Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi cult classic, Blade Runner (1982). The original film was loosely based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Though Scott’s Blade Runner didn’t do well at the box-office, it was considered as the foundational film in the cyberpunk subgenre. Moreover, many critics hail it as one of the greatest American movies of all time. The idea for a sequel first emerged in the 1990s. But financing and licensing issues took more than two decades to resolve. In February 2015, it was confirmed that Denis Villeneuve would direct the sequel and that Blade Runner’s protagonist character Deckard (Harrison Ford) would reprise his role.
Unlike the Star Wars franchise or the contemporary Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Blade Runner universe is considered niche, and it’s too dark to entertain everyone. But Dick’s vision was very unique and the author brilliantly imagined the complexities of human existence in a technology-dominated world.
The World of Blade Runner
The film was set in 2019 California, in a world that’s heavily polluted where a large chunk of the human population has already moved to off-world colonies. The all-powerful Tyrell Corporation has created bio-engineered humans, whose slave labour is the foundation upon which off-world communities are built. Called ‘Replicants’, these humanoid beings gradually develop self-awareness and become more ‘human’. Some break away from the colonies and escape to Earth.
In order to hunt them down, government-sanctioned bounty hunters are recruited. The bounty hunters don’t consider the killing of replicants as ‘execution.’ They refer to it as ‘retirement’. Since it’s nearly impossible to detect a replicant based on their physiology, the bounty hunters employ a unique empathy test, known as ‘Voight-Kampff Test’ before ‘retiring’ them. The phrase ‘Blade Runner’ indicates these bounty hunters.
The 1982 movie mostly revolves around Los Angeles Blade Runner Rick Deckard, who goes after four replicant fugitives. They are all part of Tyrell Corporation’s efficient Nexus-6 models. The narrative mentions that the Nexus-6 life span is only around four years. In his journey, Deckard comes across an alluring Nexus-7 replicant named Rachael (Sean Young). She’s made with implanted human memories. Later, Deckard‘s tough experiences make him question the nature of human identity and the commoditized outlook of replicants. Eventually, he flees away from Los Angeles with Rachael.
What made Blade Runner an enduring sci-fi masterpiece is its aesthetic outlook of a futuristic Los Angeles. A city of neon lights and giant digital billboards. Philip K Dick was sceptical of a Hollywood adaptation. He didn’t like the initial drafts of the script, and passed away shortly before the film’s release. Nevertheless, he watched a 20-minute test reel, particularly Douglas Trumbull’s brilliantly crafted special-effects portions. Dick approved Ridley Scott’s vision and attested that it was exactly like he imagined it.
30 Years Later
Blade Runner 2049 is obviously set 30 years after the events of the first film. A lot has changed in this universe, and some of the events are hinted at within the narrative. Around 2020, Tyrell Corporation introduces a new replicant model Nexus-8 with extended life spans. Soon though, the replicants increasingly rebel against it and their manufacture is prohibited. In 2022, an EMP detonation by replicant terrorists causes a massive digital blackout and destroys the database of replicants. And, Tyrell Corp goes bankrupt.
However, in the mid-2020s, a powerful industrialist named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) solves two problems plaguing earth. Due to the collapsed ecosystems, earth was on the verge of a famine. But Wallace’s synthetic farming technique solves the global food shortage. Furthermore, he acquires Tyrell Corp. and starts creating a new generation of replicants that obey. At the same time, the surviving older Nexus-8 models with long life-spans are hunted down by the Blade Runners.
Unearthing the Deeply Buried Bones and Memories
Like his predecessor, Denis Villeneuve delivers a visual feast bolstered by Roger Deakins’ Academy-Award winning cinematography in Blade Runner 2049 and Dennis Gassner’s spellbinding production design. The narrative revolves around Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a Nexus-9 blade runner, who carries out the job of ‘retiring’ the older Nexus-8 models from circulation. This makes him visit a protein-farming replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). After a violent struggle, Agent K kills him. But before his death, Morton speaks of a miracle. It stokes K’s suspicion, and he finds a military-issued trunk with a skeleton inside, buried under a dead tree.
The subsequent analysis of the bones reveals that it was of a woman who died in childbirth, at least 28 years before. The most shocking revelation is that the woman is a replicant. One of the reasons why replicants are just seen as synthetic beings and treated as slaves is their inability to reproduce. But this changes everything. This truth could dismantle the status quo. It’s why the police chief Lt Joshi (Robin Wright) orders Agent K to find the child and kill him/her. “The world is built on a wall. It separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war or a slaughter”, the police chief states.
K is an extremely docile replicant. But the idea of killing someone who is ‘born’ troubles him. At the same time, he has no choice but to do the chief’s bidding. K lives in a world that discriminates against replicants. He is referred to by the demeaning phrase ‘skin-job’. But he tries to live a ‘normal’ human life in an apartment. And his emotions and desires are very humanlike. This is particularly evident in his interactions with the holographic friend and lover Joi (Ana de Armas).
K also shares a particular memory with his police chief, though he knows that it is an implant. In the memory, he is chased after by the bullies in an orphanage room. They try to snatch his beloved wooden pony. But he hides the pony under the ash heap of a giant unused furnace. Interestingly, the date, month, and year carved under the pony is possibly the same as the aforementioned child’s birthday. K doesn’t share this last detail with the chief. It could pretty well be a memory implant, but what if it isn’t. Is K much more than what he believes himself to be?
The God and His Angel
K’s investigation takes him to the headquarters of Wallace Corp. There, he meets Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Niander Wallace’s personal assistant and a fellow replicant. She accompanies him to the company’s archives, and our doubts are confirmed: the skeleton is that of Rachael. Though most of the information on Rachael is lost due to the blackout, K hears the vocal fragments of Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test conducted on Rachael. Niander Wallace has long held the doubts that Eldon Tyrell (before getting killed by Roy Batty) has gifted the Nexus-7 the ability to reproduce. Since now it has become a fact, the powerful man with the God Complex wants to get his hands on the heir.
Niander Wallace harbours dreams of expanding humankind’s reach in space. He believes that is possible only with the slave labour of replicants. But the current manufacturing process is limited in its scope. Hence, it is essential for him to make replicants that can reproduce. It’s a huge question how Wallace intends to control a species that’s given the autonomy of reproduction. Maybe he has a much sinister plan in place, which is not fully revealed in this sequel. Nevertheless, Wallace orders his perfect replicant, Luv, to bring him the heir before K finds and kills the person. Luv, who thinks of herself as an infallible angel ruthlessly kills people, including the police chief, in her mission to find the identity of Deckard-Rachael’s child.
The Proof and the Bad News
K’s holographic companion Joi is enthused by the possibility that he could be much more than a replicant. She names him Joe. Subsequently, Joe’s search for the child takes him to Morrill Cole’s Orphanage. To his shock, it is the same place he often recalls from his implanted memories. At the orphanage, he discovers that every record on the kids from 2021 has disappeared. However, driven by his haunting memory, Joe finds the unused furnace.
To his shock, he finds the wooden pony and engraved on its bottom is the date. 6-10-21. Now Joe is nearly convinced that he is the heir. Still, he visits Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) to confirm it. Ana is the genius creator of synthetic memories. She suffers from a rare autoimmune disease, and hence lives inside a big chamber, isolated from the world. Ana mentions that it’s illegal to implant a real human memory in a replicant. She also goes through Joe’s memory with tears in her eyes and confirms that it’s real.
The proof evidently disturbs Joe. But before he’s hunted down, he wants to meet a person. Rick Deckard. Examining the wooden pony, it is revealed that it comes from Las Vegas. The pony contains traces of radioactive isotope Tritium. In an unspecified time in the Blade Runner Universe (prior to 2019), a dirty bomb goes off in Las Vegas, and the place has turned uninhabitable due to radiation.
Arriving at the abandoned Las Vegas desert bathed in an orange haze, Joe finds that the place isn’t radioactive anymore, and finds few signs of life. He meets Deckard in an old abandoned hotel. The two sit and talk — after an elaborately staged scuffle — about the child born to Rachael and Deckard.
Deckard mentions that he didn’t even know the sex of his child. He entrusted the safety of the child to Nexus-8 fugitives, and has been living in hiding to preserve the secret. Their meeting is abruptly cut short by Luv’s violent intrusion. She kidnaps Deckard and knocks out Joe. The sadistic replicant also destroys Joe’s memory stick, which contains his own version of Joi. However, a tracker hidden in Joe’s pocket allows a community of rebellious replicants to trace him down.
The leader of the community Freysa (Hiam Abbass) reveals to him that the replicants will soon start a revolt against their oppressors. And this truth about the child makes them ‘more human than human’. Furthermore, she inadvertently gives Joe the bad news: the child was a girl and that she herself witnessed the ‘miracle’.
The Noble Human Gesture
Freysa ask Joe to kill Deckard before he’s tortured by Wallace. The disillusioned Joe walks back to his apartment and comes across a giant, naked advertising hologram of Joi. “You look like a good Joe”, croons the provocative ad figure. Is everything attached to his life an illusion constructed to alleviate his artificial existence? Is there any purpose to his existence? The emotionally and physically battered Joe probably wonders.
Yet deep down he knows that the emotions he withholds makes him as much human as the real ones. Moreover, Joe now knows where he got his alleged childhood memories of the wooden pony. He truly understands the real reason behind Ana’s tears. It was her memory, and she is the child of Rachael and Deckard.
And so, Joe finds a new purpose. He goes on a suicide mission to save Deckard, who is about to be taken to an off-world colony, from Wallace Corp. He intercepts the spinner –flying cars – transporting Deckard, and fights Luv in a tense hand-to-hand combat. Instead of killing Deckard as Freysa ordered, Joe takes him to meet his daughter, Ana. Thus, Joe, the replicant, exercises free will and commits a selfless act. He awaits his death in the snow-drenched steps while Deckard tentatively steps inside Ana’s laboratory.
Blade Runner 2049 Analysis
The Tortured Male Gaze and Lack of Agency
In the futuristic world of Blade Runner 2049, the pervasive male gaze says a lot about the misogyny and treatment of women. The characters in the narrative lack agency, particularly the female characters. Luv is programmed to be a killing machine, although on brief occasions we see her conflicted and even shedding tears. But she needs to be brutal because her repugnant master wants her to be. On the other hand, the holographic Joi is simply programmed to express love and provide companionship. But Joi claims some agency for herself, when she makes a decision to showcase her desire and love for Agent K aka Joe.
In one tender as well as unsettling scene, Joi hires the services of a sex worker named Mariette to be intimate with Joe. It’s also important to note that Mariette is paid to not show any agency. Villeneuve doesn’t visualise anything explicitly. Before cutting to the next scene, he simply shows the hologram Joi and real Mariette moving out of sync with each other when caressing Joe, probably to emphasise on the unnatural bonding.
At the same time, while Joi is condemned to play the coy seductress, Joe is programmed to be the obedient blade runner. However, in this particular scenario, the tortured male gaze of Joe finds some catharsis as he witnesses Joi’s desire to be loved. It’s what brings tenderness and intimacy to the moment. Their feelings of love seem real even though it’s made up of code.
Simulated or Real?
In a world overrun by technologies, there’s always the question of what’s simulated and what’s real. Despite the emotions we assign to inorganic Joi, the holographic companion app is at its basic, a virtual mirror of the human or replicant desires. Is Joi simply Joe’s external projection of his internal self that craves for validation and love? It is a fact that in a virtual reality, we often populate the space with our own projections and aspirations. Joi could be a combination of excellent programming and the user’s fantasies.
But the nagging question remains. Was there more to Joi’s relationship with Joe? As mentioned above in the three-some scene, we feel a sense of love and intimacy between the leads.
However, when Joe loses his virtual lover, and comes across Joi as a giant, pink holographic ad, we see her in a different context. The words, “You look like a good Joe” leaves us with a bitter aftertaste. In the end, the screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, leave it to the viewers to perceive how much of Joi is purely simulated and how much of her is real. While no concrete answers are provided, Villeneuve and his writers seem to be saying that it’s all about one’s perception.
When Joe meets old Deckard, who is exhausted and lonely, he sees a dog. Joe asks whether the dog is real or an artificial creation. Deckard replies that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t care. The dog follows Deckard everywhere. That’s what matters to the isolated man. For Deckard, the obedience and care the dog shows for him is very much real. At a later point, Wallace tries to play a trick on Deckard by bringing in front of him a near-perfect copy of Rachael. But Deckard rejects Wallace’s gift because it feels unreal to him. The same thing can be said about Joi and Joe’s feelings for each other. It’s all in the perception.
Subverting “The One” Narrative Trope
One of the most time-worn narrative tropes in Hollywood and popular culture is the idea of the ‘chosen one’. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars saga, Harry Potter, and Neo in The Matrix are some of the examples of such narrative set-up. Oftentimes, massive conflicts are solely built around these protagonists, and it is revealed that these heroes are destined for greatness. One could argue that it’s a potent storytelling tool, which has been there even before the days of Christ.
In fact, it’s a feeling that resides within every human being. Our ego makes us believe that our existence has a larger purpose. Such thoughts can push us to achieve great things. But at the same time we should realise that we are not the centre of every tale. Moreover, it’s important to understand that a lot of things are out of our control. From a rational viewpoint, it’s also too much to expect from an individual, however powerful, to single-handedly fix our vast broken social systems.
Blade Runner 2049 for a moment makes us believe that it is only about K or Joe’s journey, and him realising his potential. Joe eventually comes to terms with the truth. There may not be a larger purpose to Joe’s existence, but he does find a purpose and perfectly executes it. He is not ‘the one’. Yet his final altruistic act could very well initiate a bigger change in the conflict between humans and replicants.
Is Deckard a Replicant?
Nothing much is revealed about Rick Deckard and his background in Scott’s Blade Runner Therefore, it led to a theory that Deckard could be a replicant. To support this theory, there’s the dream Deckard has which involves a unicorn. Deckard’s brooding and silent partner Gaff (Edward James Olmos) shows a penchant for creating origami figures. He leaves an origami of a unicorn at the end of Blade Runner, which hints that Gaff knows about Deckard’s recurring dream. How? Maybe it was an implanted dream. Still, the identity of Deckard isn’t made clear.
Blade Runner 2049 also doesn’t answer the question, but hints that he could be a Nexus-7 replicant like Rachael. When Wallace interrogates Deckard in his pyramid-like headquarters, he wonders if Deckard was purposefully created to fall in love with Rachael and produce an offspring with her. Wallace could be simply provoking Deckard by calling him a replicant puppet, designed to serve a single purpose.
Wallace definitely has ulterior motives. He wants to know the secret of Nexus-7, who were gifted with a fully functioning reproductive system; the secret which was lost with the blackout in 2022. Wallace also wants to know the identity of Deckard and Rachael’s child. It’s clever to leave the answer to this question open-ended which brings a layer of mystery to Ana. Is she a hybrid of human and replicant? Or is she only a replicant who was born, and not made in a laboratory?
Denis Villeneuve brilliantly expands on the Blade Runner universe, although there are quite a few unanswered questions in the sequel. It depicts a journey of a man who chooses to be a part of something that’s larger than him. In the haunting final shot, we witness the end to this man’s heartbreaking journey. But there’s more to the Blade Runner’s universe which should be explored further.
Unfortunately, Blade Runner 2049 didn’t do well at the box-office like the first film. Yet, the intelligent and slow-burn sci-fi sequel is gradually gaining its legion of admirers. Thankfully, a sequel series titled Blade Runner 2099 is in works at Amazon Studios and Ridley Scott is behind the project. Can’t wait!
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’