Blade Runner 2049 is an astoundingly cinematic exercise in dystopian sci-fi noir that allusively explores the commodification of the human person and the nature of identity. Set 30 years after the events of Ridley Scott’s original and massively influential 1982 Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 continues to explore the ramifications of a world in which bio-engineered beings indistinguishable from normal humans are part and parcel of everyday life.
K (Ryan Gosling) is an LAPD officer and a “blade runner”: that is, he is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” rogue replicants. Replicants are a class of artificial humanoids built to serve human needs, to do the jobs that humans can’t or won’t do, such as fight wars on other planets or perform manual labour.
Replicants are almost physically identical to human beings, except they are fashioned in laboratories for specific purposes, giving them greater speed, strength, agility, resilience and intelligence. Artificial memories are painstakingly crafted for them so that they might better fit in with human populations, as well as to pre-condition them to be docile and emotionally stable.
The original Blade Runner concerned how a group of these replicants, led by Roy (a rightly acclaimed Rutger Hauer), began a revolution, believing that since they were so much like humans, and believed and felt that they were human, perhaps even more so, that they too had intrinsic dignity and as much right to self-determination as anyone else. They were hunted down by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford in a career defining performance), a ruthless and effective blade runner who saw them solely as machines and treated them as such.
A key to the success of the original film was the way it merged the uncertainty, ambiguity and sensitivity of classic noir and hard-boiled detective fiction, like Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, with a semi-dystopian sci-fi future.
Throughout that film you cannot but feel for the plight of the replicants, treated as little more than machines, but believing themselves to be much more. While a key debate concerns the exact nature of Deckard himself – a debate that has never been resolved, despite Ridley Scott’s claims to the contrary – Philip K. Dick, who wrote the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? on which it is based, has stated that the story depicts how we dehumanise ourselves and others, finding reasons to treat others as less than human.
This commodification of the person is reinforced in Blade Runner 2049. Women, replicant or human, seem to be principally sex objects and servants, and men are merely muscle designed to get jobs done. There is a longing throughout the film for genuine, heartfelt interaction and an all-pervading loneliness. It seems that no one has a meaningful relationship. The closest they get is the hologram Joi (Ana de Armas), a mass-produced artificial intelligence that provides companionship and a simulation of relationship – but once again, a relationship that feels so real, that it hurts just as much when it is ended.
In the background is the blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the corporate titan and genius inventor whose synthetic food saved the world from hunger and who is chillingly explicit about his aims – he believes that civilisation is always built on the back of a disposable slave workforce and will do whatever it takes to achieve his ends. In the course of an investigation, K comes across a long-buried mystery, one that has far-reaching implications. To resolve it he must track down the missing Deckard and discover what he knows.
Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have crafted a visually awe-inspiring film. This is a movie imbued with a wonder at existence and a sorrow at how it is used. The movie moves at a deliberate and melancholy pace, confident enough to take its time and to let the audience take in what’s happening and its implications. This is reinforced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s at times overwhelming score, drawing on both Vangelis’ original score and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic use of György Ligeti.
Much like classic noir, questions are not so much answered, as their answers alluded to – allowing for ambiguity. This is also the case with the film’s ideas – cinema is a visual, story-telling medium, one that is often unsuited to didacticism. It shows, rather than tells, leaving the audience to explore the implications as best they can.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).