There’s no saxophone in Blade Runner 2049. There’s barely any Harrison Ford. The aesthetic are strikingly different from the original film. More or less gone are the pervasive cramped neon-drenched streets, the melded Asian aesthetic, the acoustic instrumentation. Hampton Fancher may have been a writer on both films, but 2049 isn’t a sparse moody tone piece like the original, it’s a plot-heavy, heady affair. This isn’t a pandering sequel aping the original, it’s a genuine attempt to build off, and iterate from, the original film to tell a new story.
[Spoilers for the original film, and Blade Runner 2049, follow.]
Writer Michael Green describes the story of the film as “what it means for someone who is a self-aware lesser creature and what happens when he begins to aspire? When a virus of ‘better’ enters his imagination? The idea was that aspiring can change you – that was the virus that I wanted to contain – striving makes a difference”. Returning writer Hampton Fancher describes it as “ Automation breeds automation. The image I had in my head of K, as I wrote in that first little short story, was that this guy is a handbook. He follows the rules. He’s a machine in a way. But the image was this: A handbook turns into a poem through his experiences and his ordeal and love. And the same thing with the digital woman”.
What fascinates me is how the film builds off ideas considered for the original film but ultimately unused. The opening scene, with Ryan Gosling’s stoic K confronting Dave Bautista’s weary Sapper Morton is literally a modified version of a scrapped scene from the original 1982 film. The question of whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard is or isn’t a replicant (no matter what version of the film is being viewed) is sidestepped completely, with 2049 making it clear from the first scene of the film that its protagonist K is absolutely a replicant. A replicant that may in some sense be human, in contrast to the original film’s centre focus on a human that may be a replicant – of course, in the ending here, the blade runner spares the replicant (albeit a replicant that is also a blade runner), where in the first film the replicant spared the blade runner, all cognisant of the inherent value of life, no matter the form. Director Denis Villeneuve, writer of the original, Hampton Fancher, and writer Michael Green don’t create a pandering repetition of the original film, they specifically go for the story opportunities the original take, they pointedly create something new.
The most striking aspect of the film isn’t the writing though, it’s the visuals, the cinematography. I won’t lie, I miss the gorgeous, moody, nuanced lighting and atmospheric smoke of the original (even then, digital makes its case in how much detail was preserved in the otherwise dim sea wall sequence), but Roger Deakins’ cinematography in the sequel is stunning, staggering…his use of negative space, the way he frames the characters, so tiny against the relentless, dehumanising oppressive world they live in is breathtaking. Presumably more and more people have left to live offworld since the original film, contributing to the few characters left being foregrounded against vaster and vaster wastelands, and perhaps contributing to the film’s lack of Asian aesthetics as the original had as well. What Deakins does do with the lighting is fascinating…I do miss the smoke and haze and atmospherics of Scott’s film, but all the silhouette work in the sequel is intriguing. K is first shown emerging from the mist near Sapper’s home, and last shown dying against the snow, a dark figure (”dreadfully distinct”) against the white snow, bathed in light rather than shadow, unlike how he’s first framed inside Sapper’s house. And unlike how Deckard and Wallace are framed when they meet each other, swallowed up by otherwordly darkness and oscillating light patterns. Or when K is silhouetted against the garish light of the holographic purple Joi advertisement. The bizarre uncanny valley scene of two actresses phasing in and out of each other is followed up by Joi confronting the prostitute in the morning when they’re both shadowed, before turning the lights on as she’s cast out. The deeper in shadows, the emptier the character? The more disconnected? K falls back down into shadows, silhouetted against the light, when learning he’s not special, the actual child, from the replicant rebels.
It’s not all just in the shooting though, Villeneuve wrangled some very impressive production design, sets, prop work…there’s nothing quite at Ridley Scott level of attention to living detail in sets, but the amount of actual on location footage is surprising and really shows, especially in the Vegas sequences (which, interestingly, were inspired by the 2009 day Sydney was coated in an orange dust storm).
It’s in these environments the narrative expands, as K begins to believe he’s special, important, a grand player in the world. He isn’t deluded, he knows realistically how unimportant he is (Gosling plays this perfectly, especially in the harrowing ‘baseline’ scenes, which interestingly enough were Gosling’s own idea, drawing from a type of acting practise game) – note how he tells the AI woman, Joi, “you don’t have to say that” when her lovey-dovey dialogue gets too syrupy. He enjoys the illusion of love, he wants to feel something, but he doesn’t want to truly delude himself. But as evidence mounts up and up and all signs point towards him being naturally born, and thus in his mind wanted and inherently loved, his understanding of his place in the world breaks down and he begins to imagine himself as something more, something greater, the “virus of ‘better’” enters his imagination, the “handbook” begins to shift to an epic novel.
Interestingly, this was played straight in earlier iterations of the script, but Green and Villeneuve shifted it so that K was completely mistaken, and he didn’t occupy any self-evident “special” place in the world at all. He was just another replicant, with some coincidences and circumstances deriving from there finally being a blade runner, a replicant with such reach, having the implanted memories of Deckard and Rachael’s daughter finally occurring. K is offered two chances to still grasp some kind of important place in the world. The replicant rebels want him to kill Deckard, to preserve the whereabouts and safety of his miraculous daughter, who they eventually want as part of their resistance. This scene and set-up is so cliche and tied into conventional dystopian film formulas that it’s received a lot of criticism for seeming like it’s setting up a sequel, even though everyone involved has denied that, and it’s clear from the thematics of the film it indeed wasn’t – the poor staging of the sequence, with replicants cheesily appearing from behind the pillars out of nowhere is to blame really.
And of course, earlier in the film Robin Wright’s police chief characters tasks K with eliminating the natural-born replicant child to preserve order in the world. K rejects both narratives, both roles, as well as coming to terms with his lack of ingrained importance, the fact nobody wanted him brought into the world. He saves Deckard and reunites him with his daughter, something he wanted to see through on his own, his own choice. He gives two people their own resolution and catharsis. He wasn’t born special, but through his own self-determination, his own choices and actions made for his own reasons, he makes an impact on other people’s lives, and is transformed from “handbook to poem”. Being “special” wasn’t as important as actually choosing what to do with one’s life. It’s no coincidence it’s K, the replicant that feels real snowflakes fall over him at the end, while the natural-born child inside the nearby building only looks at digital illusions of snowflakes.
Even his love, his relationship is thrown into question when his unique Joi is broken (or “dies”), and the reality of her construction is made plain in a giant holographic version of her calling K “a good joe” in an unsettling callback to the apparently loving name of “Joe” Joi bestowed upon K to humanise him. Did K feel sorrow over losing his own unique Joi that had transcended her more sterile origins, just as he ended up doing, or feel emptiness over how dehumanising and pornographic that version of Joi was, making him feel the relationship was entirely fraudulent? Surely it’s no coincidence that both Deckard and K are presented with “fake” versions of the women they loved (the new Rachael, the purple Joi), which they both reject. Love, emotions, humanity, arguably a product of chemicals in the brain, hormones, biological “programming”…are digital and artificial learning, responses, stimuli truly that different, fundamentally? Joi chooses to make herself vulnerable in a seemingly unintuitive decision that brings love and joy to another, K, much as K does the same in saving Deckard and reuniting him with his daughter, instead of cooperating with the police or the replicant rebels. Is sentience just an emergent process in self-referential complex systems?
When it comes to the biological constructs of the replicants, both Blade Runner films arguably suggest “no”, Rutger Hauer and Ryan Gosling’s brilliant performances (both climaxing to the same “tears in rain” music, in one of the rare moments 2049 explicitly pulls from the original film to make a point), but taking that line of thought to holographic, intangible constructs makes it murkier. If memories define us, what defines replicants with fake memories like K, or AIs with default databanks like Joi? Perhaps it’s just their actions in the moment, and arguing over whether they are autonomous and have agency or not is overthinking it, and coasting off unproven presumptions that humans do. Joi says she loves K, tries to talk to him even when he’s unconscious, tells him she loves him, and so on – just very thorough programming, or “true” love? K protects Deckard and reunites him with his daughter, violating his orders (”programming”?) and most intuitive path to a “happy ending” (the rebel storyline) – faulty design and reasoning, or “true” humanity? It’s not so much the “are robots capable of human emotion, can robots be ‘humans’” question of the original film, but the question of “does that even matter”. The first film looked more at identity, where the second looks at reality.
The music swaps the dreamy, melancholic synths of the original for harsher, more distorted snyth work, devoid of the acoustic instrumentation (the lovely saxophone of the original), and much lighter on melody as well. Just as Harrison Ford returns much worse for wear, the musical continuity from the first film comes harsher, more sterile, as with all aspects of the sequel besides perhaps the characters. The glimpses of Elvis and Sinatra in the Vegas scenes call to a warmer time of acoustic, human music, but the industrial-tinged soundtrack grinds things back to a sterile world. The intermittent rising of the warm CS80 synth in the soundtrack again ties the worlds together, but it’s always in contrast, apart from the outright reprisal of the “tears in rain” music from the original, when Roy and K die.
The overpowering, intoxicating groove of the music in the “threesome” sequence where Joi and the prostitute Mariette come together in a bizarre, murky union communicates the confusing emotions of that sequence better than the heartfelt saxophone in the first film’s sex sequence would have here. It’s hard to track one particular emotion into the music in that Joi scene, but it’s overpowering all the same. Are Joi and K transcending the limits of their technological origins, or relegating a prostitute to basically being a dehumanised piece of meat while K all but masturbates with a digital interface? The music isn’t giving any answers, but it is reinforcing the question. Elsewhere, there’s the distinctive throat singing motif in the Wallace scenes, the jutting blares in certain travel sequences, choral elements in the toy-in-the-furnace scene, triumphant synth lines like the original in the first sea wall sequence when K and Joi fly out of the city, and striking claustrophobia in the second sea wall sequence when K fights Luv and tries to save Deckard.
The allusions to other works – Deckard referencing “Treasure Island” in his first lines, the baseline tests quoting Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” (an extract dealing with misinterpretations and subjective experiences of reality, no less), K’s name drawing from Kafka’s “The Trial” – are almost as numerous as the references to the original film itself. In the Voight-Kampff test in the original, Deckard asks Rachael what she would do if she saw a wasp crawling on her arm (”I’d kill it”). K gets a hand covered in bees when he goes to Vegas, and doesn’t harm them at all. A musical cue from the original film is fully reprised as K dies, the same cue that played when Roy died – two replicants, dying in a show of humanity to Deckard. There are even some nods to the original book, Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, with an underground society, a long trip into the desert, and inspiration from the “second police station” scene of the book. Villeneuve actually says that scene, with the book’s Deckard and another officer testing themselves to check if they’re replicants or not, helped him crack how to deal with addressing Deckard’s ambiguous status in the sequel.
It’s a rare sequel that genuinely iterates off an original, instead of just aping it and pandering to its fans. It’s rare to see genuinely strong science-fiction like this produced at such an extraordinarily professional level. It’s rare to see a film like this, but I’m extremely glad I did. I give it four and a half emanators, and a toy unicorn with its horn broken off.