Thoughts about Blade Runner 2049 (SPOILERS)
Character arcs and viewer experience:
The character arc of Detective K touches on all the philosophical questions about robots and consciousness that the first Blade Runner film touched on as well. But K’s arc is a lot more interesting and elegant, even, than Blade Runner offered in 1982. In the case of K, we know from the start that he is a replicant and thus programmed to behave in certain ways and to follow orders from his superior. When he “retires” another replicant played by Dave Bautista, that one tells K that he is a Blade Runner because “he has never seen a miracle”. A very human turn of phrase. Very interesting.
Then, we see in K’s personal life that he does seem to have certain emotions or needs and because he looks and partly acts as a human, we can’t help but attribute a measure of consciousness and humanity to him. This is where we as audience are walking into a trap that is quite inevitable. Then, during the course of K’s investigation, he comes across a miracle. He finds a memory that seems to be from an actual childhood, suggesting that he had one. He even starts believing that he had one; that he is “special”, in effect a unique individual. His virtual girlfriend catalyzes this belief, because that is what she is programmed to do.
And then, based on that belief, he starts acting accordingly. He helps people; he tries to find his father. We as audience, already believing that he had a measure of humanity to start with, go happily along with his belief in his own individuality. When, in the end, it all comes crashing down, the revelation that he never was the original owner of those memories and that he is in fact not unique, doesn’t matter anymore at this point. It is already too late for both him and us. He is crestfallen that it is not true, but he developed his own humanity purely through his belief that he had it. And we feel with him, because we believed along with him. And after the fall from grace, he still decides to help Deckard. He has developed a consciousness and personality through believing that he had it.
This is, of course, totally debatable, and that is the beauty of it. We are tricked into believing that it is so because we might want it to be so, and so the movie holds a series of emotional punches in store. The same goes for K’s virtual girlfriend Joi. She is more obviously a lower-grade AI, but her character raises the same conflict. The film is a litmus test on whether people will start believing that AIs have consciousness once we are able to design them. Where the first Blade Runner made the main character Deckard face this conflict, in Blade Runner 2049 we ourselves are more directly confronted with it.
Themes: Luv, Joi and touch.
In addition, there are a couple of themes running through the film, like little visual and textual clues. There is the theme that touch is connected to having a real life. The replicants are always wearing gloves, and only when K starts to believe, he removes his one to feel the bee and the rain and snow. His virtual girlfriend holds up her hand but the rain goes right through it (or does it?). Meanwhile, the girl inside the glass house, who is the actual miracle birth and therefore an inverse of the K character, feels nothing because she is surrounded by illusion.
There is also great confusion or conflicting ideas about things like love. There are two AIs, one named Joi and the other named Luv and it seems as if their names should be exchanged. But both AIs are named by Wallace, who is the chief architect of this dystopian world. He only knows through touch (again with the touch) but he is blind to what is real. Deckard rejects the copy of Rachael that he offers because the joy or love that it represents is only surface-level and not “real”. Wallace turned love into a consumer product and equates it with joy.
The film as a sequel
Because I feel that the central philosophical issue of the Blade Runner movies is explored even more skillfully in the sequel, and since the sequel builds upon the story of its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 manages to improve the first movie. I don’t hold Blade Runner (1982) in particular high regard. I found it unexciting. The sequel raised my interest in the first movie and what it wanted to communicate. Now, in an age in which sequels, prequels or reboots aim to bring in a quick buck through brand recognition and cheap calls to nostalgic feelings, Blade Runner 2049 rises far above that crowd as a movie that really wanted to add and even improve on its predecessor.
And to be honest, the original is now mostly admired for its influence on visual depictions of dystopia, and its story has been superseded by the Ghost in the Shell movie from 1995, which is much more gripping and complex. Subsequent movies like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2014) provided deeper investigations into AI with consciousness. Blade Runner 2049 however presents it as a film noir that twists certain story clichés that we expect from films nowadays. It is smart enough to not go for the trope of the savior replicant who is to free everyone.
The film does incorporate all the iconic imagery of the original, but it does so with great eye for detail, for a fully immersive experience and it produces its own memorable visuals. It is hardly cheap. It is also specifically set in the future of Blade Runner, as opposed to our future.
Most of the praise has to go to Denis Villeneuve. He has the confidence and skill to call back to older film techniques that let the camera linger on scenes and let the audience take in everything. Fast edits and sloppy writing are a current sickness of insecure filmmaking. Simply the fact that Villeneuve makes riskier decisions shows that this film was never meant as a cash grab. This was an ambitious passion project. After so many heartless sequels, like Jurassic World, Independence Day: Resurgence and Alien: Covenant, we are blessed with a film like this.
Many scenes are quite daring in their execution, particularly certain one-on-one confrontations. The climactic fight is shot in a small, constricted area that does not try to impress with large vistas, but focuses all our intention on one place and one time. It is one of the better shot scenes of the year, and there are many like that in this film.
There is a consistent thread of highly confident, high quality filmmaking throughout the whole film, that is purely Villeneuve. The man has made stunning work in the past years, and films like Arrival, Sicario and Prisoners have shown his skill in plot and script development, his interest in intelligent storytelling, a great control of tension, a strong underlying vision behind his films and an eye for stunning visuals. Ridley Scott, in contrast, only knows how to work with visuals but is quite lost without a script.
Blade Runner 2049 will go down in history as one of Villeneuve’s masterpieces while he ascended rapidly to director stardom, while Ridley Scott is undermining his own image and legacy with muddled Alien sequels.