Just two years from the future that Blade Runner predicted thirty years ago, and we are still steps away from emotive replicants, hover cars, and instant showers. What has however exceeded 20th century expectations, is digital imagery. Film has since seen brilliant advances in simulating realistic holography and futuristic landscapes. It is hence no surprise that Blade Runner 2049 would be a visual masterwork.
What about its narrative then? Years have left the ambitious sequel at a disadvantage, asking questions that have already been asked before. Its predecessor Blade Runner had been made in 1982, when novel ideas such as singularity were rife with unknowns. The source material Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick goes further back to 1968, at a time when A.I. had been but an abstract concept.
Science has made impressive leaps since then. Modern prototypes like Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Erica has imitated sentience to disconcerting effect, while real-world algorithms have been proven to pass the Turing Test. In fiction, film and literature have explored the subject to no end. No doubt, Blade Runner 2049 would draw instant comparisons to other outstanding sci-fi contemporaries, with its subject of Man v. Machine.
Isaac Asimov’s Runaround, or I, Robot comes to mind, its Three Laws of Robotics preventing the rising of androids. Spike Jonze’s Her explores the philosophy of engineered consciousness with an ostensible love story. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina finds inspiration in modern anxieties surrounding overreaching corporate giants, as well as the increasing reliance on technology.
All these motifs recur in Blade Runner 2049 in familiar forms. The film centres on K (Ryan Gosling), a self-aware replicant who hunts down obsolete models for the LAPD. He has never questioned the killing of his own kind, until his investigation uncovers the remains of a once-pregnant replicant Rachael (Sean Young), who has mothered a child with former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
Her child lives, none of its experiences or memories fabricated by a corporation. It is born with what is deemed a soul, and is not simply a vessel made to serve. If a replicant can give birth to a child with freewill, surely have they transcended their artificiality through the act of true procreation.
Things complicate when K is led to believe he might be the child of Rachael and Deckard. It is clear at this point how Blade Runner 2049 follows close to the themes in Ridley Scott’s original. Like Rachael, K struggles with his identity as a replicant and harbours strong hopes that his memories may be real.
His desire to be human is reiterated in his relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), an Andy made for sexual gratification with no agency of her own. When he re-programs her with a mobile emitter, he observes her out of curiosity about her sentience, more than pure sensual love. It is as though if he can believe her to be human, he himself can be too.
His constant hopes of humanity also harken back to Tyrell’s motto, “more human than human”. Machines are becoming more human, only because we have become less. Replicants continually seek ways to express their humanity. Yet Man has fixated on the purpose of serving corporations – Man submitting to consumerism, Deckard fulfilling his job as a Blade Runner – arguably surrendering their freewill.
The narrative succeeds in offering plenty of room for thought as such. Even if the ideas are not particularly new, the definitive perspective of a replicant makes for an interesting watch. Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins inspire further awe with their mesmeric vision befitting the cinema, their third partnership following Prisoners and Sicario bringing an experiential treat.
Unfortunately, the pace is draining. In K’s search for the missing child, there is no big mystery that warrants a run time of 160 minutes. Extensive scenes – like K browsing archival records, or engaging in fisticuffs with Deckard – add little to the narrative, save for aural-visual marvel. A sparse screenplay exacerbates the issue. Never do the lines ever come close to evincing what Rutger Hauer did as Roy Batty in Blade Runner.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.”
– Roy Batty, Blade Runner
Back then, Batty’s conversations with Tyrell had been carefully designed, presenting the latter’s God complex. Tyrell subtly shows an admiration for his creation, fascinated by his own work that he does not fully understand. In the new villain incarnation, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) does away with ambiguity. His espousal is uninspiring, lacking nuance in his one-track antagonism for the sake of his selfish gains.
Given the enduring impact of the original Blade Runner even after 35 years, its sequel can come off disappointing in its dearth of indelible moments. But pacing blips aside, Blade Runner 2049 still impresses with its rare contemplative storytelling. Its protracted introspection continues to raise the pertinent question of what makes us human, its philosophical quest deserving to be revelled in, especially on the big screen.