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Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049, or “The good things that come into your mind about your mother.”

The trailer for Blade Runner 2049 taught me something about myself: I have a Pavlovian response to the Vangelis Blade Runner score. Those resonate synth progressions start up and I’m instantly in love. I was skeptical about seeing a new Blade Runner film, thirty-five years after the original. But that music on the trailer swelled, and suddenly I wanted to see this movie with all my heart, despite the foreboding in my soul. The yearning was physical. (Note: the score to the new film, while building on Vangelis’s musical themes, is by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, and is serviceable and entirely appropriate.) This means I also learned something about all this sequel and reboot and remake and nostalgia mania. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to generate endorphins. The internet lost its mind when that trailer dropped because of all those gushing endorphins.

Ultimately, what I like most about Blade Runner 2049 is the chance to see a film deploy the classic Blade Runner aesthetic in a story that’s actually set in that world, as opposed to the endless derivative attempts to mimic the aesthetic. (The deeply silly Total Recall remake from a couple of years ago was practically Blade Runner fanfic, right down to our hero plucking out a sad tune on a piano in the lull before the third act.) Since 1982, Hollywood has defined near-future dystopia with smoky sepia air, perpetual night, art-deco corporate halls, and crowded neon streets. Finally, that mood feels authentic again, and not an imitation of a formula that possibly wasn’t well understood by those attempting it: the retro-futurist aesthetic of technological decay in a world where ethics never caught up with capabilities.

Spoilers ahoy! There’s a big one that’s necessary to talk about to get to the heart of the film.

K is a Blade Runner. He’s also a replicant, tracking down some of the last of the earlier model Nexus line who went off the grid after Tyrell Corp went bankrupt and rafts of information were lost in what’s known as the Blackout. He “retires” one who’s been living innocuously on a remote grub farm, and makes an astonishing discovery: the remains of a replicant, long dead and only bones now, who appears to have given birth. The existence of replicants who can reproduce on their own will change everything, so K’s superior at the LAPD as well as the head of Wallace Corporation, the company that absorbed what was left of Tyrell and is now the primary producer of replicants, wants this mystery solved and ideally repressed. K goes to Wallace Corp in search of the identity of this dead replicant. They dig up a recording of an old Voight-Kampff test from 2019, the content of which will come as no surprise to astute fans of the first Blade Runner film. (I think this is one of the nicest callbacks to the first movie. The other is when K visits elderly Gaff in a rest home, a lovely cameo by Edward James Olmos. K asks what happened to Deckard, and Gaff says, “He retired,” with some amount of glee at the double meaning, and plops down an origami sheep.) After that the race is on: What happened to Rachael and Deckard’s child, and who will get to it first? K’s trail leads him to Deckard, who’s been hiding out in the fantastical ruins of a bombed-out Las Vegas.

There’s a lot more to all this, of course. We meet K’s girlfriend, a sweet-natured personal AI—a sexy holographic Siri; Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv, perfectly polished, good at everything, deadly, and who cries at seeing one of her own kind coming into existence in their own strange kind of birth. Wallace himself is even weirder than Tyrell was. And there’s a memory maker, a woman sealed off in her own space due to an immune system disorder, who manufactures the memories that help replicants stay sane. That replicants know their memories are artificial does seem to bother them. But Ana Stelline makes the best memories, we’re told.

The old supposed mystery from the first film—is Deckard a replicant?—is clearly not true. But this film picks up philosophically where that one leaves off because K is a replicant, and a Blade Runner, and it’s fascinating watching him navigate his world in odd isolation. Ryan Gosling’s K is understated and almost charming. Just a guy trying to make his way in the world. He’s not happy with his job—people keep asking—but he’s determined in his resignation to it.

What I don’t really understand is his autonomy. We’re told in an opening scroll that replicants don’t go rogue anymore. They must obey, they no longer rebel, that bit of programming has been fixed. They’re slaves, and this world seems okay with that. As with the first movie, we’re meant to be uncomfortable with the situation. All the replicants we meet are clearly people, sentient and fully realized. K seems to be his own person. He has an apartment, a job. He buys his AI girlfriend gifts, which suggests he has a salary and all that entails. He puts up with the bigotry of his neighbors, who know he’s a replicant and hate him. We’re not given any indication if his situation is normal or unusual for replicants. The replicant prostitutes clearly belong to the brothel, Luv clearly belongs to Wallace. (“He gave you a name, he must like you.”) Nameless K seems outside the system entirely. Maybe this is a function of his job as a Blade Runner. As a replicant, he’s still called on to do the work no one else wants to. But he goes to his own home at the end of the day.

Halfway through the film, dealing with the existential stress of his quest, K fails a baseline test. This is a bizarre verbal call-and-response we’re introduced to early on, replacing the Voight-Kampff, where replicants’ emotional stability is graded. There seem to be no consequences to this failure. K is taken off duty and told to go home and get his head on straight so he can retake the test in forty-eight hours. Which is basically what a human cop would have been told after some traumatic incident. So what is the point of the test? Having a replicant protagonist for the film is a masterstroke. But I’m not sure it goes anywhere interesting.

I can’t help but feel the story veers in the wrong direction in giving Rachael and Deckard a child. When words like “miracle” start getting tossed around, we’re no longer in the gritty nihilistic milieu we started out in. Wallace suggests that Deckard’s and Rachael’s meeting was orchestrated in the first place, that Tyrell designed Rachael to be the first fertile replicant able to bear children. That technological advance was lost, and Wallace wants it back: he can’t manufacture replicants fast enough to meet demand. But if they could manufacture themselves. . . (As a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold, I need to interject here that perhaps uterine replicators might be a more efficient technology to pursue if you’re looking to vastly increase your population. However, this story’s not interested in technology but in metaphysics.)

So K is looking for this special child, which one of his artificial memories suggests might be him. When the film almost turns into yet another story about a guy with a dead mother looking for his father, I almost checked out. But K is a replicant. He wasn’t born. And, weirdly, the minute he learns this the movie stops being about him.

K is not Rachael’s child, not the chosen one that the film’s attention turns to. He does discover an underground of replicant freedom fighters, some of whom helped hide the child originally, and he learns that they all wish they’d been born, with an actual mother and father. To be born is to have a soul, they believe. Roy Batty declared, “I want more life.” These modern model replicants have open-ended life spans. They have more life. Now, they want souls.

Blade Runner has been called retro-futurism, classic ’40s noir but with flying cars. 2049 feels like classic cyberpunk circa 1986, with its pervasive AI, holographic advertising, unbelievable disparity in wealth and circumstances, and technological decay. Counterintuitively, much cyberpunk, so rooted in pointing out the ills of late capitalism and pitfalls of a hyper-technological society, is also messianic. It’s filled with chosen ones who have the key to discovering truth, to overcoming whatever tyranny is at hand. Think of Neo in The Matrix, Flynn the User among Programs in Tron, Hiro Protagonist, any number of cowboy hackers riding across high-tech landscapes with secret knowledge, in unique positions to learn ultimate truths. Or, in this case, a wondrous replicant child with a soul. It’s a standard story, an easy story, and I’m a little sad to see the Blade Runner world fall into it.

This film ends exactly where the first one did, with a dead replicant and Deckard standing next to a special woman, his daughter instead of his lover this time. K’s story vanishes inside Deckard’s, and I find myself wondering, Did K get what he wanted? What did he want? To be human? To have a mother? To find a soul? To run off to Tahiti with hologram Joi? The film progressively cuts him off from all these desires.

What’s changed at the end of the film? The replicant underground is still underground, Wallace is still an exploitative asshole. And always the question, are replicants human? The first film answered that, I thought. But the question in this film seems to be, do they have souls? Once again, I feel like the first movie answered that. That was the whole point of Roy’s tears-in-rain speech—a replicant capable of turning memory into poetry has a soul. And if that’s not heavy-handed enough for you, there’s the dove flying into the heavens at the moment of his death. But now, I guess, we don’t know?

The new movie gives replicants a hurdle to being human that they can’t possibly clear: a human being is biologically born, which manufactured replicants can never be. There’s a quite possibly accidental hierarchy here, and a suggestion that in the end K can do nothing more than give his life to people who really are special, unlike him. I find this premise unsatisfying.

The film runs long, some two hours and forty-three minutes trying to figure all this out. On the one hand, I love that it takes its time, watching rain streaking on windshield and neon lighting up falling snow. But the deeper into its own philosophy it gets, the longer those scenes of K sitting pensively in his car drag on. Science fiction fans, fans of the original film, won’t be disappointed by 2049. It’s gorgeous, spectacular, impressively cyberpunk. But you might not want to dig too deep into its philosophy, which I fear undoes itself in its effort to try to take that philosophy further.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, as well as the superhero novels Dreams of the Golden Age and After the Golden Age, the young adult novels Voices of Dragons and Steel, and the fantasy novel Discord’s Apple. Her latest books are Bannerless, Martians Abroad, and Amaryllis and Other Stories. Her Hugo Award-nominated short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com, as well as in George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.