“Blade Runner 2049” provides us with an answer to what happened to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his beloved Rachael (Sean Young) and asks a few more questions, but not all of them are answered in this atmospheric sequel written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (“Logan”) and ably directed by Denis Villeneuve.
The original 1982 movie began in November 2019 in an urban nightmare version of modern Los Angeles without the movie stars, but with pleasure replicants. Fancher wrote the 1982 movie with David Webb Peoples (“The Unforgiven” which is loosely based on the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?” That question isn’t answered in either film.
The beginning text for the original “Blade Runner” explains the new world:
Early in the 21st Century, The Tyrell Corporation advanced robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-World as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-World colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – Blade Runner Units – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
Don’t worry, there will be text at the beginning of “Blade Runner 2049” to bring you up-to-date on the 30 years that have passed between the original movie and this sequel. What the Blade Runner world calls robots are not the robots of “Ghost in the Shell.” These so-called robots feel pain and they bleed. You don’t see electronics sticking out from peeled away artificial skin.
The Tyrell Corporation has been revived by a mysterious Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). The glitch of rogue Replicants has been corrected because bioengineered human slaves were necessary for civilization’s survival because “Every civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce, but I can only make so many.”
K (Ryan Gosling) is one such obedient model and he is a Blade Runner for the LAPD. This isn’t the tired by-the-book K of Men in Black. We never questioned that K’s loyalty and he wasn’t expected to be obedient. This K’s obedience is tested by a machine that spits out innocuous seeming questions which establishes a baseline for K. The improved Replicants can’t lie or if they do, they are retired. As his boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) explains, “There is an order to things. What’s what we do here. We keep order.”
On one of K’s retirement missions, K visits a protein farm. Under the plastic greenhouses, in murky water, grubs are being raised by a rogue Replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). Sapper, a former combat medic, fights hard to live and refuses to have his iris scanned by the handheld device the LAPD now use. Before Sapper dies he asks K, “How does it feel, killing your own kind,” and tells K the reason for his beliefs in the Replicant Resistance movement, saying “You’ve never seen a miracle.”
That haunts K and he notices a daisy-like yellow flower (coreopsis?) with roots on this barren landscape, just under a long dead tree. Taking a closer look using a drone to probe deep underground with something like radar, K discovers a 2020 military issue footlocker and inside the footlocker is a woman’s skeleton. Forensics determines that the skeleton belonged to a female Replicant who died during an emergency C-section.
The thought that a Replicant could give birth threatens the order that Joshi (Robin Wright) means to keep and Joshi orders K to investigate, and destroy all evidence related to the case and retire the now adult child.
Yet K worries because he has never killed something that has actually been born. Why should this be different, Joshi wonders? K responds, “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.”
In K’s life there is Joi (Ana De Armas), a 1950s style holographic wife and companion, supplied by the new version of the Tyrell Corporation under Wallace. Wallace takes joy in killing because if it is a Replicant it isn’t really murder? But the reason for the naked “birthing” scene of a full-grown female replicant (besides gratuitous nudity, but I’ll get to that later), is the failure of Wallace’s research and development. He wants to create Replicants who can procreate. He wants to know more about this case and sends Luv–a Replicant that I prefer to call evil Abby Sciuto. Pauley Perrette should get some credit for Sylvia Hoeks grimly humorless assassin.
The investigation will take K on a journey where he will come to question what it means to be a replicant and if he is indeed one. He’ll investigate his own implanted memories, visiting Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who lives in a holodeck because she is allergic to the world, but in this deck is also her lab where she creates false memories for the Replicants and hers are the best. K will eventually search for and find Deckard in a deserted Las Vegas.
Returning to this sequel are Edward James Olmos as Gaff and even Sean Young as Rachael. This version of Rachael required a stand-in actress (Loren Peta) and CGI to make Young as young as she appeared in 1982. Archival footage from the original film are also used. Also, care of CGI, Frank Sinatra and the white jump-suited Elvis appear.
While Rachael believed that she was “real” as in human, Luv believes she is the best and says so. She is both deadly and loyal and like the rest of the Replicant woman beautiful in a certain way that clearly shows this movie as a heterosexual fantasy. We don’t see male pleasure quarter slaves or male nudity in the flesh or as holographic advertisements. We are exposed to female nudity in an antiseptic air-brushed artificiality. None of the male Replicants approach that level of perfection or nudity.
While the original “Blade Runner” represented Los Angeles as heavily influenced by Japanese, “Blade Runner 2049” is less discriminating on its choices of East Asian culture. There are signs in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and what I am guessing is Thai. A machine speaks to K in polite Japanese while he responds in English. What is missing in the original and this one are the actual presence of East Asians as characters and not background and props. The 1982 “Blade Runner” had the cook, bystanders and the lady who helps identify an object, but shouldn’t there be more and where have all those people gone in 2049?
Where are the East Asians? Are they the electronic sheep of dreams? Invisible and only part of an exotic jumbled background? Having a blonde woman named Joshi, a name that could be Japanese or Asian or showing Zen-inspired living space of Wallace who at one point wears a kimono-like jacket does little more than show white people in an Asian-influenced world without the actual threat of real Asian people in positions of influence.
There are other new unanswered questions such as:
- Why is our villain (Jared Leto’s Wallace) blind? Is that a reference to the original villain (Eldon Tyrell) who as extremely near-sighted and didn’t have the dollars for laser surgery and instead wore ugly, thick glasses?
- Where did the yellow flower come from?
If you can ignore the sexist vision and the whitewashing, Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” does an incredible job of building environmental despair in the bleak vision of Roger Deakins cinematography. Music and the atmosphere move us forward without a voiceover narration (used in the original theatrical release of the 1982 film) and Gosling transforms from a man locked into a mundane and joyless life, with the illusion of love, to someone wrestling with an identity crisis and deciding whether “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.”