Blade Runner 2049 – coming soon to bluray, DVD and streaming services
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
If one aspect of great art is an ability to enable us to deal with interior questions, then the genre of science fiction fits neatly. Whether in print or on the screen, science fiction has always had a capacity to deal with larger issues, sometimes in a way that other narrative based modes could not.
In that last 20 years, ideas surrounding cloning have enabled filmmakers to explore deeper issues about identity and memory. In recent years we’ve watched wonderful examples such as Orphan Black, Never Let Me Go and Moon, as well as execrable specimens like The Sixth Day and The Island. 1982’s original Blade Runner belonged to the former category and this year’s long awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 certainly does too.
In 2049, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a title given to those in the LA police dept tasked with ‘retiring’ runaway clones, or ‘replicants’. Such retirement is severe and always fatal. Discovering parts of a long buried secret leads K on the trail of Deckard (Harrison Ford). The former Blade Runner might hold the key to a revelation that could bring chaos to a society already perilously close to collapse due to threats both outside and in.
French Canadian Villeneuve accepted a potentially thankless task when he assumed the reins of a sequel to a film held in great esteem by cineastes. How to do justice to a film so beloved for its slow pace, dazzling design and philosophical musings? That such musings were as much about what lay between the lines of the film as what appeared on the screen amplified his difficult task. In the end, Villeneuve succeeds on all counts, and in some ways deals more directly with those ethical concerns.
What are the things that make us human? That question lay at the heart of the original film and takes centre stage here too. It is clear from the outset that K is a replicant. If replicants are essentially manufactured human beings, (their brand is sold with the tagline “More Human than Human”), then what is their status based upon? What are the things that make us human? Is it empathy? The original film suggested this, though the humans on show there lacked that virtue, generally, whereas the replicants possessed it. This film takes empathy one step further into praxis, towards self-sacrifice for no other reason than it is the right thing to do.
Or is our humanity based on the existence of an interior life? Gosling portrays K in a stoic, almost blank fashion, ensuring that the few emotional moments stand out. These occur during epiphanies about his relationships and identity. Gosling understands that acting is often more about subtlety than showboating.
Is it the presence of a soul? K is told he doesn’t have one, yet the evidence of that elusive idea is present. Is it memory? K’s recollections of a small wooden horse is crucial to the plot in this film. But is it his memory or an implant of someone else’s? Where dementia touches so many of our families, the retention of memory as a signifier of identity is a challenging question. Each of these concepts is examined through K as a replicant, a clone in the physical sense.
Blade Runner 2049 expands this idea to nonphysical identity as well through the character of JOI (Ana De Armas). A hologrammatic artificial intelligence, JOI’s name is no coincidence. In a culture seemingly devoid of meaningful intimacy, K’s relationship with JOI poses the question of whether warmth can be found in this mode of being. In fact, is intimacy possible at all? Beyond this, JOI’s presence develops the theme of the commodification of people. In an age where we happily buy cheap clothes, almost certainly made by sweatshop labour, such buying and selling of people is already with us.
Blade Runner 2049 also suggests a long future for discrimination. The original film showed an institutional racism in the sense that replicants faced restrictions on movement and other freedoms. This film extends that into the personal sphere as we see K subject to abuse from his co-workers and his local community. A bleak assessment of the future is on show, but the denouement suggests hope may be possible.
All of this occurs in a film that is visually stunning. If Australian cinematographer Roger Deakins has never won an Oscar despite a long and rich canon, he truly deserves it this time around. Sure, a pretty film can be worth watching for that reason alone. Fortunately, Denis Villeneuve has crafted an exquisite piece of cinema both externally and internally. At more than two and half hours, he has taken his time to tell this story, but it is worth the journey. There is so much to ponder once the credits roll you’ll be lining up to watch Blade Runner 2049 again and looking forward to the experience. Surely, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best films of the year.