‘I know what’s real.’
Blade Runner 2049 does not begin bombastically. There is a short wall of text over a black screen and impending drums, more reminiscent of an eighties studio piece than a modern release. Then our opening shot; surely one of the most staggering ever committed to screen, of rows upon rows of solar fields, dwarfing the protagonist’s entrance. The oil refineries of the first film are long gone, but the conditions of life are much the same.
The irony of this opening sequence does not become clear until the end, when one realizes that the sun does not actually come out in this film. It is smog or nothing, even in daylight; and the real lives, the brilliant lives, take place elsewhere, in off-world colonies, while the dispossessed of downtown LA wait, slowly wallowing in their miserable fate until they die.
How a film with such a premise manages to be uplifting, gracious, and existentially beautiful might seem a mystery. Those of you who disagree that it is beautiful would obviously see no mystery, and it is easy to figure at both conclusions. The film is certainly not perfect. Some moments may well invite critique – those who clamour for diversity will not find that this picture has broken new ground. It is decidedly Anglo Saxon and Gallic in composition, with a welcome appearance from Barkhad Abdi lasting all of a minute. And anyone who finds Jared Leto insufferable at the best of times will surely hate his work in this picture, self indulgent and meandering as it is, playing the blind scion Niander Wallis. But his efforts can’t possibly ruin the film, as it is anchored by some astonishing performances, which cast a deep shadow over his. One might even sleep soundly and forget he’s in it.
I have heard a great deal of critique focusing on the weakness of the story, which is intrinsically true, I suppose. But the plot is arguably the least important aspect of this film, and to dwell on it would be to ignore the fact that, no – a complex plot does not a fine film make. At its core, it’s a detective story, much like the original. Our various interested parties, the LAPD and the megalithic Wallis Corporation, are trying desperately to find the secret of an anomaly that would change the destiny of the human race. If you haven’t seen the film, it won’t really ruin anything to reveal that Replicants, the synthetic people that define the film’s canon, are actually able to reproduce, or one of them has, at least, which poses the film’s great conundrum.
And, much like its predecessor, it is a film whose efforts all service an overriding existential problem – what does it mean to be human if life is not special?
Agent K is a Replicant. That is revealed within minutes. Thirty five years of ambiguity surrounding the question are eradicated instantly, and we are able to get on with it, so to speak. We are being told that, despite the present landscape of nostalgia mining and corporate cynicism, this film will be different. And it is.
K is a Blade Runner, and kills Replicants who have escaped their bonds. His first victim, who has lived an otherwise benign life as a farmer, is not dispatched glamorously. There is nothing exciting about his death. K might feel that he has broken a finger, but does not particularly feel that he has put a bullet into one of his fellows, much less a fellow man. He is checked by a special analytical machine at the LAPD headquarters for his ‘Baseline’, and, after the execution, passes with flying colours.
His apartment is a hole in the wall, and the current of his life is kept alive by his holographic lover. She has been designed to be derivative, taking on different visual forms, like an ideal housewife or a perfect, glamorous modern woman. As advertised, she could also be a sex-toy fantasy, but K does not deploy such a version. Neither one is really human, so the bond of servility takes on a different meaning here. She is literally part of the furniture, since the projector is limited by a rail system in the roof. If this is not an indictment of the typical role of women in science fiction, even by accident, then I’m not sure what is. But again, since they are not humans, the paradigm shifts. One depends on the other, almost literally, for the meaning in their lives. The hologram, Joi, would not exist if not for the need of K that she did exist. And K’s life would not be worth anything if it were not for the fact that he was able to reflect the value of his existence off of Joi.
This piece is not interested in social politics, and so cannot really dedicate much attention to those quandaries. I have said that the film is beautiful despite, after all. Joi and K’s relationship, to conscientious 21st century people, looks like a dinosaur from decades prior. It is, and it should absolutely feel, a little dirty and uncomfortable. But in the context of two conscious non-human beings who require each other for meaning, the veneer of the socially correct wears off, and we are left with an agonizingly beautiful series of sequences. Not lest of which takes place early on, when K upgrades her software that she might go with him, becoming portable in a small projector device, and leave the apartment. It is a moment of grace which not only establishes an extremely effective tension later in the film, but also one of its finest sequences; when he goes onto the roof of his building in the rain, and watches the projection of Joi as it calibrates the holographic image around drops of water.
The sky is always dense with fog, and the lights leap like shafts through the heavy air as the colour changes from blue to pink, and back, and back again. She is transformed by an act of simple purchase, no more intrinsically valuable that buying groceries, and yet becomes whole, or a little more whole, because of, and not despite, the hyperactive world of procurement. She is a product herself, after all; so it makes sense that her betterment comes at the hands of a paid upgrade package. And, much like how their relationship is beautiful in spite of the social connotations, so is this middling act; even despite the inherent simplicity of it, the cheapness of it, the factory line commonality in which such a technology is allowed to exist in the first place.
We are shown the most risible version of the future – and the most beautiful possible use of it – all in the same breath.
To fly around the city of Los Angeles in 2049 is to stand on the razor’s edge between sublimity and hellscape. We enter the space after seeing only the solar fields and grey farms, introduced shot by shot, at great height, looking down. Suddenly the grey turns dark, thin strips of light diagonal across the frame. And we realize that they are streets, the light coming from advertising billboards, like canyons between ridges of tall buildings, engorged by overpopulation. The drums and the buzzing, droning of the soundtrack might give one the sense that they are stepping forward into history – privy, because lucky, to a piece of archival evidence of the future of a city. It is like a looking glass into which we have asked the lens to produce the worst possible outcome, without being reduced to total, unsalvageable chaos.
When the camera lets us see the cluster at the core of LA, we finally understand the through line of the space we’ll be occupying. There is a sea wall on the western edge of the city, the dark remains of the Pacific ocean, which suggests that climate change induced sea level rise has very much taken hold. The film does not see the need to explain this, and should serve as a reminder to anyone who wishes to build an ontology just how to do it in as few words as possible. Then, through the crowd of towers in the city, emerges the headquarters of the LAPD – as ominous as a fortress – and indicative of their reach.
The film sends us soaring, and brings us back down to earth again each time. One sees the extent of the city, and then the minutiae of it, unlike in other pictures of a similar vane, which hesitate to really know when to show us anything. We look through microscopes the same as we see the vastness of the future’s buildings; lilting between them with space and patience. It gives us scale – unimaginable scale – and lets the mind build curious tethers out into every little corner, as we wonder what a building might do, or who might live there, or even who is missing from the picture. For the missing – those who live on off-world colonies, far away from the surface of the Earth – are ever present; we are taunted by the inside of the Wallis building, seeing a version of life, in a very small way, that must exist far more broadly and far more opulently somewhere else.
And when the truly colossal appears, it is from out of the shadows. The Wallis pyramid, built next to the old Tyrell complex, stands three times taller, and is veiled in darkness. We can see it only because its navigation lights flash off and on, indicating its outline in the thinnest possible terms, like black upon black as the thrumming of the Wallis’ theme begins. Or the ship that emerges from the fog, as K heads towards the orphanage, which dwarfs his patrol car and floats, gracefully, mercilessly, like a beast from the deep. For the fog may as well be a sea; traversed as it is by all manner of ships. The fog is unbending and constant, present always – whether through the snow or the rain, or a day that would once have been clear. It sits and lingers in the air. Through it are transmitted those great and mighty things, their moving parts visible only in stages, and never all at once – much like the complex, the far-too-great future that awaits us. There are no words for the scope of the population or the systems of government that this world would require to function; so the colossi serve to remind us of what is powerful, and what is inescapable.
Blade Runner 2049 does not shy away from lingering. It lingers on almost all of its most powerful ideas, and, summarily, all its most powerful shots. When K finds a woman who makes memories for the Wallis corporation, we are allowed to see her build one; she is crafting a birthday party, with kids joyously blowing out candles. When K is standing by a row of furnaces, in the bowels of a derelict ship, the camera does not let us miss a single rivet. The score, which crescendos with a wild wail of voices, reminds one of Ligeti and the extraordinary effect his music had on 2001. In the furnace, K finds a relic from the past that sets in motion his pursuit of Deckard, a Blade Runner long since retired. But it is also an object that taunts him – because for the rest of the film, he must live with the false reality of its inference – that he is the son of the Replicant who gave birth, and that he is therefore special.
As the film begins the long, winding crescendo towards its conclusion, K takes Joi from her fixed prison inside the apartment and deletes the copy of her memories from the computer in his house. On the run from Wallis and the LAPD, K becomes a most wanted man. He finds Deckard, now living alone and decrepit in the ruins of Las Vegas, alone with his dog and his whiskey. And he finds that he is betrayed – tracked to the location, and then left for dead whilst Deckard is taken for interrogation. The summary effect is to have K lose Joi, and a few frames later, discover that he is not special – he is not the son of a Replicant.
What takes K to the end of the narrative is a renewed, very different sense of purpose. He has lost the two things that have defined him thus far. He is not, by the definable standards of living, a killer. He kills, but that is not the meaningful fabric of his life. He is not a detective. He is not a conspirator. As far as we are able to tell, he is a Replicant who has been given over to meaning because of the existence of Joi. When both she and the revelation is taken from him, he is persona non grata – he might as well not exist. For a few scenes before the climax, K is put through a trial worse than death.
His lowest point, the final nail in the downfall of his meaning, comes when he stands before a huge holographic advert for a Joi product. She is coy, wandering about wearing nothing in her guise as a digital sex toy. The product which gave his life meaning is gone, and he must reckon with, face to face, the cheapness of his life’s worth up until that point.
But it is not cheap; and what K ultimately decides upon is redemption, but not for his own sake. His final act will be to embolden his life, whatever that means, by elevating the possibilities for another. He has had his mind irrevocably altered by the promise of being unique. His Baseline, the aptitude test for his operational limits, has been savaged. He is more and more resembling a person, or at least a recognizable person, by the way in which he has perceived the world as more real; as more meaningful. This barrier is meant to be overcome by giving Replicants short lifespans, reducing the possibility of their mind forming deep patterns of interpretative memory. Any being with a complex brain would eventually develop such a faculty, but Replicants cannot, or at least they are not supposed to. Unless, like K, they have swirled through a chaotic mess of possibilities in which they think are something apart from all others, just like a human being, and thus become one.
This is the conundrum that requires the Blade Runners to exist in the first place. Humanity has decided that their creation is worth little more than labour, and have decided to co-exist by the process of suppression. The only solution to the problem of meaning, in their eyes, is that they render the other meaningless. But Wallis sees a different version of the future, much like Tyrell before him, where the Replicants who so obviously outclass humans in strength and cognition might actually be the ones who deserve the future. It seems like the inevitable outcome of a struggle between two disparate beings, much like the colonial struggles of the past, and reflect quite perfectly the human problem of the ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ will always overtake, not coexist – and for the Replicants, their life is literally rendered untenable by the baser fears of humans.
K does manage to save Deckard from the goon squad, defeating Wallis’ lieutenant in a raging battle in the sea. With little but the light of a sinking vehicle to guide them, they exchange blows in a fight for all time, since the victor would inevitably decide the fate of a great and terrible discovery. Out from under the ocean, that black water of the darkness, and through the sheer force of will, K emerges victorious and saves Deckard. He has been given a clean slate for the rest of his life – a presumed death at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean – and his exile, suffered so long, is over. Now he is free to follow K to the end, as he is taken to see his daughter, the woman who makes memories in her hermetical seal.
They see each other through the glass, and what looks like decades of consternation and grief melt from the shoulders of Deckard’s frame. It is his face which provides the film with its final frame, a rare and wonderful exercise in the reduction of studio cynicism (a limited sequel hook is banished to a mere plot point in the final hour). But the true ending, if we are thinking of this film in terms of what gives meaning to life, is the death of K. He finally succumbs to his wounds as snow falls on his face, lying back on the steps of the facility. The people he has redeemed are happy and free in the building behind him. One can almost feel that the snow would not melt for the warmth leaving his body, as Ryan Gosling performs a death over a great time, with beautiful simplicity. He is perhaps thinking of Joi as he does so, but his version, not anyone else’s. The score floats like a benediction, repeating a melody of great familiarity, one which any fan of the property will intrinsically associate with life in the face of the dark future.
The film will not be competing for a best picture Oscar, nor any other major award outside of the technical categories. Hopefully it will be Roger Deakins’ first – he is nominated for the cinematography – time will tell. And the visual effects, sound and production design are all eminently deserving. The score is criminally absent from the Oscar proceedings – which is not surprising – as is the direction. Science fiction is typically ghettoized, and this is more true at major film ceremonies than anywhere else. Whilst it may not be important to fans of the genre, the air of legitimacy is a sheen that matters, no matter how shallow; and I hope Villeneuve’s work in the future might be the stuff to break the mould.
It is the smallest thing which gives this film its enormous reserve of hope. To anyone thinking on the subject matter literally, it might seem like a film without any, dark and grisly as its future may be. But history has been cruel to its people in the past, and those people have always eked out an existence in the darkness. When I think of the future, might that I think of this film, and be reminded of a great capacity for life.
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