Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was an interesting phenomenon as it was originally a box office bust; however, with time it became a cult classic even so far as becoming a subject of study in post modernism. Its use of symbolism, its heavy atmospheric setting, and its questions about what it means to be human among other esoteric ideology has influenced countless directors and films in its wake who’ve pursued the same ideological questions that Ridley Scott asked with his film. And now, 35 years later, the long anticipated sequel, shines brightly in the shadow of its predecessor, perhaps even surpassing it.
Blade Runner’s World Has and Hasn’t Changed
Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the original, and the world of this film accurately depicts how the world of the 1982 original might have developed; the huge, building-sized advertisements have been upgraded to huge, building-sized holograms, the city of Los Angeles has become an antfarm of tall buildings, and the world is just as overpopulated and dark as ever. From the opening scene, the film wastes no time in updating us about the changes that have and haven’t taken place in this world. The man-made almost-human “Replicants” are still being used as slave labor, runaways are still being hunted down by Blade Runners, and our Blade Runner hero known as K (Ryan Gosling) is actually a more upgraded and obedient version of the Replicants.
In the first few scenes, K comes across a very peculiar, seemingly impossible case; after retiring a replicant who’d been working as a farmer in a deserted part of california for nearly 30 years, he discovers a buried replicant body; upon closer examination, he discovers that this body is actually a replicant who had successfully given birth to a child. Fearing a revolution if word of this child catches wind, his boss with the LAPD tasks him with finding and eliminating this child, setting him on his journey.
Villeneuve Maintained Ridley Scott’s Atmosphere
Director, Denis Villeneuve, had big shoes to fill in creating the atmospheric setting of the original, and this he did successfully. In between almost every scene, we got these beautiful, sweeping shots of the landscape and of the world; pair that with at times overwhelmingly intense music by Hans Zimmer (which reminded me both of Interstellar and Inception), these grandiose scenes were truly a marvel. Villeneuve also successfully recreated the slow meditative pacing of the original with beautifully framed shots that sometimes seemed to be a piece of art in and of themselves. The effect was that Villeneuve took a film that could have easily become just another action film with big explosions and lots of naked women, and turned it into a contemplative film about human existence. I didn’t even mind all of the naked women!
In 2049, Women Have More Agency
Now, what I thought was particularly interesting is its portrayal of women. There are several female characters that in their own very subtle ways have power in this film, and it was interesting to see the dynamics of this feminine power. There was a very clear role reversal of the “hero” archetype as Gosling’s character is our hero, and yet several times throughout the film he is saved by other female characters. In fact, his boss, Lieutenant Joshi played brilliantly by Robin Wright, is actually a female. There was one scene in which you get a rapey vibe from Joshi, which turns this stereotyped gender dynamic on its head. And yet, in the end, Joshi seems to have her own respect for K even though he’s a replicant and her society has taught her to look down on him.
Even the female characters, who on all appearances seem to be subservient, are portrayed with incredible emotional depth and are given agency of their own in subtle ways. For example, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the replicant who is tasked by Jared Leto’s character, Wallace, to find the child replicant first, is a total badass. While she is working under Wallace’s orders, she seems to work independently. What’s more is that while her character seems devoid of emotion, there are moments where her passion and utter belief in the righteousness of her creator, Wallace, shine through. Then there’s Joi (Ana de Armas) who is K’s A.I. hologram girlfriend, who literally cannot go anywhere without K because she is a hologram projection. Yet, she herself seems to possess emotions far beyond the capacity of an A.I., and displays her own kind of agency in subtle ways throughout the film.
An Exploration of Ideas
Far beyond the dynamics between male and female in this film, however, is the film’s exploration of identity, reality, and humanity. As K begins to question the possible reality of his own memories that he knows were artificially implanted memories, he also questions his own identity. Layered over this is the question posed even by the first Blade Runner: what does it mean to be human? The entire cast does an incredible job in the exploration of these ideas because while there is little human interaction throughout the film, you really do get a sense of humanity through these replicants. Ryan Gosling does an excellent job of portraying K; he operates in such a perfunctory way and seems emotionless, yet he is sympathetic. We can’t help but feel for K as he seeks further meaning in his own existence. Even Joi seems to possess real love and compassion for K, and yet we wonder whether even those emotions are programmed.
Ultimately, I think people will either love or hate this film; if brooding atmospheric long shots and slow contemplative pacing to allow maximum exploration of esoteric ideology while trying to decipher whether or not a character is human or inhuman is your cup of tea, you will love this movie. If it’s not, you’ll probably hate this movie, like my husband did. However, it’s worth giving a chance as it does call into question the compassion and emotions that humanity supposedly embodies and it makes you wonder, are these replicants really more human than humans?