The big questions of life—how long we have, how memory defines us, what it means to be human—figure prominently in the Blade Runner universe, first introduced to cinemas by Ridley Scott back in 1982. Working loosely from the trippy Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Scott jettisoned most of Dick’s hippy-dippy drug culture subtext and instead focused on a visual style in which the setting drove the narrative just as much as the characters. In this fully-realized world, we meet Rick Deckard—the titular Blade Runner, a police assassin tasked with tracking down and “retiring” escaped replicants. These bioengineered androids, who resemble people down to the smallest detail, were created as a slave labor force and are considered utterly disposable. The only problem: the replicants are a little too human, and have started to develop their own emotions and sense of self. They have also developed a strong will to live, and will do whatever it takes to stay alive.
Blade Runner was a gorgeous, fascinating and enthralling movie. It was also a box office flop.
Perhaps it was because moviegoers, familiar with the dashing Harrison Ford from Star Wars, didn’t know what to make of his complex and conflicted Rick Deckard. Or maybe they were just expecting a straightforward sci-fi shoot ‘em up, in which the robots were the bad guys and mowing them down didn’t present any moral issues. Whatever the cause, Blade Runner might have been entirely forgotten if it hadn’t been for home video, where the film had far more time and latitude to find an audience that appreciated it—and appreciate it they did. Since its initial release, Blade Runner has become the definitive vision of a dystopian future, imitated by countless other works of science-fiction.
Now comes Blade Runner 2049, a sequel that only took Hollywood 35 years to get around to making. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely—but with one big caveat. Although the film is fully-realized and stands completely on its own, it would be very difficult to appreciate it without having seen the original. Not only are the themes a continuation of the first film, the emotional impact of the events in Blade Runner 2049 are blunted if you’re not familiar with the original characters.
And it’s obvious that director Denis Villeneuve has great affection for those characters, because they form the central mystery that drives the story. Ryan Gosling plays Officer K of the LAPD, himself a replicant—and a Blade Runner. He’s a newer model who is programmed to obey his superiors without question, who send him out to find—and kill, if necessary—older models who are still hiding among the human populations left on Earth. During a mission that opens the film, K confronts a replicant named Sapper who asks him how it feels to hunt his own kind. Accusing K of being a soulless automaton, Sapper says cryptically, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” He then attacks K knowing that the Blade Runner will gun him down—a suicide by cop meant to cover up a secret.
MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW
K later finds that secret buried under a a tree outside the replicant’s home—the bones of a woman that have been there for decades. An LAPD medical examiner performs an autopsy which reveals that the woman died during childbirth, but also reveals something else that should be impossible: the woman was a replicant. This was the miracle Sapper told K about. And it represents an existential threat to the notion that replicants are less than human.
The rest of Blade Runner 2049 follows K as he tries to track down what happened to the child, with orders to kill the child if he finds it alive. The trail eventually leads him to Rick Deckard, and a final confrontation that will change everything K thought he knew about himself and about humanity.
It’s pretty heady stuff—and all done with a cinematic flair that would have made Ridley Scott proud. Rather than copy the style of the original Blade Runner, Villeneuve actually builds on it, integrating elements made famous from the first film—the flying cars, the rainy streets, the holographic advertisements—with his own visual style, making the most of advancements in CGI to expand the depth of that world without cluttering it up. It all feels very real. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is also every bit as stunning as the original, which is particularly vital for a sequel to a film practically defined by its look. Never has bleak appeared quite so beautiful. It’s almost—but not quite—enough to make you want to experience that world first hand.
There are also a great many ideas floating around here, not the least of which is the intrinsic value of life. In the first film, animals have become so rare that realistic facsimiles of them are among the most prized—and expensive—of possessions. The replicants, meanwhile, realize that their allotted lifespan of four short years is running out, so in desperation they come back to Earth to find a way to extend that time. “I want more life,” Roy Batty, the leader of the rogue replicants, demands of his creator. And in the end, Roy spares Rick Deckard even though he could have killed the Blade Runner sent to kill him. “I don’t know why he saved my life,” Deckard says. “Maybe in those last moments he loved life more that he ever had before. Not just his life—anybody’s life. My life.”
Blade Runner 2049 takes that idea and runs with it, extending it to the replicants being able to have children of their own. In fact, in the film, this is what defines them as human. The people running the show don’t want anybody to find out about the child, because they know it would completely upend the existing world order. Replicants would no longer be seen as slaves if they were capable of creating life themselves. As K observes at one point, to be born is to have a soul—and to have a soul is to have value,
This is a profoundly pro-life subtext. I’m not sure if this is what the filmmakers intended, but it’s definitely there—and it’s bound to make some people uncomfortable. Just as it’s more convenient for people in Blade Runner to not think of replicants as human, so is it easier for pro-abortion activists to cast unborn babies the same way. But real life, as in the film, is a lot more complicated than that. Pretending otherwise doesn’t change anything.
Fans of strong female leads will also find lots to like in Blade Runner 2049. As the replicant Luv, Sylvia Hoeks is an appropriately badass henchman (henchperson?) to Jared Leto’s blind megalomaniac Niander Wallace, and Ana de Armas nearly steals the show as K’s holographic companion Joi.
As to Harrison Ford, the actual time he has on screen as Rick Deckard actually amounts to more of an extended cameo than a starring role. His appearance, however, carries a great deal of emotional heft and firmly grounds the story in the Blade Runner universe. When it comes to the action, though, he isn’t given that much to do—although, at the age of 75, he still gets a chance to throw a few impressive punches.
My only complaint might be that the film’s climax seems a little abrupt and underwhelming for a nearly three hour movie. Then again, with the orgy of CGI destruction that you typically find at the end of most blockbusters these days, it’s refreshing to see filmmakers opting to keep it simple.