Fanboy movies are, by definition, made with only specific audiences in mind. Because they exist in such a closed universe, I come away from most of them feeling confused and alienated. Blade Runner 2049 is one of only a handful of fanboy movies that actually engaged me, that doesn’t come off as being so closely tethered to obscure references that it takes nothing less than insider information and encyclopedic knowledge to get anything out of it.
It would of course help to have seen its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner – or, better yet, the 1992 Director’s Cut and/or the 2007 Final Cut, which many, myself included, believe superior – but given how absorbing this sequel is, I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement.
Scott remains on board as the film’s executive producer but hands the directorial reins to Denis Villeneuve, a self-admitted diehard fan of the original Blade Runner who understood right off the bat that there would be tremendous pressure for him to deliver a product that lived up to expectations. What matters to me is that he got it right for all audiences, not just fans of the first film (whether or not it will be embraced by fans of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is something I can’t address). Like it, 2049 is a visually stunning sci-fi neo noir with deep existential subtexts. It continues to beg the question of what it means to be human, what it means to exist at all in a dystopian world so inundated with technology that a great deal of what was natural has been wiped out.
This is explored in both films in two very distinct ways. One is visually; Los Angeles of the future is a sea of buildings packed in street blocks like sardines, the walls awash with neon advertising and Asian lettering, the dirty sidewalks glistening due to the frequent downpours of rain. Anything that wasn’t constructed, anything that’s away from the urban sprawl, is a barren wasteland of sand and soil. Just as Scott did, Villeneuve not only thoroughly envisions this world but actually immerses us in it – and I mean that both figuratively and literally, since the film has been released in 3D.
The other way is the characterization of the Replicants, which, as we all now know, are synthetic human beings originally created as slave labor for unseen offworld colonies. It was up to specially assigned LAPD officers, Blade Runners, to track down and “retire” the Replicants. In the first film, the Blade Runner was Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford. Thirty years later – which is to say, in this new film – it’s a deadly serious cop known only as K (Ryan Gosling), whose superior (Robin Wright) has very clear, very rigid views about why Replicants and humans are separate and not equal. The fact that K has to hunt down and exterminate the last remaining old-model Replicants is both ironic and cruel, for reasons decency prevents me from giving.
Indeed, there isn’t much about this film I’m able or willing to divulge. Certainly it’s no secret that Harrison Ford returns as Deckard – he is, after all, prominently shown and named on the poster – but the circumstances under which he returns is pretty much nothing but secrets. Let it suffice to say that, as a noir, there’s a mystery that has to be solved, one that involves not only K and Deckard but also the blind head of a Replicant manufacturing plant (Jared Leto), and his loyal right-hand Replicant assistant (Sylvia Hoeks), who isn’t to this film what Sean Young was to the original but certainly fulfills the need for the obligatory female side character.
For thirty-five years now, there has been debate over whether or not the Deckard character was in fact a Replicant. I’m not going to say if this new film makes it clear one way or the other. What I will say is that, in the same way it applies to Deckard, ambiguity over basic humanity, over knowing what is and isn’t real, imbues the entire story. It’s established, for example, that K has formed a relationship with a holographic woman (Ana de Armas) that anyone can buy, program, and even transfer onto a portable projector stick; in one of the film’s best scenes, this woman, who K says is real enough for him, hires a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) to act as a physical surrogate for the act of lovemaking. The irony is that the prostitute, a Replicant, is real only in the sense that she’s an object occupying space.
Or is it only in that sense? Is she just as much of a woman as any conceived naturally? And what is natural conception, anyway? Was K’s hologram programmed to want to leave the confines of a room, to experience rain falling on her skin, to love K so much that she would mastermind vicarious sex? Or is she evolving and maturing in the same way we do? Blade Runner 2049 could have easily been made to avoid these complicated philosophical questions, to steer clear of the sensibilities that polarized critics and audiences back in 1982, to be more “commercial.” Thankfully, Villeneuve took the material seriously. Yes, I’m sure some of that had to do with him being a fan of the original film. But I think it has more to do with him being a talented director with more discerning tastes.