly says, every artist puts a part of themselves in their work. Perhaps her character is that to Denis, then, one who molds memories with a wonderful mastery, maintaining reality and believability through the incorporation of personal experience. Films, after all, are like artificial memories, each cinematic experience a new implant into all those it impresses, the dissemination of a personal idea through mass media.
In that, 2049 is undoubtedly a success.