This Blade Runner 2049 article contains spoilers.
It lasts little more than a minute, but it’s arguably one of Blade Runner 2049‘s most arresting and unsettling scenes. Los Angeles replicant hunter K (Ryan Gosling) seated in a white, cramped room, undergoing some form of futuristic interrogation.
We don’t see the person barking questions at K – we only hear his voice, as K answers impassively, each response interspersed with a seemingly meaningless string of words.
Do they keep you in a cell? Cells. When you’re not performing your duties, do they keep you in a little box? Cells. Interlinked. What’s it like to hold the hand of someone you love? Interlinked. Do you dream about being interlinked? Interlinked.
Like so many moments in Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve’s icily effective sequel to the 1982 classic, what’s happening in the scene isn’t immediately spelled out. Indeed, on first viewing, it takes a moment to figure out what’s really going on in this cramped, clinical room: K is being studied for unwanted signs of human emotion. If K passes the test, he gets to pick up his paycheck and head home; if he fails, then he’ll be terminated.
The scene is heavy with unspoken menace, amplified by both the sterile set design and the harsh, grating use of sound. A replicant himself, K is essentially an object – a useful foot soldier to his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), and an object of loathing to just about everybody else. The interrogation scene leaves us in no doubt that the world K inhabits is both hostile and unknowable – an impenetrable white wall of power arrayed against the individual.
Early in Blade Runner 2049‘s production, however, the interrogation sequence was very different. As written by screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, it was imagined as a more recognisable medical procedure: K lying on a bed, an interrogator sitting nearby asking questions, a scanner quietly observing overhead. The scene’s placement was also different: it took place right at the beginning of the movie, before K was despatched to find the missing replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista).
Gradually, though, the design and placement of the scene – and numerous others – began to change during the storyboarding process. For several weeks, Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and concept artist Sam Hudecki met in a Montreal hotel room and worked their way through the script, dissecting each scene and sketching out how it could look.
“When you draw,” Villenueve told Den of Geek UK, “you’re reorganizing, changing, modifying, creating a visual world that is sometimes quite far away from the screenplay, or sometimes close, but you’re rewriting the movie according to your own desires. And that was where the movie was born, I’d say. With Roger.”
It was here that the idea of a more claustrophobic and impersonal baseline test scene came about. The test, Villenueve reasoned, should come after a violent mission and not before; this would also have the positive effect of allowing the director to start his film on an exterior shot rather than inside a contained space (“I wanted to open the movie on a landscape,” Villenueve told us; “I thought that was very important”).
“Roger Deakins and I thought it would be much more interesting if it was a very claustrophobic little booth, with a strange scanner in front of him, and we will never see the cop who’s asking the questions,” Villeneuve says of his reimagined baseline test. It’ll be much more brutal, much more impersonal, much more inhuman – almost like he’s an animal in a laboratory. I thought that would be much more violent, and that it would say more about K’s place in society. How he’s just an object to them. And that replicants are so strong, the door out of the booth has to be very well locked, you know? [Laughs] In case something goes wrong, they’re safe. He’s an animal in a cage. How vulnerable he is in that environment.”
The scene continued to evolve when filming began in the summer of 2016; originally, co-writer Michael Green had imagined that K would recite a poem, and that a scanner would monitor K for fluctuations in his emotions during the recital. Although the scene was in the shooting script, some suggestions by Ryan Gosling helped change its tone almost completely.
“In the original [script] it was just a mantra he was repeating,” Villeneuve says. “But I felt that wasn’t intrusive, wasn’t aggressive enough, and Ryan came up with this idea when we were brainstorming. He came up with this process that actors use to learn Shakespeare, where you say a word, then they repeat the word, and then someone would ask a question about that word. It’s to induce specific memories linked with a word, so they remember the word forever. I transformed that process to make it intrusive, where instead of having someone repeating a long, long sentence, they will be more aggressive – they’re asking questions about specific words.”
The basis for the test became a passage from Pale Fire – the Vladimir Nabokov novel that happens to be a favorite of K’s:
“Cells interlinked within cells interlinkedWithin one stem. And dreadfully distinctAgainst the dark, a tall white fountain played.”
Villenueve and his crew shot both versions of the scene – the one as written, and the more aggressive version which added Gosling’s idea of repeated words. Needless to say, it was the latter take on the sequence that stuck – and it was here, Villeneuve says, that he felt the essence of Blade Runner 2049‘s bleak future first reared its head.
“It was about three days into shooting, and I said to Ryan Gosling, ‘That’s exactly the kind of movie I want to make. That’s the exact kind of tension, brutality, aggression I want.’ It reminds me of the movies I loved from the 70s, the science fiction that is very aggressive and brutal.”
If the final scene in Blade Runner 2049 has an almost indefinable, unearthly quality, then that may be in part because it emerged from so many different places: Michael Green’s idea of a mantra-like poem recital; artist Sam Hudecki’s drawing of a spare, eye-like machine set in a wall; Villeneuve’s desire for an aggressive, almost robot form of interrogation; Ryan Gosling’s suggestion based on a memory exercise; Roger Deakins’ millimetre perfect cinematography, which underlines K’s isolation and vulnerability.
The sequence also recaptures the ominous tone of sci-fi writer Philip K Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? formed the loose basis for the original Blade Runner. A replicant who reads literature, longs to be human, but is treated like something subhuman by an interrogator who could almost be a machine himself? It’s a notion PKD would have surely admired. It’s an equally dark inversion of his Voight-Kampff test (spelled Voigt-Kampff in the novel): an attempt to detect and extinguish all traces of human empathy.
It’s a test that K was never going to pass forever, and it’s only fitting that K’s chosen text provides a hint of his repressed desires: Cells, interlinked. He longs for human connection; hence his relationship with the holographic AI, Joi; hence his dogged determination to uncover the identity of a missing child, and its possible connection to his own memories. That Blade Runner 2049 can express so much, in just one scene that lasts for a scant few seconds, is a testament to its power as a piece of sci-fi cinema.