Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years. Written by Warner Bros. Pictures
Actor: Ryan Gosling, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Mark Arnold
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Country: USA, UK, Canada
Movie: Blade Runner 2049
Duration: 163 min
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Question Club: Was Blade Runner 2049 worth the 35-year wait?
This past weekend, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 arrived in theaters. It is, in many ways, the most improbable of sequels, following a cult sci-fi film 35 years after the original flamed out at the box office. Yet the movie has been universally praised as a creative success, racking up some of the most impressive reviews of the year. It’s an ambitious, visually decadent film, and one that’s captivating despite a nearly three-hour run time.
But a 35-year wait brings with it a lot of expectations — particularly when you’re talking about a film that arguably never really begged for a sequel in the first place. Given that Villeneuve hews closely to the moody, somewhat impressionistic approach to storytelling that Ridley Scott used back in 1982, we found ourselves with quite a few lingering questions about Blade Runner 2049. The morning after its opening weekend, we sat down to discuss it all.
Blade Runner 2049 spoilers ahead. And we mean that quite seriously. We’re going to spoil everything.
Does this feel like Blade Runner?
Adi: I’m happy Blade Runner 2049 was so comfortable getting away from always-dark cyberpunk Los Angeles, while still managing to capture Blade Runner’s distinctive style in the scenes that were set there. The first third felt too much like straight ‘10s sci-fi, channeling the washed-out, frontier-used future of movies like Logan and Looper. That feels like our modern equivalent to the urban-used future of cyberpunk. But I loved the parts they extrapolated from an ‘80s vision of 2019, like the microfiche DNA reader. And the abandoned casino had that perfect Blade Runner-y combination of dinginess and grandeur. Like those giant, crumbling, kitschy statues surrounding a beehive.
Bryan: Yes! Those were great. I found it really weird when thinking about this movie — and seeing it for a second time on opening day — just how essential the aesthetics were to it being successful. One can’t slap the name Blade Runner on a movie without it calling to mind all of those iconic visuals from Scott’s original: dreary Los Angeles, the Tyrell (now Wallace) headquarters where light is always randomly shimmering from some unseen corner. In the world of Blade Runner, those visuals are what lightsabers and the Force are for Star Wars. Without them, the movie simply wouldn’t feel like it was part of the series at all.
That said, it’s precisely those times you mention, when the movie stepped outside of Los Angeles, that the film came into its own, visually. The bold colors and evocative silhouettes make Blade Runner 2049 sing, and as I mentioned in our review, if Deakins doesn’t win an Oscar for his work here, there is no point in having the Oscars at all.
But technical mastery aside, there’s one aspect of the film that didn’t feel quite like Blade Runner to me: its thematic undercurrents. In the original film, Deckard grapples with the idea that replicants have authentic feelings and emotions. As it becomes clearer that he may be one himself, the question of what it means to be human looms large. It’s not the most nuanced or developed idea, but it is striking how bold and effective it still is some 35 years later.
By comparison, I found Blade Runner 2049 to be a little thin. There are ideas it wants to toy with — What is the nature of free will? Can modern society cope with the economic injustice it is predicated upon? Is subservience justified if peace is the result, or is revolution always the better answer? — but they’re moments of drive-by philosophy. None are tethered to the core conceit in a way that resonates from beginning to end. I guess I expected to walk away from Blade Runner 2049 thinking more than I did, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why so many reviews have focused on the knockout visuals rather than the story itself.
Adi: Even beyond the more scattered themes, it doesn’t follow the cyberpunk worldbuilding structure, where you’re dropped into a scene and have to piece together its context, as much as I’d have liked. Getting away from the straight-up hardboiled narrative style is good, but the setting is more than rich enough to work with less exposition.
One final time: Is Deckard really a replicant?
Adi: I’d assumed by default that he was, although now that you mention it, I could see a long-shot argument to the contrary. One of the weird (and frustrating) things about Blade Runner 2049 is that it doesn’t really matter, though.
Like you said, “is Deckard a replicant?” was interesting because it reflected one of the big questions in Blade Runner: “What would it be like for an artificial being to discover they were artificial?” In 2049, an equivalent question is “What would it mean for an artificial being to truly break free from its creator?” In theory, that makes Deckard a foil for Wallace’s perfectly obedient replicants, the way Rachael contrasted with the overtly non-human Roy Batty.
But Wallace’s replicants don’t seem all that different from earlier models. K certainly doesn’t seem constrained by his programming or anything. Is the point that autonomy was in his heart all along, which makes Deckard and his child only relevant for reproduction? The whole plotline feels more like a macguffin than a coherent exploration of a theme.
On a practical level, didn’t we see people (but not replicants) wearing gas masks when they come after Deckard in the casino? If that’s the case, it’d be tough for a human Deckard to survive out there.
Bryan: You’re right, they were wearing gas masks — with the exception of Wallace’s right-hand replicant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). That pretty much settles the Deckard issue, for really, really real this time. But going back to that question of theme, you’re totally right that whether Deckard is or is not human doesn’t really matter in this particular story. And I found the inverted take that 2049 tries to pull off — What if K was actually born instead of built, but never knew it? — to be awfully bland in comparison. A machine is still a machine, whether self-replicating or not, isn’t it?
The movie actually puts a strange emphasis on the concept of birth throughout that it never really justifies or earns. Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) refers to seeing Rachael give birth as a “miracle,” but elsewhere in the film it’s explained that reproduction was something that Tyrell himself added to her because she was such an experimental prototype. Wallace even makes a pretty convincing case that Deckard fell in love with Rachael due to programming rather than emotion. It justifies what plays as a rather rushed, if not outright problematic, love story in the original movie. But it also undercuts the very notion of free will that both movies are trying to play with.
Don’t get me wrong: for beings like replicants, the ability to create offspring without the aid of a Tyrell or a Wallace is fundamental to their independence as sentient life forms. That’s a given. And it certainly justifies why the underground resistance is so eager to unlock that potential. But that’s a narrative concept, not necessarily a spiritual one, and there are moments where I think Blade Runner 2049 gets the two confused.
Is Niander Wallace a worthy villain?
Adi: He’s worthy in that my new vision of hell is getting stuck with him at a party. I like the idea of Wallace as a mirror version of Tyrell; instead of a cold experimenter, he’s a cruel, but loving, Old Testament God. But it made no sense to frame his quest for replicant children as a practical efficiency measure. And Jared Leto should not be set loose on a character who speaks entirely in villain monologues.
Bryan: But Adi… the monologues allow… him to speak… with dramatic pauses… placed at… odd moments.
I will admit I asked this question here because I couldn’t dive into it during our spoiler-free piece, but I really do find the lack of a propulsive villain to be the movie’s biggest weakness. Wallace practically feels like he’s The Exposition Machine Bad Guy — there only to deliver the backstory on how the movie came to be 30 years after the original, and then bring out a replicated Rachael just to mess with Deckard. He has a goal to unlock the secrets of replicant procreation, sure, but he doesn’t do anything in the movie itself, other than sit back and muse. Tyrell got the same treatment in the original movie, but Tyrell was nothing more than a character serving as worldbuilding. Roy Batty was the clear bad guy back in 1982, and the film’s central questions swirled around the interplay between him and Deckard.
The closest thing Blade Runner 2049 has to an active villain is Luv, but she’s not motivated by anything other than a need to be “the best one,” as she says to K toward the end of the film. This hints at the theme of subservience, but it’s pretty one-dimensional. There’s nothing even remotely close to Batty’s “tears in rain” speech in the new movie, and it suffers for it.
Adi: I’m curious why you think the filmmakers gave Luv arguably the two most obvious callbacks to the original film: that sequence that repeats Deckard’s panning-and-zooming over a photograph, but with missile strikes, and an equivalent to the kiss between Tyrell and Batty. I didn’t see a strong thematic or character-driven reason to include them, so are they just Easter eggs?
Bryan: I figured it had to be Easter eggs. The closest parallel I could draw is that Luv was the blade runner in this scenario, just like Deckard was back in the day, only this time she was tracking K on his mission rather than simply looking to exterminate him. Still, that seemed pretty obvious already, didn’t it? And if anything, I found the panning-and-zooming references to be a distraction that took me out of the movie. It’s essentially a nearly three-hour-long arthouse movie. Why is there excessive fan service, exactly?
Was it a good idea to replicate Rachael with CGI?
Bryan: If the idea was to demonstrate that visual effects technology has inched forward since CG Tarkin and Leia showed up in Rogue One, then sure. But in all honesty, I did find this reveal to be a really impactful moment, and I love that the filmmakers and studio fought so hard to keep it a secret until opening day. It’s a great scene, in large part due to Harrison Ford’s performance. As a shaken Deckard gets ahold of himself, he remarks that the real Rachael had green eyes, and walks away like the hardboiled, couldn’t-care-less detective he once was. Throughout much of 2049, Deckard is a older character haunted by regret and longing. But in that moment he transforms back into the noir-inspired blade runner audiences first met 35 years ago.
But is it completely flawless as a piece of visual effects work? Not really. It’s believable-ish, but her movements don’t seem very organic and the way the skin moves across her face doesn’t feel right on a visceral level. The fact that someone in the film comments on Rachael’s shiny red lips actually had me wondering if it was a bit of misdirection; a comment made to either draw attention to that element and distract from the weird facial animation, or explain away why they were shinier than they should have been in the first place. Either way, this kind of work is so bleeding edge I think it’s going to be drawing attention to itself, rather than the characters it creates, for several more years. How did it play for you?
Adi: It made me wish Harrison Ford had more scenes, because it’s a good moment of Deckard being volatile and confrontational in a way that K isn’t. To be clear, I liked Ryan Gosling’s performance, but the two characters strike a balance that could been emphasized more.
As for the effects tech, I wonder if we’ll have to go through a bunch of films where it’s distracting, like Blade Runner 2049 and Rogue One, until we’re so used to digital characters that other filmmakers can casually toss them in.
Bryan: I imagine you’re right. I just hope we move through this cycle faster than we did with the original dawn of animated CG characters. As incredible as things are today, there were some painful moments in along the way.
How did you feel about the way it recasts the events of the first film — particularly Deckard and Rachael’s relationship?
Bryan: I touched upon this briefly up above, but for me the biggest retcon was the idea that Deckard may have been programmed to fall in love with Rachael. That revelation works fine in this film, but I have to say it’s an idea I think I’m going to keep at arm’s length whenever I watch the original. Deckard deciding to go rogue with Rachael is his character’s defining moment in Blade Runner. Up until then, he pretty much plays everything by the standard blade runner playbook. But no matter what cut you’re watching (and, by extension, whether you think he’s a replicant or a human), that single act is the moment in which Rick Deckard decides to step off the path he’s always been given. It’s when he actually demonstrates change, and reveals his own humanity.
For that moment to simply be dictated by programming undercuts the entire movie for me. There’s no point in watching it at all. What was once a story of a character grappling with a newfound sense of morality instead just becomes a game of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. Am I the only one on this?
Adi: People have pointed out the dubious consent of Deckard’s kiss with Rachael, so I guess it’s more defensible if that was preprogrammed. Honestly, most romantic subplots from 20th century cinema would make more sense with robots.
Is there a name for the sequel / spinoff genre that retcons an original work’s plot into some kind of engineered master plan? I’m not categorically against it, but like you said, there’s not much dramatic tension in Blade Runner if Tyrell planned the whole thing.
Bryan: I think it’s technically called “Expanded Universes Ruin Everything Syndrome,” but that makes for a pretty crummy acronym. But there is something to be said about the lost art of sequels that simply expand upon the story they’ve already been given. Very rarely do I love sequels that feel the need to fundamentally retcon or rethink the premise of what came before. That’s not to say it can’t work, but as basic best practices, not ruining the movie you’re following up seems like a pretty reasonable way to go.
The replicants’ plight in Blade Runner has parallels with real-world slavery, and those themes come back in 2049. How well does it work?
Bryan: Like much of the thematic work in Blade Runner 2049, it does a good job of telegraphing to the audience that the filmmakers are interested in these ideas without actually saying much about them. Although I will give some real credit to Blade Runner 2049 for examining the practical implications of these dynamics much better than the original did. K’s relationship with Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi in particular stands out. She’s there to boss him around, tell him exactly what to do, and micromanage most aspects of his investigation. But she also sees him as a plaything; somebody to get drunk around, and flirt with, at her leisure.
There’s a scene where she remarks that she likes K, and casually wonders aloud what would happen between them if she polished off the bottle of vodka she’s working her way through. The intent is clear, and K just lets the moment slide by uncomfortably. It’s a fleeting moment, but it does give a real sense of the kind of larger injustices that might be happening to Wallace’s all-too-compliant replicant models out there in the world.
Adi: There’s an interesting overall dynamic between Joshi, K, and Joi. K has a similar amount of control over Joi, but he’s constructed this idealized ’50s relationship where his authority gets balanced out by his sense of responsibility toward her, as opposed to Joshi openly patronizing K. As we’ve mentioned before, 2049 is a scattered film, so I’m not sure there’s a coherent statement being made here. But you could argue that the whole K and Joi relationship is two marginalized non-people making the best of power hierarchies that are never going to go away.
Why exactly was K able to do all the things that modern replicants aren’t supposed to be able to do?
Bryan: This is the big question, and I have to admit, I still don’t have a coherent, thought-through response to this. In the opening of the film, it is established that replicants live and thrive as part of society because they are unerringly subservient and compliant. (Blade runners only exist to track down the previous Nexus 8 models, who were conveniently given an open-ended lifespan — one wonders if only to justify the existence of “blade runner” as a job in 2049.) But over the course of the film, Ryan Gosling’s K starts to veer away from that supposedly inherent programming, most notably when he lies to Lieutenant Joshi about having dealt with Rachael and Deckard’s baby.
Given that he starts skewing off his baseline — while not as fun as the Voight-Kampff tests, I did love those assessment sequences — perhaps we’re simply thinking of this wrong. Perhaps Wallace replicants aren’t hardwired to never disobey, in an Asimovian sense.
That would actually track with Joshi’s final comments to K. After he fails his baseline test, she says she can buy him a couple of days, but after that somebody will be after him.
But this also begs the question: what about replicants that are created through birth? Does Dr. Ana Stelline have total free will? These are all details that could have expanded upon and enriched the story being told, and I’m still confused why they’re never addressed in a meaningful way.
Adi: The baseline test — which I also love — might be the sticking point, but that’s a pretty big jump from Wallace straight-up ordering a replicant to slit his own throat, like we saw in one of the prequel shorts. You’d think they’d have some failsafe that’s more elegant than sending Luv out to roundhouse-kick K to death.
I think the larger issue here is that replicants make no sense. The series has never satisfactorily explained why you’d want robot slaves that look and act exactly like people, when that clearly freaks actual humans out. Nor do we ever get a sense of why the differences between humans and replicants, including the customizations that sales reps keep talking about, matter in a practical sense. That’s fine, because Blade Runner is all about the broad philosophical question of what it means to be human. But when you’ve got a plot as complex and fragile as this film’s, the questions really start piling up.
Was Blade Runner 2049 actually trying to set up a sequel?
Bryan: I don’t know why I was expecting this to be a standalone movie. Maybe it’s because it’s Blade Runner, and the idea of a sequel was just so far-fetched to begin with I couldn’t believe somebody would ever think this would make for franchise fodder. But there are so many unanswered questions and dangling plot threads in Blade Runner 2049 I think it’s hard to avoid the idea that the movie was intended, on some level, to set up some larger universe of Blade Runner movies.
Adi: Word of god says it really isn’t! But I agree that they leave a lot hanging.
Bryan: Maybe it makes me really cynical, but I have a hard time believing it wasn’t in the back of somebody’s mind. The replicant uprising is set up as a potent force waiting to strike whenever it thinks the moment arrives — but that moment is not in Blade Runner 2049. Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace is unquestionably meant to be the villain, but he’s still out and about when the movie credits roll — eagerly hoping to unlock the secrets of reproduction so he can create millions more of his “angels” and drive exploration and development across the universe. And then there’s the simple storyline of Deckard and his daughter. The movie literally ends with them meeting for the first time, and the audience still has no idea whether she even understands who or what she is yet.
Adi: Maybe it’s just hard to want more Blade Runner right now after three full hours of film, but a lot of the possibilities evoked in the film seem more interesting than the resolutions I’d imagine a sequel offering. For all the plot that it serves up, Blade Runner 2049 is actually not a very plot-driven film, and a follow-up would either have to significantly change its tone and pacing, or risk making everything even more confusing.
Bryan: I agree with you across the board. Which probably means that yes, I’m just cynical. But I’m actually reminded of the Terminator franchise, post-Judgement Day. Back then, you’d talk to fans and they’d explain how eager they were for a movie focusing on the “future war” between humans and machines. That’s what Blade Runner 2049 feels like at moments: a prequel to a movie where humanity and replicants go toe-to-toe in some sort of massive, apocalyptic rebellion.
But I don’t want to see that movie any more than I wanted to see more Terminator sequels. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t perfect, but the fact that it exists at all is a minor miracle. That unto itself makes it worth the decades-long wait fans have endured. Now can’t we just leave it that way?