Editor’s Note: Blade Runner 2049 is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
Behold, a possibly controversial opening statement: Blade Runner 2049 justifies the existence of its predecessor. The cult-classic 1982 Ridley Scott epic is well-revered but remains something of a conceptual skeleton: it opens the door to great thematic richness but only flirts with entering. 2049 enters and explores, a deep-dive that flourishes the ideas evoked in the original while also establishing new themes that expand both the film’s canvas and the viewer’s mind. Here now, 35 years later, comes a sequel that fills out its forerunner but also exists on its own, a full-throated, deep-thinking, panoramic masterpiece.
The confounding relationship between human need and an increasingly synthetic world is the soul of this story, made all the messier by the unavoidable fact that humanity is responsible for its own demise.
At the core of the original Blade Runner – and its source material, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – was the notion of a human society so advanced that it destroyed itself, a Frankenstein civilization that created a monster it was struggling to suppress. Rick Deckard’s odyssey of discovery reached a resolution of conscious uncertainty: the increasing confusion over what was “real” became less important than what was “true”. Deckard could never truly know, and that was okay. Blade Runner 2049 is about knowing and then actualizing, about not only realizing the truth but processing and accepting it. It’s the payoff to the former film’s unwitting set-up, the painted version of what was earlier sketched.
At the center of this discovery is a Blade Runner known only as ‘K,’ played by Ryan Gosling as an agent who maintains his required stoicism even as the need for feeling is seeping through the edges of his being. He lives in a small, sterile apartment where his only quasi-human interaction is with a manufactured synthetic partner named Joi (Ana de Armas), as though Siri could materialize as a hologram and offered a full range of emotions. K’s interactions with Joi are like conscious simulations of sitcom-stereotype husband-and-wife relationships, with conversations consisting of stilted dialogue that K speaks with a knowing smirk. He’s aware of the tangible void in his world, and yet this is the closest he can get to filling it.
In the midst of what appears yet another rote investigation into a rogue outdated Replicant, K discovers indication of a curious organic disturbance, a potential secret that suggests Replicants possess heretofore unfathomable organic capacity. This mystery leads him to former Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford, bringing another of his iconic characters full circle), who himself is harboring three decades’ worth of secrets, which may contain the key that unlocks a greater understanding of how humanity and technology intersect. Such is the central cosmic question of Blade Runner 2049, probed with perplexing density by screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green: at what point does the technology humans create supersede humanity itself? If humanity is intended to have dominion over its technological creations, but the internal capabilities of technology are rapidly surpassing that of humanity, is it not inconceivable for technology to become more humane than humans?
Here now, 35 years later, comes a sequel that fills out its forerunner but also exists on its own, a full-throated, deep-thinking, panoramic masterpiece.
This confounding relationship between human need and an increasingly synthetic world is the soul of this story, made all the messier by the unavoidable fact that humanity is responsible for its own demise. Replicants are no longer merely the subject of Blade Runner obliteration; there are newer models with the capacity to contribute to society. They have been refined – one might even venture to invoke the word “perfected” – by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, going The Full Leto), who conducts himself as a blind sensei of replication, equal parts megalomaniac and trans-human deity, speaking with a level of pomposity generally befitting a seer, or at least one who considers himself to be a seer. I can’t spoil who or what Wallace is because I honestly don’t know; as ever, ambiguousness is an organizing principle of the Blade Runner universe. There are inherent limitations in what we can know – we are, after all, only human.
The genius of 2049 is that it adopts human limitation not only as a theme but as a point-of-view. We are immersed within its world by virtue of our shared perspective with the characters – which is to say, none of us know anything until it is revealed to us, and even then the ensuing implications leave us spinning. Our initial assumptions become our knowledge base; our ingrained biases color our perspective. Facing direct factual contradiction can feel as though the ground is shifting beneath our feet, but of course that is the crushing fallacy of human presumption. Blade Runner 2049, notwithstanding its futuristic imagery, layers of VFX, and complicated webs of sci-fi mythos, is a film about that which makes us human: both the utter failings and the fleeting-but-defining moments of triumph.
To dive explicitly into specifics would not only risk multiple spoilers but also defeat the purpose of the film’s spellbinding immersive experience. But in all its wondrous, sometimes confounding complexities, there is a very simple but potent heartbeat at 2049’s center: it’s about the evil of human greed juxtaposed with the capacity for human acceptance, resentment versus empathy, the suppressive ruling class challenged by an upstart resistance. Such painfully relevant themes have become increasingly present in the films of director Denis Villeneuve, whose work here represents a sort of auterist nirvana, as if his brilliant run of the last four years has reached its apex. Working in seamless tandem with Cinematographer Roger Deakins (whose first Oscar, long overdue, is on the immediate horizon) to create a cinematic world so stark and yet so detailed, so sumptuous but so unsparing, so elevated but still earthbound that we can simultaneously immerse and stand in reverence. Which, of course, is Blade Runner 2049’s ultimate master stroke: this futuristic philosophical epic is all about us, all about now. And unless we act fast, it will remain the same until 2049.
In all its wondrous, sometimes confounding complexities, there is a very simple but potent heartbeat at Blade Runner 2049’s center: it’s about the evil of human greed juxtaposed with the capacity for human acceptance, resentment versus empathy, the suppressive ruling class challenged by an upstart resistance.