Lieutenant Joshi: “You’ve been getting on fine without one.”
K: “What’s that, ma’am?”
Lieutenant Joshi: “A soul.”
Bigger, louder, more violent: sequels almost seem duty-bound to one-up what came before. Unfortunately, history’s also littered with film sequels that, for all their sound and fury, soon slip from memory. Even if they deliver on the higher bodycount or more over-the-top action, they often lose the character and storytelling of their predecessors. Jaws and RoboCop are examples of classic movies with less than stellar sequels. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, arguably ranks alongside Terminator 2, Aliens, and Mad Max: Fury Road on the list of best sequels ever made.
Blade Runner 2049 succeeded, in no small part, because of the specific way it expanded on the 1982 original. A lesser group of writers and directors might have looked at Ridley Scott’s film and concluded that what it needed was something broadly in line with its dystopian tone, but with more of the things that cut together nicely for a trailer: more chases through benighted city streets; more booming guns and brutal fights.
Instead, director Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators took a much braver approach than just making a sci-fi action movie set in the same universe as Blade Runner. The sequel feels expansive, certainly, with its locations extended to take in a spooky, irradiated Las Vegas and a ruined San Diego, but it’s in its themes and storytelling that we see the greatest expansion of all.
The original Blade Runner began as the story of Rick Deckard (a taciturn Harrison Ford), an agent charged with the grim task of hunting down artificial humans, or replicants, in 21st century Los Angeles. Replicants are the creation of the Tyrell Corporation, and are specifically made to provide slave labour on other planets; they’re forbidden to set foot on Earth, and Blade Runners like Deckard are despatched to hunt them down if they are.
The problem for Deckard is that the replicants are becoming more humanlike with each passing iteration. An electronic test, administered via something called a Voight-Kampff machine, can uncover the subtly different wiring in their brains, but it’s a slow and cumbersome process – as one of Deckard’s colleagues, Holden, finds out at the start of the movie.
Blade Runner then becomes as much about Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), a replicant who’s made the illegal trip to Earth in the hope of expanding his four-year lifespan. Although its events wander far from Philip K Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner nevertheless explored some of the same topics that long fascinated the author: the nature and meaning of memory; the philosophical differences between a machine capable of compassion and a human so lacking in empathy that he can shoot an unarmed woman in the back.
Blade Runner 2049 takes all this and carries it forward, creating a new story that both continues the themes of the original Blade Runner and builds on them for a new audience. Along with co-writer Michael Green, returning Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher comes up with a new scenario, set 30 years after the first: the now-defunct Tyrell Corporation has given way to blind industrialist Niander Wallace, who makes a new generation of more obedient replicants who work both off-world and on Earth.
Meanwhile, a few of Tyrell’s old Nexus series replicants are still at large, which means that the LAPD still employs Blade Runners like K (Ryan Gosling) to hunt them down. The twist here is that K is himself a replicant, and as a hunter of his own kind, is despised both by his human colleagues and other androids.
While ‘retiring’ a replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K uncovers a buried box of remains – seemingly human, but on closer inspection, those of a replicant. A more detailed autopsy reveals that the replicant died during childbirth; a shocking discovery, since replicants were never meant to be able to reproduce like humans. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi, charges K with covering up the story and, if possible, track down the replicant’s child and retire it. Gradually, however, K’s history begins to align with that of the missing child, and he begins to wonder whether he is, as his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ama de Armas) keeps telling him, something rather more special than an ordinary replicant.
Like Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty, K is therefore a replicant on his own existential journey: forced to repress his human responses – which are regularly checked by his superiors – K lives in a state of almost constant isolation. Deep down, he’s desperately searching for some kind of greater connection; he has no family, no friends, and no real past, beyond the artificial memories implanted in his head. It’s telling that his girlfriend isn’t physically real – Joi’s an artificially intelligent programme who floats in and out of K’s life like a softly-spoken ghost.
Where Roy Batty’s search was for an extension on his life, K’s search is about finding meaning and purpose: what if he was born and not created? What if his memories weren’t engineered after all, but were half-forgotten slivers of a dangerous childhood? This, surely, would give his life meaning – unlike an ordinary replicant, he’d surely have a human soul. (As K says himself, “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.”)
Although an android who wants to be human is far from a new idea in sci-fi, Blade Runner 2049‘s handling of it is quite unusual. The secret of true fulfilment, the film seems to suggest, is not through individualism, but through empathy and fighting for a greater cause. Time and again, Blade Runner 2049 points out the illusory nature of the soul: memories can be copied and manipulated. Individuals can be recreated whole-cloth, seemingly down to their original personalities. Almost down to the cellular level, replicants are indistinguishable from humans.
Not that the film presents this as a bad thing by itself: the true horror in Blade Runner 2049 isn’t the cloning, the artificial memories or the replicants, but the way all those things are used to cruel and inhumane ends. Niander Wallace, with his eyes like those of a dead fish, talks high-mindedly about his creations, but he has no more compassion for them than the owner of a factory that manufactures electronic calculators.
When K embarks on his journey, he’s initially obsessed with the idea of his own status; it’s as the story moves on, opening out the world as it moves from desolate location to desolate location, that he begins to realise that what he is doesn’t necessarily matter – it’s what he does with his life that counts.
This, we’d argue, is Blade Runner 2049‘s greatest triumph as a sequel to Blade Runner: yes, its vistas are as big and bleakly beautiful as we could have hoped. Its thriller plot is, if anything, more coherent and tidily delineated than the first. But where the sequel really excels is in its continuation of Blade Runner‘s grand themes – the meaning of our existence, the nature of memory, and what makes us truly human. As Philip K Dick often concluded in his novels, Blade Runner 2049 offers up the suggestion that it’s the replicants – enslaved, marginalised, oppressed – aren’t just more human than human, but more humane. Let’s face it, if a character as self-absorbed and cruel as Niander Wallace has a soul simply because he’s human, then maybe a soul isn’t worth all that much after all.