FINALLY. I’ve been meaning to write this review for far too long (but not as long as I’ve been meaning to tackle The Dark Knight trilogy – for shame!). That pesky little thing known as Real Life and/or Work/A Full Time Job gets in the way.
My favourite film of 2017 – which, I suppose, is unsurprising given that it deals with one of my pet thematic concerns: identity and the question of what it means to be human. It also helps that the protagonist is played by Ryan Gosling (no, I am not a crazy fangirl), whom I genuinely believe is a good actor (this may be a controversial opinion, as some viewers believe he cannot emote at all) with a repertoire of diverse films to his credit (see: The Believer; The United States of Leland; Half Nelson; All Good Things etc).
I had not watched the original prior to viewing this film. I simply read through the Wikipedia plot summary of the 1980s film (Sacrilege!!) and a (Wikipedia) synopsis of the Philip K Dick novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – It is on my to-read list). This film can be watched without any background knowledge, but the viewer with even a basic understanding of the preceding works will certainly ‘get’ this film better and find it a more enjoyable experience.
An Extremely Simplified Summary of the Original (1982): In the year 2019, Rick Deckard, a ‘blade runner’ (one who is tasked with tracking down and ‘retiring’/killing off bioengineered androids/’replicants’) is ordered by his former supervisor to ‘retire’ four replicants illegally on Earth (they are usually kept on human colonies on other planets – off-world -, treated not unlike slaves). In the process, he meets and falls in love with Rachel, a female replicant who believes she is human due to having false memories implanted in her mind, as an experiment by the large corporation (Tyrell Corp) that manufactures/produces replicants.
Other Points of Note that Will be Referenced in the Sequel: (1)Blade Runners distinguish replicants from humans using the ‘Voight-Kampff’ test: a ply-graph-like machine measures vital functions in response to emotionally provocative/evocative questions. (2) One of the rebel replicants (Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer) manages to make quite a distinct impression on Deckard (and the viewer) through his final scene (the brilliant ‘tears in rain’).
The Premise of Blade Runner 2049 (2017): Thirty years after the events of the original film, a replicant LAPD blade runner, ‘K’ retires older model replicants and rogue replicants. He is unperturbed by the nature his work (with his perfect, calm responses to the amended voigt-kampff test – based on a passage from Nabokov’s Pale Fire – after each mission) or the disdain of his colleagues at the LAPD. After successfully retiring one such replicant, a protein farmer, K discovers a box buried under a tree, containing human remains – soon revealed to be the remains of a female replicant who died whilst giving birth via caesarean section.
K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) believes that this discovery could be dangerous, and potentially ignite war between humans and replicants (replicants were formerly believed to be unable to reproduce, and are thus considered and treated as sub-human, little more that mechanised slaves). She thus tasks K with finding and retiring the replicant-human child to avoid the truth getting out. As events unfold, K begins to question everything he knows about himself, and starts to suspect that he may be the child whom he’s searching for (with encouragement from his mass-produced but customisable AI girlfriend Joi), and this sends him looking for Deckard, hoping to find answers. Along the way, he must also contend with the machinations of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) the sinister CEO of Wallace Co. (the sequel’s version of Tyrell Corp).
Poster Art: Before we delve into reviewing and analysing, let’s take a moment to appreciate the stunning aesthetic of the film poster above on the left. The vivid, bright icy blue and its stark contrast with the flame-red; the distinct-ness of the colours, with no melding of the two, almost emphasising a separation of the characters, with Deckard to one side and the others to another – perhaps suggesting a separation of their primary origin narratives in time. Whilst Deckard and K are presented in different colours, they appear to stand back-to-back and face a similar direction implying a connection possibly in terms of their motives or objectives. The two seem to represent fire and ice; past and present; urgency and biding time; young and old; desire and cold fury (as per Fire & Ice, by Frost); and maybe two sides of a single coin (the two faces of Janus). Interestingly, the placing of Joi and Niander Wallace seems to have them dwarfed by and yet a part of K – possibly distinguishing Deckard, the human (a hotly debated idea), from K & Joi (both considered non-human) and Wallace the disturbing manufacturer of replicants (his ‘human-ness’ and ‘humanity’ are both questionable).
Blade Runner 2049 is one of those rare sequels that not only lives up to the legacy and standards of the original but also manages to surpass them. It is the spiritual successor to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Whilst Metropolis (1927) is wary of mechanisation and the dehumanisation of the workforce, represented by the Evil Maria robot, 90 years later Blade Runner 2049, asks us to question the humanity of the humans behind this ‘de-humanisation’ (most obviously, Wallace) and to consider instead the humanity of their creations – the bioengineered replicants (echoing Shelley’s Frankenstein) and the almost human AI they create (for example, Joi).
Themes: Thematically, Blade Runner 2049 is an existential film. It places to us the questions what does it mean to be human? Can non-humans ever be considered human? What distinguishes humans from non-humans?
In many ways, I found the film to echo the concerns and ideas of Equilibrium (2002); in particular the idea that humans are defined by their (often chaotic and messy) emotions. Compare, for instance, Preston’s return to humanness in Equilibrium (distress, panic, awe), with K’s responses to the voight-kampff test – first extremely unperturbed (no visible reaction) and later a clear physical response.
To be human is to feel in all fullness pain, distress and discomforting realities. Initially, K is inscrutable – he seems to have little to no emotions, only expressing some affection for his hologram girlfriend Joi. But as the film progresses, K is increasingly affected by his actions, his memories and his circumstances – so well depicted in this scene between Dr Stelline (the memory-maker) and himself (moving from sadness to fear to grief to rage).
As K moves from being seemingly emotionally closed off to deeply impacted by his emotions, this contrasts with the coldness and ruthlessness of those recognised as “human”. Lieutenant Joshi appears largely unperturbed by her orders to K (to track down and assassinate the child of Deckard and Rachel, purely to maintain the status quo); Wallace unflinchingly kills a ‘newborn’ replicant, and later similarly orders Luv to kill the imperfect clone of Rachel.
If emotional experiences assign “humanity”, then are K and Joi real? One reviewer (I cannot find the reference, sadly) poetically suggests that while neither K nor Joi is recognised as real, the love they share is real.
Is it love, though? Is it love if Joi’s settings have been customised to say ‘everything you want to hear’? Love must be freely given. K seems somewhat aware of this, as seen by his attempts to make her more free – to give her the freedom to feel the rain, to move more independently and to make choices. He tells her in an early scene ”you don’t have to say that” when she tells him “I’m so happy when I’m with you”. For Joi to be real, for their relationship to be real, K knows she must be first be free (or freer) of her programming (i.e., to only do as he desires). In keeping with this, he later offers her the choice to stay behind when he is forced to flee, but she chooses to go with him. It is my opinion that while Joi starts out as a completely programmed hologram, she does develop some degree of agency as the story progresses.
It is also ironic, and possibly intentional symbolism, that Luv kills Joi. When K and Joi’s relationship becomes real, when their love becomes real, Joi is killed and thus K’s joy (pun intended) too is destroyed.
Nonetheless, with the knowledge that Joi is specifically programmed to say ‘everything you want to hear’, it is interesting to look back on the scene where K begins to question whether his memory is implanted or whether it may be real. Although K denies it, his own (possibly suppressed or denied) desire to be ‘real’, to be born, to have name (Joe) rather than a letter as his identifier and to have a ‘soul’ is given voice to by Joi:
Joi: I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.
There are echoes of Pinnocchio and The Velveteen Rabbit (by Margery Williams Bianco) too in the ‘becoming real’ theme. Specifically in how Pinnocchio longs to be a real boy, and similarly the desire of the stuffed toy rabbit to be real. An extract from The Velveteen Rabbit that seems apropos here is:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
The film also suggests that the capacity to experience emotions is deeply connected to our memories. The ‘upgraded’ replicants of 2049 have implanted memories to make them almost indistinguishable from humans. And are we, any of us, more than the sum of our memories? Would we be who we are – or who we think we are – without our memories?
Lieutenant Joshi: Do you have any memories from before?
‘K’: I have memories, but… They’re not real, they’re just implants.
Lieutenant Joshi: Tell me one, from when you were a kid.
‘K’: I feel a little strange sharing a childhood story considering I was never a child.
The film’s second existential concern is that of meaning and purpose. Human lives are given meaning over replicants lives in the film because of the supposition that “to be born is to have a soul”. The possession of this mystical element is deemed to both invest a greater meaning in human lives, and to give them an innate purpose or reason for living.
Yet, the film ultimately suggests that meaning and purpose are to be actively created. K is first seen going through a daily routine on autopilot – ”retire” the identified replicant, check in at headquarters, head home for dinner. But as soon as he begins to suspect that he may be the as-yet-undiscovered child of a replicant and a human, it is as though he wakes from a dream. Everything is more intentional, there is a purpose to his life, there is truth in his memories and there is a search to understand his origins and his future. He “becomes” real by the meaning he creates through his choices. As Freysa, the leader of the underground replicant rebellion, tells K, “Dying for a cause is the most human thing we can do”.
Additionally, the influence of Mary Shelley’s great work, Frankenstein, is abundantly felt. Like the eponymous Frankenstein’s creation, the replicants of the Blade Runner universe demand recognition and meaning from their creators. This is true in both films. In the original Blade Runner, this is exemplified by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). In 2049, to a less overtly aggressive degree, this is seen in the replicant resistance movement.
Freysa: You imagined it was you? Oh. You did. You did. We all wish it was us.
As with Shelley’s novel, the Blade Runner universe also depicts the “de-womanising” of (or erasure of women from) human reproduction. This is most obvious in the scene where Niander Wallace and Luv examine a newly produced replicant. The replicant is dumped out of plastic bag (a stand in for a womb), covered in a gel like fluid (like infants covered in bodily fluids at birth). The scene is disconcerting to say the least. And in keeping with the “unnaturalness” of it, Wallace kills the replicant for not being ‘perfect’ without a moment’s hesitation.
Cinematography/ Visuals: The visuals are a cinematic feat – the stark bleakness of the landscape and the concrete jungle of the city. The neon colours against the dank darkness; the dusty orange suffocation of ruins; the hyperreality of the cityscape and its abundant AI advertisements and inventions. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, it is also imbued with symbolic meaning. Roger Deakin’s Oscar was extremely well-deserved.
Consider the scene depicted to the right. Here K is show as a solitary figure faced by a strange, ominous ruin of what was once presumably a giant statue of a human or humanoid figure. The staring eye, the mouth open in a silent, eternal cry of horror or surprise, and the violence of the half smashed face. A hollow shell of what it once was. The scene is seeped in a sense of dereliction, despair and prescience of menace. To me, it seems to suggest something of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream‘, with its implications of despair, the ultimate aloneness (not loneliness) of existence, and nihilistic undertones. Similarly, we repeatedly see K dwarfed by his surrounding, be they ruins, statues, buildings or AI projections. This links in with K navigating a situation that is greater than himself, with power plays and manipulative schemes well beyond what he sees.
Earlier, when K visits Wallace Co., we see him and Luv make their way through seemingly endless corridors and passages, almost as if they are walking in an elaborate labyrinth or hall or mirrors. As in the image on the left, there’s an impression of ‘a box within a box within a box’ ad infinitum. The unsettling presence of ‘failed experiments’ lined in the hallway (above left) has echoes of the ending scene in The Prestige, and reinforces Wallace’s coldness and ruthlessness and the utter disregard for the lives/existences/dignity of replicants.
Similarly, later we see Luv again walking through these ‘box within a box’ hallways at Wallace Co. Is this a visual manifestation of Wallace’s deep, dark, unknown motives or his twisty (for want of a better word) mind? Is this a symbol of the deep games at play here?
It could be either. I am inclined to view it as a representation of Wallace’s (and his company’s) secretiveness. It also gives the distinct impression of vastness and coldness – it is crypt-like (and cryptic!) and impersonal, thereby demonstrating the coldness present in Luv and Wallace, as is also demonstrated by Wallace’s blindness and his sinister eyes – Unseeing eyes possibly representing a man blinded by his ambition, and their strange huge white orbs of irises suggesting an inner emptiness or ‘soullessness’.
The lighting at Wallace Co. is also interesting. Clearly it is light reflected through water, and visually it is a gorgeous, golden contrast to the dimly lit, shadowy room. But the movement of the light, the constant sways and light waves of water, is eerie adding to the menace of the place and to its mystery. For more on the lighting – here.
It would be extremely remise of me to not mention the perfection that is the final scene – K and ‘Tears in Snow’. The scene brilliantly ties in with the original film’s ‘Tears in Rain’. But whilst Roy delivered a touching monologue to Deckard, here K has no audience and no words. He experiences the touch of snow against his skin, and as the ‘Tears in Snow’ theme plays, we see him lay himself to rest, possibly having achieved what he desired all along – to become real and to have meaning to his existence.
Objectification & the Blade Runner Universe’s Problem with Women
It is obvious that in this futuristic and mechanised world women are relentlessly objectified – whether it is in the form of mass-produced AI female ‘companions’ (sex slaves? Akin to under-development sex robots?); female replicants (similar implications of sexual slavery and subservience); statues of women’s bodies in suggestive poses (sexualisation of the female form); or sex workers. This is a dystopian world with a thriving pornographic economy.
The film suggests a link between mechanisation, dehumanisation and hyper-toxic-masculinity. The creators of bio-engineered humanoids who are practically slaves (the replicants) are dangerous men in both films (Eldron Tyrell and Niander Wallace); and the world of Blade Runner, proliferated with violence and consumerism, seems to only have place for women as objects – to be consumed either sexually or in other more metaphoric ways.
The law of the jungle is supreme here; survival is only for the fittest. Fitness being cold calculation and ruthlessness – as embodied by Luv, Wallace’s prize replicant/assistant.
The absence of female characters with more screen time is strongly felt. There are three female characters with significant secondary roles – Joi; Luv; Joshi, but the film fabulously fails the very basic standards of the Bechdel Test (at least two female characters, who talk to each other about anything other than a man/ the men in their lives). Joi and Luv’s storylines revolve around the men in their lives. Joi exists to make K happy, less lonely, to encourage him on his quest to find out about his origins and to give him an emotional motive for his decisions later in the film. Luv exists for validation from Wallace. Joshi is assassinated before her storyline can develop much. Other female characters such as Freysa and Dr Stelline, though not sexualised, have negligible screen time.
Furthermore, the menage a trois sex scene with Joi, the sex worker Mariette and K is weird. It seems as though the filmmakers intended it to be touching; showing us Joi’s desire to “be real” for K. But it comes across as disturbing – there is something of The Handmaid’s Tale (though not quite as dark) about the whole arrangement. Mariette is doubly used – by Joi for this ‘experience’, and by Freysa to get close to K for her own agenda.
These anti-feminist elements similarly exist in the original Blade Runner (1982) and in the source material. An excellent examination of this can be found here, The Sexual Politics of Blade Runner by Julian O’Dea, and this issue is also effectively summarised here, in the Guardian. On the other hand, it has been argued here that even though Blade Runner 2049 has issues with female representation, there are feminist undertones.
I felt that the film was not intentionally sexist, but that the filmmakers could certainly have done a better job of adding more female agency and at least maintaining the standard set by the Bechdel Test.
I (mostly) loved the film. The visuals are incredibly well done. The acting and characterisation is spot on. The themes are interesting, philosophical and deeply thought provoking. As with many films that become cult classics, Blade Runner 2049 did poorly at the box office – but I am fairly certain that this will be a film that is remembered and discussed well into the years to come.