The only bright colors in Blade Runner 2049 are artificial. There’s a holographic advertisement of a 60-foot-tall naked lady, whose shiny-black eyes only serve to highlight her bubblegum pink body and neon blue hair. There’s a forest, but it’s someone’s dream.
Our story starts with Ryan Gosling flying in over a bone-white California farmscape with fixtures lined up in concentric circles, a landscape so devoid of color it looks as if Earth’s life force retreated into itself, leaving nothing but a hollow simulacrum of the planet we used to know. Ridley Scott’s fixation on eyes—the one that launched a thousand college film class papers—is echoed at the start of the movie with a literal eye, as well as the grayscale megafarm’s unambiguous optic shape. Mankind doesn’t need nature anymore. There’s a tree, but it’s dead. Gosling doesn’t mind, though, and neither does the farmer who lives here. This is how things are. The world may be dead, but if it can be augmented and retrofitted to support life (both real and artificial), does it really matter?
It’s a question at the very core of both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, films that are concerned with not only the existence of a line between android and human but also the thinning and fraying of that line, the ways that life and artificial life blur and converge and influence each other.
***IT IS NOW THAT I MUST WARN YOU ABOUT SPOILERS. THERE ARE SOME LIGHT AND VAGUE ONES AHEAD, ALTHOUGH I’LL STEER MOSTLY CLEAR OF BIG TENTPOLE PLOT POINTS. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW, TREAD NO FURTHER.***
This time around the movie tells you straight up: Ryan Gosling is a replicant. He’s KD6.3-7, a nice android who works as a blade runner for the LAPD and has a live-in holographic girlfriend. The Tyrell Corporation boasted that it made replicants who were “More human than human,” and K fits that profile. His existence, at least at the start of the movie, is charmingly mundane. He goes to work; he deals with his boss; and he comes home to cook dinner and commiserate with his significant other. Everyone needs something, even replicants. That his girlfriend doesn’t have a physical form never seems especially relevant, since K himself isn’t a real person anyway, and she’s plenty conscious. The interlocking layers of robotic life, and the ways they interact, form the philosophical backdrop of the movie, one that is at least broader if not more focused than the first Blade Runner.
Where Blade Runner was about a man questioning his humanity, Blade Runner 2049 tells the inverse of that story. K is knocked off his axis when one of his implanted memories comes to show itself as, somehow, real. The implications of this are as staggering and world-shaking as the discovery K makes that sets the entire plot in motion (which I will not spoil here) and his search takes him to the corpse of Las Vegas, where he finds Rick Deckard hiding out in the crumbling ruins of a casino with a nice doggy.
We’ll get to the implications of the past and the future and the question of androgyny in a second, but first, a word on Harrison Ford’s arms. I don’t know what sort of P90X or German platelet therapy Ford did for this movie, but he looks like the NFL Blitz version of aging Harrison Ford. He looks like the Hulk at an AARP booth. When he fights K in the sputtering bones of the casino as hologram Elvis flickers in and out of view, it’s almost a fair match. Their fight is one of the most single disorienting scenes I’ve ever seen on screen, the exemplar of the punishing visual language director Denis Villenueve uses throughout the movie.
Longtime Moviespin readers will not be surprised that this site maintains a hard-on for Villenueve’s craft, and Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most evocative, well-shot movies ever made. I’m wary that this sounds like hyperbole; it is not. Villenueve’s Los Angeles is a foreboding and sinister place, with buildings hulking out of the mist up into a soot-black sky, 50-foot-tall holographic advertisements that are firmly in the bottom of the uncanny valley, the citizenry shuffling around through the fallout from some unspecified environmental decay through a city that’s half neon, half concrete and all artifice. When the camera pans through the city, the screen literally rumbles at you, like someone’s revving a motorcycle from hell on your cerebellum.
K has to take a “baseline test” every time he returns to the station. It’s meant to sniff out any intruding independence, and it’s a punishing audio-visual experience for the viewer. A wall-mounted eye glares at K as it yells at him and he’s forced to rattle off responses through the stimuli. While K and the machine play their parts, a wall of noise washes over you and it’s just as overwhelming for you in the theater as it is for K in the movie. If you can sift through the aural violence, you’ll catch a lovely Nabokov verse:
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
The only time the movie is really quiet is when K creeps through the irradiated shell of Las Vegas. The very air is yellow and dead buildings loom over K like the vestiges of an ancient civilization. This passage is pure hallucinatory wonder and it works as the inflection point where K fully embraces his transformation. Who knew a hand covered in bees could be such a moving image? He becomes more and more uncertain about who he really is, and as the movie lovingly shows, that’s part of what being a person is.
What does it mean to have memories? As a memory weaver tells K, there’s no such thing as an uncorrupted memory anyway. There’s a natural process of decay and gap-filling that goes on in our minds, and feelings, not details, are what we carry with us. In this spirit, I wish Blade Runner 2049 was more willing to dispense with nostalgia. It’s genuinely affecting to see how Rachel and Deckard’s story from Blade Runner ended, but it forms perhaps too much of the movie’s core. The most intriguing facet of how the Blade Runner universe is presented is the way that Ridley Scott and now Villenueve hint at a rich world with fascinating boundary conditions and harder sci-fi possibilities without ever showing you everything. (Read one way, Blade Runner is really more an epilogue to the mutiny performed by Rutger Hauer and Co. than a self-contained story.) We have to know what became of the first movie’s principals, but the movie works best when it’s telling K’s story.
If too much Harrison Ford is the price that must be paid, though, for two hours and 45 minutes of Villenueve’s unrelenting audio-visual mastery (somehow, despite being longer than all hell, the movie is paced well), then that’s a fine bargain. The textures of this movie are a pleasure to sift through, and Gosling’s performance is a master class in restraint. You’ll enjoy supporting work from Mackenzie Davis (as manic pixie sex worker), Robin Wright (as grizzled police vet with sympathy for her android underlings), and Jared Leto (as ketamine Tyrell). The villain of the movie, such that there is one, is a terrifying android badass (played with great care by Sylvia Hoeks) with a kickboxing skill rating of 99+ and somewhat opaque motivations.
Most impressive of all, Blade Runner 2049 manages to capture the atmosphere of the original Blade Runner. The new version of the story was never going to match the philosophical heft of its predecessor—though in its more intimate moments it comes surprisingly close—and that’s fine. I didn’t want a redux, I wanted something new. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is bleak and cruel yet its bleakness and cruelness are rendered in such effective detail that you always want to know more about what goes on beyond the margins. That’s what makes it sing and move and hit you as hard as it does. It works on its own, and its dark heart beats the same android blood as Blade Runner thanks to the care with which its world was crafted.