The following review spoilers various plot points of the movie, though doesn’t give away any major twists. In writing this review, I have profitted from an interview with philosophy professor Timothy Shanahan on the movie.
This film is a splendid spectacle of overflowing visual imagination. If for nothing else, the film is worth seeing. More importantly, Blade Runner 2049 also manages to capture the mood of its predecessor—a bleak universe in which intensely lonely people, powerless in the face of a corporatist police society that controls and destroys them at will, face their own existential despair. Like Blade Runner, this film does not depict a primarily social or political dystopia; what we first and foremost see is a dystopia of human existence: an unflinching assessment of what it means to be an anonymous no one in the face of a hostile mass society, existentially powerless in the face of death and forces that seem to determine one’s life, and deeply uncertain about one’s individuality.
Combined with its circling, slow approach to its central themes, Blade Runner 2049 has ensured that it won’t be a great commercial success. The film has avoided the obvious temptation to turn itself into yet another action film franchise, distinguished from, say, Captain America only by being a bit darker and more broody. For that itself it deserves high praise. In short, this is a very good sequel, one that does justice to the original, and is faithful (perhaps even overly so) to its aesthetics and mood. If a sequel had to be made, it is unlikely that one could have hoped for a better one.
Still, like an eager but ultimately limited student, the film fails to take the step from “very good” to “excellent”. That’s because some of its main themes, while interesting and challenging, seem slightly off to me. Here it’s useful to look back at the original Blade Runner’s central theme: fuzzy boundaries. We’re introduced through that film’s title card to a seemingly clear distinction, between humans on the one hand, and empathy-less replicants, a slave race of manufactured beings whose fate is determined by their makers.
But over the course of the movie, Blade Runner shifts our sympathies around: the replicant Rachel, and the replicant renegade Roy Batty, turn out to be the most sympathetic, most human characters, in stark contrast to the unthinking, cold and impersonal masses of actual humans that inhabit this dark universe. It’s the replicants who rebel against their fate, who try to overcome the conventional fate handed to them, who aim to carve out a genuine space for themselves in the face of death and determinism. In other respects, too, Blade Runner is interested in blurring the boundaries: most importantly, between memory and dream, and dream and reality. Together with its existential vertigo, this gives Blade Runner its hallucinatory and disorienting quality.
Here I should comment on what I think is the most misunderstood debate surrounding the original Blade Runner: whether its protagonist, Rick Deckard, is a replicant or isn’t. But even asking the question rests, it seems to me, on a misunderstanding. By the end of Blade Runner, it precisely does not matter (or at least, it does not matter much) whether Deckard is technically human or technically replicant, whether his past memories are real or fake. We would gain no relevant new information by knowing what Deckard really is. So there’s a point in keeping it purposefully open what Deckard is, which thankfully the sequel does.
Blade Runner 2049, understandably, does not want to copy Deckard’s existential journey of discovery one-to-one. Its protagonist is the replicant “K”, played subtly by Ryan Gosling, who knows he is one. So some of the ambiguity is gone from the beginning. In fact, K is a pretty woke replicant: he even knows that his own memories are fake, and feels embarrassed about reciting them to others. With a Trumpian echo, we’re told that there’s a strict “wall” between humans and replicants, which it is important to uphold.
So we might expect that K’s journey will be more similar to Roy Batty’s—one of rebellion against his makers. This isn’t quite what happens either, however. Instead, K, following a series of clues, becomes obsessed with the idea of a replicant that is “born, not made”. There is a female replicant, it is revealed, who miraculously gave birth, despite the replicants’ supposed inability to reproduce. This is the major plot point around which everything revolves, and which everyone in the film takes quite seriously. The film’s villain, the replicant designer Niander Wallace, wants to find the secret to replicant reproduction to exponentially increase the size of his slave race. A group of replicant rebels sees in the replicant first-born a Jesus-like saviour for all replicants. And K himself seems to believe that being born, not made, would make him special in some way.
All this, unfortunately, strikes me as being based on an existential and philosophical confusion. The ability to reproduce adds nothing to the replicants’ claim to personhood, morally or metaphysically. Why being born, rather than made, should do anything about K’s self-identity is unclear. Importantly, all these are points that the original Blade Runner, implicitly knew and made clear: it’s precisely not whether you are factory-made or womb-born that matters. Sure, it is an important limitation for replicants that they cannot give birth. But everyone runs through this refurbished Blade Runner universe as if this was the main limitation that mattered, which strikes me as absurd.
It is suggested, on Blade Runner 2049’s title card, that the new generation of replicants are programmed to always obey. That would hint at an important difference between humans and replicants, and provide us with a main theme; but then the issue of reproduction feels like a red herring. But at any rate, it’s not clear how we are to imagine the “programmed to obey” part. K, at least, pretty much roams around freely as he sees fit. True, he is repeatedly subjected to an intense psychological test seeking whether he has strayed from some supposed “baseline”. But having one’s psychological submissiveness regularly tested is different from being programmed to always submit. At any rate, the film never clearly works out how replicants are determined by their programming, and so it’s not clear what we should make of this.
Issues surrounding determinism and individuality are much better explored in the context of K’s partner, a sophisticated computer hologram called Joi. It’s much clearer that Joi is limited and determined by her programming, and indeed will say whatever K wishes her to say. In addition to their inability to touch, that gives their relationship an eerie and troubling quality, especially as K likes Joi to take the role of faithful 1950’s housewife.
But over the course of the film, there are hints that Joi comes to transcend her programming. In particular, she insists to K, he should download her into a portable device, uncoupling her from (what I presume to be) the cloud to which she is connected in their apartment—this, she suggests, would make her mortal, and thus “real”.
So here, it seems, we have a Blade Runner-esque story of someone rebelling against their own limitations. But for one, Joi remains a cloying and uncritical presence, still merely a tool for K’s enjoyment. Driving this point home, the movie shows Joi again, after her death, in a naked advertisement that advertises her program to potential customers, when she gives K the same intimate name that the dead copy did. The point is that Joi was just another copy of a pleasure-providing program. No fuzzy boundaries here.
Blade Runner 2049 also undermines, in a totally unnecessary way, another theme from the original Blade Runner. Wondering whether one of his past memories is real, K seeks out a memory designer. She assures him that the distinction between real and fake memories can be discerned. (She laughably insists that it depends on whether they’re “messy”.) She promptly proceeds to do so, in a process that takes only a few seconds. Aside from its inherent implausibility, this is a kick in the face of the original.
What hampers Blade Runner 2049 at many points, it seems to me, is its insistence on religious, and particularly Christian, metaphors. There is continuous, and very seriously delivered, talk about angels, souls and miracles. There is the birth of a child to a barren woman, which in turn becomes a messianic figure. There’s nothing wrong with using religious metaphors, or making religion an explicit topic. But it’s also easy to use the bombast of religious language to shroud difficult existential problems, and convenient to avoid them by vaguely pointing to miracles and mysteries (see: Battlestar Galactica).
And so it is that the movie villain is given some ludicrously silly monologues about angels, slavery and barrenness, but without expressing any philosophical vision that we can take remotely seriously. No, the existential-philosophical themes surrounding replicants and humans are dealt with much more authoritatively in the original. Blade Runner 2049’s best and most thoughtful parts surround K’s relationship with Joi. Here the movie comes in its own, and is at its strongest. What Blade Runner 2049 also attempts to add are some political themes—there was a replicant uprising, we are told, and a new one might be in the making—but the movie is somewhat coy about the political implications of a robot slave race; the topic of robot emancipation is dealt with much better and extensively in Westworld.
To repeat, this is by no means a bad movie. It is a very good movie that you ought to see, especially if you’re a fan of the original. It just stops short of being outstanding.