Replicating the Replicants, and Other Meditations
In 1982, Blade Runner marked the first cinematic adaptation of the work of writer Philip K. Dick. Based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film developed and amplified the substance and style of what would come to be known as the tech noir and cyberpunk subgenres of science fiction. The literary movements, though unnamed at the time, saw theatrical contributions beginning with director Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville: Une Étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution [English title: Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution] in 1965, and then continuing with Lamont Johnson’s The Groundstar Conspiracy in 1972 and Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green in 1973. But no film would have a greater impact on those particular brands of entertainment than Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The original film features Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former member of the police department in a futuristic, dystopian Los Angeles. Recalled to duty as a “blade runner”—a combination detective and bounty hunter—he must track down and “retire” a number of escaped replicants—bioengineered androids that emulate humans and function as off-world slave labor. Although Deckard essentially succeeds in eliminating the fugitive replicants—for retire, read kill—he ends up falling in love with an experimental model named Rachael (Sean Young), who was created with false memories and who believes she’s human. In the end, the two abscond together.
The plot, involving a hardbitten detective on the case, certainly harks back to the classic film noir of the Forties and Fifties, but the shadowy, often chiaroscuro visual style, the deliberate pacing, and the humanistic and existential themes of Blade Runner are what place it firmly in that arena. Its setting in a dark and pessimistic near-future landscape, replete with sinister corporations, manufactured people, flying automobiles, and tawdry, omnipresent marketing, push it into the realm of tech noir and cyberpunk. Its cinematic influences are acutely visible in numerous works throughout the Eighties and Nineties, and into the Twenty-first Century, including films like The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Gattaca (1997), The Fifth Element (1998), The Matrix (1999), Dark City (1998), Transcendence (2014), Lucy (2014), and Ghost in the Shell (2017).
Three and a half decades after the original film, a sequel has arrived in theaters. Set thirty years after its forebear, Blade Runner 2049 immediately evokes the spirit, aspect, and story of its predecessor. Ryan Gosling portrays K, a Los Angeles police officer in pursuit of fugitive replicants. The film begins with him landing his airborne car outside the city environs of L.A., at a protein farm with several small outbuildings. He enters the modest dwelling there to wait for its resident, Sapper Morton (played with convincing pathos by Dave Bautista). When Morton does arrive, he recognizes K not just as a blade runner, but also as a replicant, and he wants to know how it feels for the officer to hunt down his own kind. K’s response mentions that the officer is a more advanced model than his quarry, and though presumably factual, that piece of information smacks of prejudice. The scene builds up to a physical confrontation, all of it dressed in the slow burn and paranoia of the first film. The interaction between the two replicants also opens up philosophical questions about what it means to be human, and about who deserves the right to self-determination.
After an explosive fight scene in which K emerges victorious, he takes note of a sizable tree standing on the farm. Though barren of bark and leaves, and standing only because it has been tethered to stakes in the ground, it still makes for an unusual sight in a world where nature has been almost entirely extinguished. Suspicious, K investigates and discovers an unexplained chest buried deep beneath the surface. He reports it to his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), a human woman he addresses as Madam.
Joshi orders the strongbox recovered. When opened, it turns out to be an ossuary. A forensic examination of the skeletal remains within reveals that they belonged to a woman who died during childbirth, during an emergency cesarean section, but K then discovers something unexpected: the mother was a replicant. Such an occurrence should not have been possible; the artificial beings are manufactured, not born.
Joshi wants the progeny of the dead replicant found and retired, believing that failure to do so will ultimately result in a catastrophic disruption of the social order. K commences his search by visiting wealthy industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), whose company long ago subsumed Tyrell Corporation, the original manufacturer of replicants. With the help of Wallace’s assistant, a replicant named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), K studies the few records that remain after the world lost most of its digital information in a massive event known as the Blackout. Luv identifies the recovered bones as belonging to Rachael. Listening to a few short audio files that remain in Wallace’s archives, K perceives an emotional connection between Rachael and Rick Deckard.
Wallace privately welcomes the revelation that Tyrell successfully cultivated the capability of procreation in a replicant. Unlike thirty years earlier, new replicants are created with open-ended lifespans, implanted with false memories, and permitted to serve their masters on Earth, but it is impossible to fabricate the artificial beings in sufficient quantities to allow humanity to expand beyond its ten off-world colonies. Because of the Blackout, Wallace understands that the records of Tyrell’s experiments in replicant reproduction no longer exist. He therefore views finding Rachael’s child as the holy grail.
Thus is the primary story of the film set in motion. While Joshi has ordered K to locate and retire Rachael’s child, Wallace has tasked Luv with finding and retrieving the replicant offspring for him and his company. The parallel quests take the characters to a massive landfill that has supplanted the urban sprawl of San Diego, to an orphanage where the child might have been secreted away. They also travel to the abandoned city of Las Vegas in search of Deckard, believing him the father.
All of the film’s settings mesh perfectly with those of its predecessor. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner 2049 is completely recognizable from its appearance in the original. The city exists in a perpetual haze, a dark, rainy metropolis lent color and light only by widespread and relentless marketing. Corporate power reigns in the densely packed conurbation, which shows no signs of the natural world. Technology comes juxtaposed with decay, all seemingly accepted as a matter of course by the desperate, meandering populace.
The foul landscape of the San Diego trash zone fits with the blighted environments of the two films. Advanced technology exists there, but is utilized to transport waste to the site. Filthy marauders reside among the festering mountains of rubbish that have buried the city, living a marginal existence dedicated to salvage and piracy. Muddy tones embody the terrain in a way wholly consistent with the shadowy hues of Los Angeles.
In the same way, the derelict remains of Las Vegas come infused with the reddish shades of the desert, different from L.A., but of a piece with it. Colossal statues of naked figures decorate a city known for its debauchery, pointing to a prurient grandeur that speaks to the social rot infesting the world depicted in the two Blade Runner films. Inside one of the hotels, holograms of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe provide reminders of earlier times, before the wholesale decline of civilization, but even those technological marvels of bygone days sputter and gabble, suggesting how far humanity has fallen.
But while Blade Runner 2049 achieves tremendous continuity from hewing to the look and feel of its progenitor, it also suffers in doing so. The production design is a victim of its own success. The issue isn’t that the new film doesn’t look enough like the original—there’s never a moment’s doubt that the audience is watching a story set in the same universe as the first—but that it isn’t different enough. To be sure, there are new in-world advances. K maintains an ongoing relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a computer-generated, holographic woman, a situation that accommodates some interesting and sophisticated visual effects. Advertisements are three-dimensional, mammoth in size, and interactive. But in 1982, Blade Runner gave the moviegoing public something it hadn’t really seen before, delivering a believably bleak world of the future, a view—both visually and thematically—that demanded attention for what it had to say about the prospects of human civilization, and for how it said it. The followup serves up the same message in the same way, and that’s the problem: audiences have not only seen this before, they saw it thirty-five years ago. Filmmaking has moved on.
Taken on its own merits, Blade Runner 2049 does succeed, but more in part than in whole. It offers the audience some stunning optics, but the camera frequently lingers too long, giving the film a glacial tempo. While such measured pacing imparts a certain fraught quality to the proceedings, it also feels self-indulgent. Why does it take so long for Officer K to approach and search the modest home of Sapper Morton? Why does it take so much time for him to make his way through the unsanitary environs of San Diego? Or to enter the hotel home of runaway Rick Deckard? The artistic design of Blade Runner 2049 manages flavors of dusky beauty, and director Denis Villeneuve seems to want the audience to partake of all of it—more than that, he wants them to bask in it. But having time to study the nuances of the presentation can take a viewer out of the story, while also slowing it down. At 2 hours, 43 minutes, the film runs overlong, with not enough content to balance out the striking imagery.
Ryan Gosling grounds Officer K in a base of servitude, portraying him as a replicant who understands and accepts his place in the world of Mankind. But as the character runs up against questions of morality and self-knowledge, Mr. Gosling imbues him with a sense of sorrow—perhaps at times with a bit too much subtlety. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard might not match up perfectly with his depiction in the original film, but three decades have passed for the character, making his loss of a step reasonable. Both Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks stand out in their performances, each bringing a slightly off-center single-mindedness to her nonhuman role. Robin Wright animates Lieutenant Joshi with strength and a deeply held sense of purpose, and the only problem with Dave Bautista’s portrayal of Sapper Morton is that the film doesn’t have more of it. Unfortunately, Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace comes off as an overweening aesthete in a way that doesn’t quite track with his position as a corporate titan of great wealth, irrespective of his obvious senses of entitlement and self-importance.
Denis Villeneuve, fresh off his Academy Award nomination for directing the 2016 feature Arrival, helms Blade Runner 2049 with a deft hand, although, as already mentioned, he could have spent more time in the editing room. He has crafted a mature film, but one that would have benefited from a bit more restraint. The screenplay penned by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green offers a believable and fitting continuation of the Blade Runner mythos.
Overall, Blade Runner 2049 is a good film, but it could have been very good, perhaps even great. In striving to stay true to its antecedent, it works against itself. If you enjoyed the original film, you might enjoy this one, but it also might be worth the wait for a tighter director’s cut.
*** (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III