What does it mean to be human? Can something sentient yet artificial achieve humanity? If so, what then is its value? These are the questions first presented in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir classic, Blade Runner. Now, thirty-five years later, we return to the dystopian sprawl of Los Angeles to further explore these themes in Blade Runner 2049. This is a difficult film to write about, mostly because I feel that it is best experienced cold. Ideally, you should just stop reading this right now and go see it. However, if you’d rather have a hint of what to expect, read on. I shall try to be as vague as possible.
MILD SPOLERS FOLLOW
Blade Runner 2049 follows a Blade Runner named K. At the onset of the film, K is just a Blade Runner doing his job: hunting replicants. The catch: he himself is a replicant, albeit one of the newer models with an inhibitor installed that disallows him from violating orders. Lonely and isolated thanks to virulent speciesism—humans are even more despairing of replicants since a series of violent rebellions and a worldwide blackout in 2022—K spends most of his days in quiet contemplation, his only companionship found in Joi, an AI projection that exists solely in his apartment. She seems to love him and he’s clearly fond of her, but can anything between them be considered real? Worse, K seems cognizant of this question, and haunted by it.
His troubled state of mind is further compounded by the discovery of an old replicant’s gravesite, one that contains a potentially society-shattering secret. His superior tasks him with tracking down every shred of evidence related to this discovery and destroying them. Through his investigation however, the parameters of K’s agency begin to be tested. His desire to fulfill his duty is slowly countermanded by his growing curiosity. He wonders what this secret means for the future and, more importantly, the nature of his existence. His digging however soon sees him pursued by a number of hostile forces, all intent on using the secret for their own purposes. Thrust into a conflict he does not fully understand, K races against time to find the answers he seeks. All his leads point to the one person that can explain everything, one person who disappeared long ago: Rick Deckard.
That’s all I will say about the plot. However, let it be known: you will not guess what happens in this film. It is a finely crafted noir mystery, filled with red herrings and false leads. However, none of them ever feel cheap or contrived. The reason that the mystery succeeds in being so enthralling is its subject matter: humanity. What is it? What does it mean? The layered nature in which the film investigates these questions is spectacularly subtle and yet deeply moving.
K is a replicant in an existential quandary. He’s a synthetic being questioning whether or not he is “real.” Meanwhile Joi, his AI companion, is merely a holographic projection wishing she inhabited a physical form so she could truly be with K. Their problems are two sides of the same coin, making their relationship both intriguing and incredibly sad; worse, it is something that would probably be dismissed by any human that encountered it. In contrast, the human characters that populate the rest of the story range from figures of authority to slaves. Yet no matter their status, when faced with K, their actions usually speak to the same mindset, “At least I’m human.”
Deckard exists in an entirely different sphere altogether. He is a man that loved a replicant; a person who saw humanity in the supposedly inhuman. It only makes sense then that K’s journey of self-discovery is radically altered when he encounters Deckard, whose entrance not only marks the film’s shift from the second to the third act, but also a vital reframing of the film’s main narrative question; “Am I human?” becomes “Does it matter?” and the answer is something to behold.
Beyond the already great storycraft on display thanks to writers Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, the direction of Blade Runner 2049 is stunning. Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) proves once again to be a master of tension and tone. This film is a slow burn, but it is an artisan’s slow burn: delicately crafted and monitored; built slowly and purposefully so that when it explodes, it does so in spectacular fashion. Between the scenes of action, like Arrival before it, Villeneuve manages to ask lofty questions through character, using deft juxtaposition and symbolism in moments of silence to make the scenes of dialogue that much more impactful.
What I appreciate most about Villeneuve is his choice of projects. His narratives are always challenging, ones that rebel against common tropes and structures to deliver experiences that are altogether unique. Blade Runner 2049 is not an exception. It forges its own narrative path and, oddly, manages to be an incredibly focused film despite the impressive scope of the world it presents. Many have said Villeneuve is the modern Kubrick. I think he’s better.
Much of the film’s stunning visual flare can be attributed to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work here is nothing short of breathtaking. Each shot is a wonder, highlighting unmatched set and costume design in a grounded, yet stylish manner. His eye makes this nightmarish, dystopian version of Los Angeles feel not only real, but lived-in, tangible. Light and color in particular are used to great effect, paired with specific characters to give each scene a distinctive tonal flavor. If Deakins does not win every cinematography award this year, I will be very surprised (and displeased).
The performances, like the direction and look of the film, are also wonderful. Ryan Gosling once again shows his incredible range, turning in an impressive performance for a character that could have easily fallen flat. Though subdued, K is not emotionless and Gosling manages to convey so much with just his eyes that you always know what K’s thinking despite his relative silence. Gosling’s inspired performance ultimately makes K’s arc that much more satisfying. Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) plays Joi, and is likewise excellent. Even more removed from humanity than K, Armas imbues within many aspects of Joi a very specific, precooked quality. However, as the film progresses and she becomes more independent, Armas is deftly able to convey Joi’s growing agency and commitment to K. The two performances join together to make their improbable love story both tragic and extremely affecting. Lastly, Harrison Ford returns to the role of Deckard. I don’t know if Ford has ever been better. I can’t say much for fear of spoilers, but rest assured, Ford is given a lot of dramatic material and excels in every scene in which he’s featured.
Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the film’s score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Filled with buzzing electronic noise and crackling synths, Blade Runner 2049’s score is perhaps the most atmospheric music I’ve ever heard in a film. It perfectly echoes the Vangelis score of the original while adding something new and distinctive to the mix. Though incredibly loud, it is never unbearable and, thankfully, the film knows when silence is best. Inspired work.
Put simply, Bladerunner 2049 is a masterpiece; a triumphant display of story and filmcraft that fulfills the incredible promise of the original and shows the true, towering potential of science fiction as a cinematic genre. This is the type of movie that makes people want to make movies. That is the highest praise I can possibly give. An achievement on all fronts and without a doubt one of the year’s finest films.