NB: This article contains spoilers for both Blade Runner and its sequel. Come back when you’ve seen both movies!
If there’s going to be a controversial aspect of Blade Runner 2049, we suspect it’s that the belated sequel makes plain what was once playfully ambiguous. In the original cut of Ridley Scott’s original, which didn’t surface until a decade after Blade Runner’s initial release in 1982, the recurring image of a unicorn – first in a reverie, later as an origami sculpture – raised the possibility that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant.
There’s a fitting irony to a future world where a replicant – entirely unaware that he’s not human – is dispatched to hunt down his own kind. It’s not a plot point that’s in Philip K. Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but then again, the movie is only a loose adaptation of the original text. Nor is Deckard’s replicant status mentioned in Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ adapted screenplay. For the past quarter-century, Blade Runner fans have argued back and forth over the anti-hero’s origins. Is he human or not?
Scott, on the other hand, has never had any doubts about Deckard. In Mark Kermode’s superb documentary The Edge of Blade Runner, which first aired in 2000, he stated quite plainly that Deckard is a replicant. When we spoke to him ahead of Blade Runner 2049’s release, he was equally strident: “The idea that I always on insisted from day one, because I directed the fucking movie, is that Harrison Ford, Deckard, is a replicant. He had to be.”
In Blade Runner 2049, the entire plot pivots on Deckard being an artificial creation: “Otherwise,” Scott says, rapping the table for emphasis, “there’s no story.”
As written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, Blade Runner 2049 reveals what happened after those elevator doors closed all those years ago. The truth is accidentally uncovered by a new blade runner, the taciturn K (Ryan Gosling), a new breed of replicant created by tech genius Niander Wallace (a bearded Jared Leto). Wallace’s predecessor, the Tyrell Corporation, shut down decades earlier, leaving him to take over the job of making artificial slaves. It falls to K to find and kill the last of the Tyrell series of replicants, the Nexus-8. During one of his missions, at the house of a runaway replicant working as a protein farmer (Dave Bautista), K discovers a locked box buried at the foot of a tree.
Back at the police headquarters in Los Angeles, it’s discovered that the bones belong to a woman who died in childbirth. On closer investigation, K learns that the woman was a replicant – which raises the extraordinary suggestion that Tyrell’s last great experiment was to create a non-human capable of reproduction. Spurred on by his unblinking boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), K begins to investigate further. Joshi’s command is that K must find and kill the child born of the replicant before the truth gets out. K, already ambivalent about his job as an executioner, feels a growing emotional pull around the mission. The date carved at the foot of the tree where the replicant mother was buried matches K’s memory of the same six numbers carved on the base of his favourite toy, a wooden horse. Could K be the dead replicant’s missing son?
Given Blade Runner 2049’s pedigree – Denis Villeneuve on directing duties, Roger Deakins handling the cinematography – we’d have been taken aback had the movie not looked stunning, and, of course, it does. But what’s so thrilling about Villeneuve’s sequel is how completely 2049 feels of a piece with the Blade Runner universe – not just aesthetically, but in terms of its mood, themes, and tone. Like the first film, it’s a neo-noir detective story with a side-order of ennui and existential panic. Like Deckard and in particular Roy Batty, K is a lost pilgrim in search of meaning and purpose: are his memories real or second hand? What does it mean to be conscious, but without the same rights as a human, or, as Lieutenant Joshi so coldly puts it, even a soul?
Brilliantly, miraculously, Blade Runner 2049 does all this without feeling like a stale retread of a seminal movie. Villeneuve’s affection for the world Scott created is plain, but the film’s rhythms and symbolism are the director’s own. K’s existential search is not the same as Batty’s existential search. K doesn’t want an extension on his life, or to meet his maker. His desire, at least as we see it, is to find a connection to something greater: to feel that his life has value, that he exists for a purpose beyond that of a state-sponsored assassin.
A handful of scenes illustrate the status of a typical replicant on Earth, circa 2049 – K is essentially an outcast, shunned by his neighbors, barked at for making eye-contact with human law enforcers. To keep his emotions in check, K is regularly subjected to a horrifying process that reads like the Voight-Kampff test in reverse. Little wonder, then, that his few moments of warmth and companionship come from what is essentially a gadget – the holographic AI, Joi.
It’s worth pausing here to note just how roundly effective the performances in Blade Runner 2049 are, and how seamlessly they mesh with Villeneuve’s world-building. Ana de Armas gives her role remarkable depth as Joi, and the moments between she and K are some of the film’s most tender. Gosling’s in his full-on, smoldering mystery-man mode here, yet slivers of humanity sneak through his character’s necessarily impassive shell in these moments. The movie’s other revelation is Harrison Ford, whose turn as an aging, regret-filled Deckard lights up the final act. It’s fair to say that Blade Runner 2049‘s last few shots wouldn’t have been the same without him.
Blade Runner 2049 even fixes one of the things that Ford grumpily pointed out on the set of the original – Deckard, Ford said to Ridley Scott, was a detective who does no detecting. We wouldn’t agree entirely with that, but the sentiment’s there: Deckard is constantly a couple of steps behind his replicant quarry, and in many respects, it’s Roy Batty, so memorably played by Rutger Hauer, who’s the true protagonist. In 2049, K has far more to uncover: telltale markings on old bones, falsified medical records, a strange blackout which resulted in a vast loss of data decades before.
When Wallace learns about the child born of a replicant mother, he immediately spots a business opportunity. His replicants, which emerge from yolk-filled sacs like some unholy microwave meal, are perfectly-formed yet slow to make. If replicants could procreate, then he’d be able to amass a huge army of artificial human labourers within years. Intent on discovering how his predecessor, Eldon Tyrell, created a fertile replicant, Wallace dispatches his ruthless henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who seamlessly phases from urbane and refined to downright ferocious) to track down the missing offspring.
For most, the identities of the offspring’s parents aren’t hard to guess. The bones are those of Rachel; the father is, of course, Rick Deckard. Hunted by blade runners, Deckard and Rachel separated, and when Rachel died, the infant was put into hiding, its birth records falsified so that even Deckard doesn’t know the child’s identity.
K’s growing belief that he’s the child in question matches the assumptions thrust on us by the plot: the memories, the toy horse, Joi’s refrain that K’s different from other replicants (“You’re special,” she says). The filmmakers also play on the conventions of your typical hero’s journey plot here (let’s face it, tales of young men who are somehow special and destined for great things are also as old as storytelling itself).
Gosling, with his short cropped hair and stony expression, looks passably like Ford in his prime. A more formulaic film might have had Ford “pass on the baton” to Gosling, the new generation of blade runner, thus launching a whole, depressing series of films about a guy hunting down replicants.
K’s beliefs are compounded in what, for us, might just be the most captivating scene of them all: he goes to see Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who specializes in creating memories for replicants. From the glass bubble that doubles as her lab, Stelline molds and shapes the past for Wallace’s creations using a strange – and very Phildickian – device that looks like a detached camera lens. K wants to know whether his childhood memory is genuine or engineered. Stelline, like some futuristic oracle, uses another device to peer deep into his thoughts. “It’s real,” the doctor says, her eyes filling with tears. What K neglects to ask is whether the memory belongs to him or somebody else.
K’s realization that he isn’t the first-born replicant is a beautifully-conceived moment. It isn’t presented as some wrenching twist, but as a simple, bittersweet truth: K is just the same as any other replicant, no more, no less. He isn’t special. He has no manifest destiny. K’s realization is, of course, the same for most of us: we grow up knowing nothing but our own consciousness. We’re the protagonists in our own story. But a vanishingly small percentage of us will go on to change history, or achieve fame and vast fortune. We may grow up thinking we’ll become astronauts, or pioneering scientists, or great artists, but most of us are eventually forced to confront the same reality as K: we’re ordinary.
Blade Runner 2049’s brilliance lies in what it unearths beyond that initial jolt of melancholy. K may not be the chosen one, but still he finds a sense of purpose – by freeing Deckard and taking him to where his child his hidden. In his final moments, as K gazes up at the snow, there’s the sense that this lost soul has finally found peace.
For this writer, Blade Runner 2049’s third act might just be one of the triumphs of recent, mainstream cinema. We’re talking about a $185 million sci-fi thriller that doesn’t end with a gigantic action sequence where a city’s leveled and a huge space ship falls out of the sky. The world is not saved. The Wallace Corporation isn’t miraculously toppled. The great armies of replicants aren’t released from their servitude.
Instead, Villeneuve, his writers, and everyone involved are brave enough to let this expansive, hallucinatory saga end with a simple moment of reflection: a father and child reunited; a hero dying with the knowledge that, even if he didn’t change the world, he at least managed to do some good with the little time he had.