Gorgeous visuals and interesting biblical overtones don’t compensate for the sequel’s scattered structure.
Ryan Gosling for Blade Runner 2049 Warner Bros.
Science fiction is by definition about the future, but it’s never about the future. It might be “about” androids or machines or replicants. But it’s always about us, here, today.
When Ridley Scott delivered Blade Runner, a lax adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1982, it drew on the paranoia, technophobia, and pervading sense of being unmoored from reality that characterized the world on which it was loosed. In a stroke of genius, Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples recognized that the darkness of dystopian science fiction could be mapped onto the similarly dark and inherently morally ambiguous genre of neo-noir, with its interest in ethically compromised detectives and femme fatales, and the result would be bigger than the sum of its parts.
Blade Runner defined the visual vocabulary that would rule science fiction for a generation, but more importantly, it carved out an ethical and moral space for those visuals to operate within. Blade Runner wasn’t content to just explore humanity — it aimed to make us, as audience members, question our own humanity by complicating our glib assumptions about our own superiority as a race. It raised the question of whether our continuation could even be a good thing, and on whom our survival depends, themes that extend through everything from Battlestar Galactica to Wall-E.
The look of Blade Runner was intricately connected to its deep moral questioning, all set against an operatic score. And it blew people’s minds.
To follow that act requires considerable cojones, which might be why it took 35 years for a sequel to appear. Even in a sequel-happy culture, the inevitable decision to make Blade Runner 2049 was gutsy. And this leads to the inevitable question about Denis Villeneuve’s new film: Was it worth it?
Short answer: kind of.
Blade Runner 2049 is worth seeing, despite its faults
If you are already inclined to see Blade Runner 2049, then go for it. Rest assured: It’s not a disaster. It’s the sort of original and stylish film that — if Hollywood is going to insist on resurrecting everything — is actually worth the film it’s printed on.
And it’s worth seeing on a big screen, because if there’s one thing Scott’s successor Denis Villeneuve knows how to do, it’s make a compelling image. In this film he works with his frequent collaborator, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose comically accomplished oeuvre and work in this film almost certainly guarantees him an Oscar nomination, if not the still-elusive Oscar itself.
A scene from Blade Runner 2049 Warner Bros.
Blade Runner 2049 does its due diligence as a sequel, wrapping up some threads from the original film that may (or may not) satisfy some fans still puzzling over Blade Runner’s biggest open question. But it’s not mere fan service; the film tries very hard to sustain interest with new characters and developments that draw on the past without being handcuffed to it, throughout its sometimes ponderous 163-minute runtime.
But far too often that attempt to be interesting fails. Its score (from Benjamin Wallfischand the ever-present Hans Zimmer, detectable because your chair shakes when the music plays) lacks the pristine transcendence of the original Vangelis score. The Blade Runner 2049 screenplay (co-written by Logan screenwriter Michael Green and a returning Fancher) doesn’t have the thematic or even structural clarity of its predecessor. Too many of its scenes seem invented as vehicles for cool images, without the latter also informing the former.
Much of cinema’s greatest sci-fi leans heavily on visuals for its storytelling, of course — Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner itself. But all the senses need to work in tandem, and in Blade Runner 2049 they fall out of sync. And it’s the thematic material that suffers.
Blade Runner 2049 returns to the themes of its predecessor, but with less nuance
Note: Some very mild spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 follow.
Blade Runner, though complex, had a relatively lean concept at its core: Its villain (or is he?), the replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer), is a pretty clear cipher for the Miltonian conception of Lucifer: created to be an angel in God’s service, then banished from his creator to serve humans in an off-world colony, only to rebel, “fall” back to earth, and wreak his rebellious vengeance against his creator — who also, in this formulation, happens to be man. (For what it’s worth, in this year’s Alien: Covenant, which has a story co-written by Green, Michael Fassbender plays a character who is explicitly modeled on the Miltonian Lucifer.)
Blade Runner 2049 returns to those themes, with talk of angels now explicit. But the movie also stuffs in a lot of other Biblical references along with philosophical questions. What is the soul, and who has one? How necessary are bodies? Do we have free will, and if not, can we still call our feelings desires? Does it matter whether our memories are real? And what does it mean to be “free”?
That last one is the most important for this film. If Blade Runner was interested in who can be truly considered human, and how that’s linked to our ability as a species to feel empathy for others, Blade Runner 2049 is more interested in the question of freedom, in a manner that recalls much recent blockbuster entertainment from Twin Peaks: The Return and Westworld to Alien: Covenant and even The Good Place. Are we free if we are governed by the laws of the universe? Does it matter who set those laws? Is it really possible to break our creators’ decrees, or are we programmed to fulfill functions, conforming to our destinies no matter what we think we’re doing?
All those questions are twisted together in the figure of K (Ryan Gosling), who is a Blade Runner in an era decades after an event everyone calls “the blackout.” He lives alone in an apartment in a Los Angeles that’s aged but still recognizably the LA of Scott’s film. (It snows in this iteration of LA, which is how you know it’s the future.)
In the original film, the Tyrell Corporation had created the replicants in order to send them to off-planet colonies as the “ideal slave labor” for the humans enticed to migrate there. But the ecosystems on Earth collapsed in 2020. In the years since, the Tyrell Corporation was bought by a figure named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who created a race of replicants who are obedient to humans. Some of the old replicants with rebellious tendencies still exist, though, which is why Blade Runners do, too: to hunt them down and retire them.
K tracks down one such older model to an isolated farm far outside the confines of Los Angeles, where he lives under the name of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). K takes him down. But as he’s getting ready to return to the LAPD (run by Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi, whom K calls “Madame”), he discovers something beneath a single tall, dead tree that threatens to blast the dominant narrative around replicants into smithereens.
Joshi recognizes the potential for K’s discovery to “break the world,” as she tells him. If it were to leak out, it would break the wall between humans and replicants and that, she says, would buy “a war, or a slaughter.” Her solution is to shut it all down as quickly as possible without anyone noticing — to seek and destroy the evidence, which is the mission on which she sends K.
That mission sends him all over the place, along with his companion, Joi (Ana de Armas), as he draws ever nearer to the truth and to its implications while plumbing his own memories. Part of that mission puts him in contact with Wallace himself, who speaks in riddle-like sentences while sending his closest handmaid, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to do his nasty bidding.
Blade Runner 2049 drops a few subtle clues to its big idea
There are some overt clues to what the film is trying to do as characters interact with one another, talking about souls, memories, desires, and programming. They talk of storming Eden, of the patriarch Jacob’s wife’s womb, of coming to the kingdom of heaven, of a child being born. There is a potent sense that the next leap forward in human/replicant evolution is just over the horizon — either that, or some kind of war. (Unlike Blade Runner, which didn’t call for any follow-up, the future sequel for Blade Runner 2049 presents itself a tad too readily.)
But if there are a few too many muddled metaphors throughout, there are some more subtle cues to the film’s big idea, too.
A key plot point and repeated line hinges on a particular character being “born, not made,” a phrase that comes up several times. Without giving too much away, it’s worth knowing that this phrase is almost certainly lifted from the Nicene Creed, which dates to about 325 CE and is read in many Christian denominations every Sunday. There are a few versions of the creed in English, but all versions contain the idea that Jesus — the world’s salvation, in Christian theology — was “begotten, not made” or, in some translations, “born, not made.”
The idea is that Jesus in Christian theology is not just a human (a creature made by God), but also one with God. He has two natures, and in the Bible he lives according to both — tempted as a human, but also completely divine. He follows the mandate of his divine nature while not losing his capacity to desire and suffer like any human. It’s a telling forecast for the film’s character, too.
Another small clue: The two close companions to K and Wallace are named Joi and Luv (Blade Runner 2049 could not be particularly accused of subtlety), which are also two of the “fruits of the Spirit,” found in the Biblical book of Galatians. There’s a passing, unexplained reference to something called “Galatians syndrome” in the film, which seems to indicate this is something worth paying attention to. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” the verse in Galatians reads, and then continues, importantly: “Against such things there is no law.”
And finally, K has a device that goes off in the manner of a mobile phone repeatedly throughout the film. The ringtone is the first two measures of Peter’s theme from “Peter and the Wolf,” Prokofiev’s symphonic suite for children. The ringer goes off too many times for it to just be a coincidence, and the big question may be who it belongs too — to K, or to Joi. But in a sense they’re the same being, with the same goal: to subvert the rules that govern the world in which they find themselves. And as mild as it seems, that’s also the subversive theme of “Peter and the Wolf,” written by Prokofiev under Soviet rule: That any person, even a child, can subvert the regime and challenge accepted rules.
All taken together, these clues help flesh out others dropped by characters — and sometimes acted upon — throughout Blade Runner 2049. Freedom, the ability to challenge rules, is something that all beings, no matter their manifestation, have the ability to undertake. Emotions and desires, virtue and action — all these things are twined together and available to everyone. Slavery is a crime even if the slaves are created expressly for that purpose. It’s just as destructive, though, to try to bury the truth in order to preserve order, or to try to destroy a being in order to preserve one’s revolution. And predestination, the film strongly implies, is as bad as slavery, calling for rebellion, a “storming of Eden.”
The film has big ideas, but not enough clarity around them
Predestination — the predetermination by God of humans’ eternal destiny and, depending on which tradition you consult, of the relationship of their actions to their free will on earth — is a hotly debated topic in most monotheistic religions. For Blade Runner 2049, it is the central idea. How much free will do we have? How much would we give up to our creations, created to serve us?
This lines up with Blade Runner’s strong implication that humanity has deluded itself as to its fitness to continue. In Blade Runner 2049, the future of the earth depends on giving up its claims to superiority and accepting that its actual, semi-literal salvation lies by replicating itself alongside other beings, sprung from the technology it created.
Would that this had been crisper and clearer in this sequel. Villeneuve certainly can pull that off; his Arrival was one of last year’s very best films, and more philosophically focused than this one. The themes in this film, unlike in Arrival, sag under the weight of the unrewarded slow movement, the preoccupation and even infatuation with the look of things (snow falling, holograms, the LA streets) that the original Blade Runner never indulged to such an obvious extent.
But while we’re probably not living in the world that Blade Runner forecast (the original was set in 2019), we’re living in a time when freedom seems increasingly constricted by those who’d rather preserve their revolution or their stranglehold on order. All these things Blade Runner 2049 renders in what can actually, legitimately be termed “living color.” It could stand to have as much clarity afforded to its narrative and thematics as to its visuals.