Bright Lights Film Journal

I am Blade Runner 2049, Blade Runner 2049 is I

Ryan Gosling as K.

“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the window pane.
I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”

– “Pale Fire,” by John Shade

“I know what’s real.”
– Rick Deckard

* * *

When Blade Runner 2049 was announced a couple years back, no movie struck me as being less needed. One couldn’t help imagining that any sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, presumably made to cash in on the cult that’s built up around it, would merely be a watered-down retread of the first movie’s themes and pastiched stylistics, with just enough unwanted backstory and explanation stapled in to ruin the ambiguities left open at the end of the original. Plus, you knew the filmmakers would want to read the material through a modern liberal lens; this time around the audience would be put entirely on the side of the poor victimized replicants, those bio-engineered humanoids who are nothing more to their makers than a disposable slave class. And, as in the new television version of Westworld, their exploitation would inevitably be made analogous to colonialism, race consciousness, and gender politics, for instant added significance.

Even though there is some of this in the new movie – it has been told from the point of view of a replicant, of course – Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t try to mollify our anxieties about the subject with the usual kind of test-screened, corporatized liberal treacle one gets in deluxe blockbusters of the, say, Wonder Woman variety. At the end of Blade Runner 2049 we’re left with a bleak uncertainty about what, ultimately, we’re meant to make of the protagonist K.’s investigation and the rebellious replicants planning what seems a pretty sinister revolution. Are they really more human than human, or is it that our ideas about humanity are simply sentimental tropes?

As in the original Blade Runner, the new movie plays with the sci-fi thriller elements of pop films past. There are bits of RoboCop, Total Recall, The Matrix, Minority Report, Inception, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and especially Her. Movies either adapted from the works of Philip K. Dick himself, author of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the source for Blade Runner, or else inspired by them. As with the original Blade Runner, this new one has been structured as a retro Raymond Chandleresque noir detective story. During the course of an ongoing investigation, the hero is made to visit numerous eccentric individuals in exotic, alienatingly dystopic locales, though this time the proceedings have been given a fun gimmicky metaphysical twist reminiscent of Angel Heart. Angel Heart, which is also an artsy exercise in picturesque rot, told the story of a Phillip Marlowe figure (Mickey Rourke) tasked with finding a missing person who turns out to be . . . himself!

While the plot of Blade Runner 2049 will probably satisfy most filmgoers up for a sleek sci-fi thriller, there’s much more to it than that. Morose and morbidly meditative in tone, it gnaws around the edges of the assumptions underlying its plot mechanics, giving viewers time to think through the fakery in its themes about fakery versus authenticity. It was exactly the sequel I wanted. While watching it I found myself wondering what all this stuff was supposed to be doing for me in a way I never had before. Such as the Pinocchio plot device of having a robot who wants to be a real person. What is that about? Why should we, an audience of real people, want a robot to want to become human? Is it just a matter of anthropomorphism? Imputing human feelings to the actions of creatures very different than ourselves? Maybe it’s a display of mankind’s monumental self-regard to believe that there could be no more noble pursuit than the attainment of human sentience.

Or is there something darker under the idea? In a philistine, materialistic world like ours, people’s motives and actions are more and more thought to be predetermined by chemistry and social statistics. Is it possible we’ve come to view ourselves at some level as being like the oppressed automatons struggling to bleed on the screen? Perhaps these pathetic stories represent nightmare versions of ourselves, yearning to be free from dull automated lives. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Star Trek, the original Blade Runner itself, and Her play on the edge of this blurry line where something very weird seems to be going on. The new Blade Runner burrows as far down into this foggy mess as any movie ever has.

* * *

Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years after the first movie, in a Los Angeles even more polluted and dystopic than the scuzzed-out urban Hades of the Ridley Scott film. Before the action begins, a set of explanatory titles brings us up to snuff. Apparently the old-style replicants of the first movie were so rambunctious and unpredictable they had to be discontinued, after which the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt and was bought out by the Wallace Corporation, run by yet another sinister whateveranaire, Niander Wallace, a performance excreted onto the screen by Jared Leto. Since then, we’re told, the Wallace Corporation has whipped together a new type of replicant, reliably subservient to its masters and fully integrated into society, though they of course experience bigotry on a regular basis. Slurs are flung at them; people paint graffiti on their doors. Despite the fact these new replicants are completely obedient, Blade Runner coppers are still on the beat since a lot of the old ones remain at large, in need of “retirement,” the original film’s euphemism for killing them.

Nexus 8 replicant

After this we’re introduced to K., played by Ryan Gosling, a replicant Blade Runner who knows exactly what he is. Doing humanity’s dirty work for it, a kind of android Uncle Tom, Gosling manages a performance poised between congested lonely despair and automated indifference. He flies his police spinner through smoggy skies to the outskirts of Los Angeles (below), now so crowded it looks like a city made of jammed-together shipping containers, and lands outside a forlorn house on a dusty worm farm (the major source of protein in the future). He enters a dim house. No one’s around, but there’s a pot of soup cooking on an old-fashioned gas stove. There’s a piano with one key stuck down, recalling the piano in Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) apartment from the first movie – possibly because screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who also wrote the first Blade Runner along with David Peoples, had originally intended to begin their film with this scene.1 K. sits down to wait. When the farmer, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), comes in, K. attempts to give him a replicant eye-test. Morton refuses to comply, spouting some mumbo jumbo about seeing miracles and the two have a bloody fight, which doesn’t appear to cause K. much pain. At last K. “retires” him. As he’s about to leave the scene he discovers a box buried beside a dead tree containing a collection of bones belonging to a replicant woman who died from complications having to do with a pregnancy gone wrong. First shocker: replicants aren’t supposed to be able to have children. The dead woman turns out to have been – second shocker – Sean Young’s character from the 1982 movie, Rachel.

As there are no infant remains in the box, it appears the child must have survived. K.’s superior, Lt. Joshi, played by the chilly Robin Wright (below, with Luv) – who’s an expert at putting submeanings under any line – assigns K. the task of finding this child, retiring it, and destroying any evidence it ever existed. K. expresses unease at killing a creature born of woman, because to him this means it has a soul. Earth’s society, Joshi says, barely functions as is; she’s afraid a civil war between replicants and humans is inevitable if the government can’t maintain the fiction replicants are absolutely unlike humans. Being able to have a child, it is presumed, might seem a pretty close step toward replicants having a good case for being actually alive. At this point I thought the movie was going to validate my worst fears about it.

K. then heads over to the Wallace Corporation to search its photogenic archives, which include a gorgeous labyrinthine card catalogue out of Borges – they still use paper in this retro future due to a computing breakdown a couple decades previously, during which a great deal of the world’s digital information was either lost or corrupted. Eventually K. turns up two birth records related to Rachel, a boy and girl born on the same day who have exactly the same DNA. Since no two people can have the same DNA, the question becomes: Which is the real child?

Shortly after this, on an inexplicable hunch, K. returns to the worm farm from the beginning of the movie, examines the dead tree (as in a moribund family tree?) next to where the bones were buried, and is freaked when he finds a date carved in the trunk. It’s the same date as that carved on the bottom of a wood toy horse K. had as a kid. The problem is he’s a replicant and never had a childhood, so how could a real date have been on a made-up toy horse?

Side note: K. told Lt. Joshi about this toy horse before its becoming pivotal to the plot. In an intimate moment she asked him to share a particularly treasured recollection with her, and he recounted how the horse was nearly stolen from him in an orphanage factory as a kid; how he hung on to it by beating off his attackers and hiding it in a broken furnace. But he didn’t tell her about the date, which is important for a couple reasons. One, these new-brand replicants aren’t supposed to be able to dissemble, suggesting this is a first sign K.’s maybe beginning to develop an individual streak. Also, as uncertainty mounts, we may begin to wonder if this date ever really was a part of his memory or if he just wanted it to be?

Anyway, when K. tells all this to his virtual girlfriend Joi (played by Ana de Armas, above), whom he goes home to after long hours spent chasing and murdering replicants, she suggests he himself might be the missing child. Since it’s early in the movie for a twist like this to be coming out, I realized that he probably wasn’t, and started to breathe easier, even when K. visits a Dickensian orphanage in a trash dump looking to see if the child he’s trying to find spent any time there, and discovers it has the same furnace basement as in his supposedly fictional memory.

The scenes between K. and Joi are some of the most fascinating in the movie. Joi greets him when he comes home with soothing, wifely chatter, pretending to serve him dinner. Her fashion model image is digitally superimposed over whatever hardware actually brings him his food. Ever chipper and soothing, Joi watches him eat with satisfaction, suggesting he read to her after dinner, from the one book he has, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire. “But you hate that book,” he says, and the two happily ditch literature so K. can give her a present.

By the way, the seemingly playful Nabokov connection is complex. After K. returns to police headquarters from retiring Sapper Morton, he has to take a baseline emotional test to make sure he hasn’t been traumatized by what he’s done – if he fails this test, it may mean he’s developing rebellious emotional tendencies and have to be retired. The test comprises his looking into a lens on a wall as he stands in the center of a sterile-white room, and repeating words or phrases spoken to him by a voice-automated computer. Anthony Lane in his review of the movie2 pointed out that when the words and phrases are put together, they form lines 705 through 708 of the poem portion of Pale Fire:

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.3

Pale Fire was and still is an extraordinary structural freak, an intellectual whirligig. The book purports to be the scholarly edition of the last poem ever written by the all-American poet John Shade. There’s a fake introduction by a fake gay scholar, Charles Kinbote, followed by John Shade’s fictional 999-line poem, followed by Charles Kinbote’s insane line by line commentary on it. The scholar, we learn, managed to get his hands on the manuscript of the poem because Shade happened to be talking to Kinbote right after finishing it, when a man popped up out of nowhere and shot him to death. Since the manuscript was there for the taking, Kinbote did so.

Kinbote, we slowly discover, is a shabby Russian exile who’s developed the consistent delusion that he’s the deposed king of an exotic country called Zembla, which succumbed to a Marxist revolution. Immigrating to America, and into this fantasy, he becomes a colleague not only of his favorite English-language poet John Shade – they teach at the same university – but of his neighbor as well, renting the house next door to Shade and his wife. Ecstatic when he learns Shade’s begun writing a new work, Kinbote contrives to hang out with the old man and pushes all his Zembla’s-escaped-king tales on him, fully expecting Shade will be so mesmerized he’ll use them to mythologize Kinbote in his poem. Only that’s not how it goes down. After Kinbote swipes the manuscript and reads it, he’s bitterly disappointed to find that Zembla’s nowhere in the thing. The poem is a delicate autobiographical work exploring the mystery of life’s prosaic strangeness, centered around the tragic suicide of the poet’s ugly daughter.

After his initial upset, though, Kinbote decides not to worry over the fact of the actual poem and uses his position as editor to construct an elaborate commentary that will allow him to steal the poem’s glory by turning it into a coded text that’s really all about him. Witty, stylish, elegant, and plenty weird, the novel represents an amusing warning to critics who like to think they know more about a work of art than the creator; lays bare the needy motivations of super-interpreters such as those who found in The Shining a personal confession by director Stanley Kubrick that he had helped fake the moon landing or an allegory about the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans. Yet it’s also a crazy celebration of literary influence and those so passionate about works of the imagination they’re willing to lose touch with reality to get near them, rather like fans of the original Blade Runner who are still trying to figure out whether or not Decker was a replicant.

The lines quoted from Pale Fire in Blade Runner 2049’s baseline test deal specifically with the dangers of jumping to conclusions about what one reads. They come from the third canto of the poem, in which John Shade recounts his various attempts to pin down for certain whether or not there’s an afterlife. He describes having a heart attack during a speaking engagement one day, followed by a near-death experience wherein he saw a marvelous, mysterious fountain. A few lines later he tells of reading an account in a newspaper about a woman called Mrs. Z., who also had a vision of a fountain after a heart attack. Shade meets with lady but can get nothing out of her about the incident, because she’s much more interested in gossip and fawning over Shade – she’s a fan of his work. Afterward he calls the reporter who wrote the newspaper story about the woman and learns there was a fatal misprint in the article: she saw a mountain not a fountain. Disappointed, he nonetheless bucks up and draws a very Nabokovian moral from the whole farce.

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
but topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense. (lines 806-810).4

 

My guess is that the director, Villeneuve, and his screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, have secreted this death vision of the fountain from Nabokov’s novel as a gag, not just to warn people off over reading the action but to remind us that anything we come up with will say as much about ourselves as it does the actual film, just as K.’s growing belief he’s the replicant baby reveals something about him. The movie doesn’t try to fill all the blanks in and tell us how we’re supposed to feel. Rather it’s an attempt to dramatize the contrapuntal texture of mysteriousness, the feeling we have when confronting an unknowable riddle that there must be a way of getting at the answer.5

* * *

The gift K. gives Joi is a wireless emitter that will allow Joi to operate free of her holographic projection unit, which spins around on the ceiling of K’s apartment like something out of a carwash. He does this as if he were trying to make Joi happy, but really it’s to make him happy, to make her more like a real girlfriend – one of the things easy for viewers to forget is that everything about Joi is really about K. Even though the movie keeps warning us she’s just a fantasy figure, somehow her beauty and the quality of her concern for K. keep lulling us. For instance, throughout Joi’s and K.’s first scene together we watch as her clothing morphs from casual to dressy to sexy and back again as she tries to second-guess K.’s mood.

Once she’s free to go anywhere he wants her to, she and K move out onto a balcony, into a romantic downpour of acid rain, which falls throughout the film as it did in the original. Joi adjusts her holographic self to the environment so that the rain appears to land on her “skin” and she is able to pretend she’s experiencing precipitation for the first time. At this point, moved by Joi’s synthetic wonder, K. makes to kiss her, but she suddenly freezes mid-mouth movement as he receives a call that he’s needed back at work. Villeneuve and the screenwriters successfully trick us into accepting Joi’s and K.’s relations even as they keep showing us – playfully, tensely, tragically – that what these two programmed figments have together is merely a parody of romance; Joi’s attitudes and motivations are projections, scripted by K., who is himself scripted.

The other big mover and shaker in this story is the Wallace Corporation, K.’s provenance. As was true of the Tyrell’s lair, the Wallace building is ornate and beautifully alienating, with aqueous light rippling over the walls and floors as if reflected off a nonexistent swimming pool. The Corporation’s owner, Niander Wallace, is even more creepy than Joe Turkel’s Dr. Tyrell. Hooked up with wires to various physically enhancing gadgets, so that his glow blue, he seems more an android then the actual robots in the movie. Most important about Leto’s Wallace (below) is that he comes complete with a glamorous female replicant enforcer named Luv, played with schizoid ambivalence by Sylvia Hoeks, who looks like a modern bohemian version of Sean Young.

Once Wallace finds out the dead Rachel bore a child, he puts Luv all over it. We learn in a fun ghastly scene that there’s so much demand for replicant slave labor off world, where all the richies live, his company can’t manufacture the things fast enough to keep up with it, so he’s been trying to create replicants who can have children, self-replicating replicants, that is. He explains all this as he examines one of his newest-model replicant women. A large plastic bag that looks like a giant’s intravenous drip bag lowers down into Leto’s office from the ceiling, containing a naked female humanoid. The bag is opened, and the woman squeezes out of it in an industrialized nightmare version of the birthing process, one of the movie’s most imaginative visuals. But since she is, I guess, sterile, Leto mercilessly guts her, as if cutting out her useless womb.

While Luv watches and listens to Wallace, we see silent tears pouring down her face. It’s another con, though, giving us an expectation that when the crap really hits the fan she’ll help K. out and possibly kill Wallace herself. This doesn’t happen. Luv (below) never deviates from her job, which is to steal Rachel’s bones from the police and get K. to lead her to the replicant offspring, presumably so Leto’s scientist butchers can experiment on it and learn how such a thing was possible, the gist of which doesn’t really matter. What matters is that because K. may actually be the kid, he’s in danger twice over, from his superior Lt. Joshi, who wants him snuffed out for humanity’s sake, and from the Wallace Corporation, who hope he’ll help them grow a new race of workers.

But is he the child? To get some corroboration for his memories, he goes to see a woman who manufactures them, Dr. Ana Stelline, played by Carla Juri (below), who suggests Ally Sheedy with depth, though her moist magical sensitivity is slightly – deliberately? – offputting. As she explains to K., she was abandoned by her parents as an infant; she’s so sickly and prone to infection she’s had to live her entire life behind glass. She says she likes to believe she’s doing a great service for replicants by constructing phony pasts for them, but it’s hard not to think she’s just enabling their exploitation by making them more emotionally balanced. K. asks her if she can check to see if his childhood memories are real. She does so and, moved by what she finds, confirms their authenticity. “I know!” he cries angrily at the revelation, his calm surface shattered. This is one of the movie’s cleverest ideas. In Blade Runner there were hints Harrison Ford might be a replicant and all his memories fake. With the new film we have a replicant character who assumes his memories are made up only to discover they’re real, and that’s also terrible. While Gosling doesn’t have the charismatic screen presence of Ford, he has a good deal more emotional range. He’s able to play a robot who just might be human, the great white hope of replicants everywhere – and is completely convincing.

After his meeting with the memory woman, K. heads back to the orphanage basement, ignoring all those enslaved kids, digs around in a broken-down furnace and finds the toy horse, wrapped in dirty cloth. Here we get some narrative shorthand when K. has the horse examined and learns it’s made of real wood infused with a type of radiation particular to old Las Vegas.

Meanwhile K. is suspended from his job when he fails his baseline test, obviously traumatized by what he’s learned. He explains this to Lt Joshi as the result of having found and killed the replicant offspring. Joshi is so pleased she lets him go, giving him a chance to get away before a Blade Runner can be called up to retire him. Luv arrives at police headquarters shortly afterward and kills Joshi when she won’t say where K.’s gone, because she knows K. has not killed the baby replicant.

K. rushes home to pack for a trip to Vegas. There he discovers that his virtual girlfriend Joi has a hired the same prostitute, Mariette, played by Mackenzie Davis (below), whom Luv earlier paid to get information off K. Joi says she’s hired the girl to act as a human template for Joi to meld herself over so she and K. can make love. “You have quite a woman here,” Mariette says mockingly after Joi’s explained the situation. This whole sequence, borrowed from the movie Her in which an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson uses a human female surrogate as a means of sleeping with nerdy Joaquin Phoenix, is very peculiar. It’s hard to see why the filmmakers decided to echo the earlier movie at this point since taking a sex break seems like a bad idea. After all, K. is supposed to be in a hurry to get away. It’s a fascinating variation, though.

The morning after K. tells Joi what’s going on with his investigation. She instructs him to erase her programming from the mainframe in his apartment and transfer her entirely to the emitter. That way, when Wallace’s goons and the police come looking for him, they won’t be able to learn what she and K. have been talking about; nor where he’s gone.

K. then flies off to Las Vegas, a desert nuclear wasteland glowing orange, recalling the smoky golden coloring of Tyrell Co.’s interiors. K. immediately happens on where Harrison Ford’s Deckard has been living all these years, an old dusty casino hotel whose cavernous balconies, halls, and showrooms have some of the swank, haunted emptiness of Kubrick’s The Shining. The whole place seems to be a museum not to Deckard’s childhood, but to the memories of viewers of the first Blade Runner. It’s an antique futuristic celebration of Vegas classics. A black-and-white hologram of Frank Sinatra sings under a 1900s-style domed display case, reminding us of K.’s early listening to Sinatra, which itself seems to echo the little trash compactor robot who listened to songs from the musical Hello, Dolly! in Pixar’s Wall-E. There’s also a shrill fat Elvis hologram giving a hypnotically glitchy performance in the hotel’s ballroom (below), where Deckard tries to punch K. out a number of times. When he tires of this, he invites the young man to have a drink at the bar. K. introduces himself as Joe, completing the Kafka connection – Josef K., from The Trial – though he doesn’t tell Deckard he thinks he might be his son.

Before much bonding takes place, however, a swarm of spinners converges on the hotel, led by Luv. She gives K.’s ass a good whupping and destroys Joi’s emitter, “killing” her. With Deckard in custody, she zips away. Shortly thereafter a band of revolutionary replicants arrives, led by Freysa (Hiam Abbas). She’s supposed to know the baby replicant personally and is quick to inform K. that the child was a girl, not a boy. Devastated to learn he is fake after all, Freysa’s first thought is to mock him. “Did you think it was you?” she says. “Everyone wants to think they’re the one.” She then cajoles him by saying the only thing he can do is play his coglike part in the replicant revolution by being willing to do anything asked of him, such as to kill Deckard.

Something clicks in K.’s head during all this; he realizes that the baby replicant’s identity must be the memory woman, Dr. Ana Stelline, since she confirmed his childhood memory was real. Ergo, the memory was hers.

Back at the Wallace Corporation, Jared Leto tempts Deckard (above) to join his capitalist gang by promising to give him a new version of his dead Rachel. Deckard declines; the new Rachel’s brains are promptly blown out at close range by a relentless Luv. Since Deckard has refused to be cooperative, it’s decided to take him off world and there torture him into submission. Before they can spirit him away, though, K. catches up to them and attacks their squad of ships. He fights Luv to the death, drowning her, bringing the watery motif that follows her throughout the movie to its conclusion, and saves Deckard. Unfortunately K.’s been mortally wounded in the fight with Luv. Displaying the same masochistic, self-sacrificing zeal as Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in the first movie, K. does the honorable thing, reunites Deckard with his daughter, Dr. Stelline, after which K. dies peacefully lying on the steps outside the memory center. Inside, Deckard steps up to the window that separates Dr. Stelline from the world and raps on it to get her attention. The screen goes black.

* * *

Villeneuve’s movie doesn’t have the bright, neon-noir clarity of the original. Ridley Scott’s film gave us glowing, layered depths so overscaled they provoked awe verging on vertigo. The new Blade Runner’s world is grayed out, mashed together. A heavy smog that never quite lifts moves between buildings, blurs backgrounds, producing a myopic sense of claustrophobia. Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins hem us in visually so that we feel we’re only ever seeing a part of this writhing, corrupt world. The production design gives us rooms like prisons, boxes, aquariums.

Maybe this more blinkered approach also has something to do with Villeneuve’s variation on the huge eyeball at the beginning of the movie as well. In the original film, shots of 2019’s infernal Los Angeles landscape were cut together with a close-up of a disembodied eye, watching. Huge bursts of flames venting from the tops of buildings could be seen reflected on it. Villeneuve, however, begins the sequel with the image of a closed eye; suddenly it opens and he cuts to an aerial shot of 2049’s crowded, polluted environs as viewed by K. In the old movie, the eyeball was edited arbitrarily into floating perspectives of Los Angeles, seeming to belong to nobody. The difference goes deeper, though. Scott’s eyeball suggests the shocked hyper-awareness of the all-seeing eye of transcendental poetry crossed with the forced-open orbs of Alex de Large in A Clockwork Orange, compelled to watch hellish visions that can never be unseen. Villeneuve’s opening eye is about waking up, understanding; newfound awareness.

Many have interpreted the first film as asking the question, what’s the difference between a bio-engineered creature that seems human in almost every way and an actual human? But it’s not really about that. After all, the cyberpunk replicants in Blade Runner were very threatening, nearly monstrous. The movie seemed more a nightmare thriller, closer at its roots to Scott’s Alien than, say, Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001. The meaning of Scott’s movie had everything to do with our mixed-up reactions to the deaths of the Joanna Cassidy and Daryl Hannah replicants, grotesque in their violence, pain, and terror. In particular, the ghastly thrashing seizure Daryl Hannah’s Pris experiences after being shot by Deckard, on the dirty floor of a gloomy apartment, made one want to turn away. Scott tapped into something basic with this material, not just historical questions about the way our predecessors were able to pretend slaves weren’t fully human.

It reminds me of fishing as a child. Whenever I would catch something, I’d watch it flop around on the bottom of the boat with a hook in its mouth and think: it doesn’t matter, it’s just a fish. But part of me experienced guilt, because I knew I’d caused another living creature pain. The mental gesture I performed in that moment, telling myself the fish dying at my feet didn’t matter in the same way I did (which by the way, it doesn’t) underlies the brooding fear produced by Blade Runner. Indeed, this defensive attempt to deflect guilt has been dramatized in the movie by projecting it back onto the victims, the replicants, who thereby become sinister products of capitalism run amok.

Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader, is presented as a crazy, kinky urban thug who seems to have emerged from the fog of bad music videos. He kills poor J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), the sweet sickly toymaker who helped design the replicants and who gives them shelter when they arrive on earth looking for a way to extend their lives – kills him seemingly without a second thought. What are we supposed to think of that? Not to mention we’re told Batty and his gang have left a string of murdered people behind them on their way to earth. There’s an unresolved ambivalence thats is maybe too difficult to think through, so it comes across as a contradiction in the logic of the material. I think that’s why Roy’s suddenly deciding not to kill Deckard at the end of the movie feels so off, even though it’s supposed to be an epiphanic change of heart on Roy’s part. Now that his life is almost over, he’s supposedly come to see value in the life force even of his enemy. But the idea’s laughable. Batty, as Rutger Hauer played him, would never ever have saved Deckard, the man who killed his friends in cold blood. One feels the movie has been done this way to flatter Hauer and shoehorn in a faux deep moral concerning empathy, which doesn’t fit the scuzzy paranoid vibe of all that’s gone before. The only plausible reason Batty might possibly have had for saving Deckard in this situation is Deckard’s being so damned attractive. Certainly J. F. Sebastian wasn’t too cute. And frankly Batty does seem a little gayish.

The worst part of the original movie comes when Batty dies after giving a ludicrous speech about how all the gorgeous cosmic memories he’s amassed will be lost like tears in the rain once he’s gone. He slumps over in a sitting position and releases a dove, symbol of his soul, to fly off into the blue sky. As Oscar Wilde might have said of this moment, it’d take a heart of pure silicon not to laugh. Question: where the hell did Batty get that fucking dove? Suggestion: never use phony poignant soul symbols in a film of Wellesian theatricality about synthetic human beings. They’re bound to reveal the spiritual themes as manufactured kitsch.

Yet what’s great in the movie survives this would-be poetry. You see it in the detailed beauty of the polluted landscapes, the oppressive paranoia that ravishes the senses, and in that moral ambivalence, which even leaks into the movie’s one real “love scene.” Sean Young’s Rachel tries to leave Deckard’s apartment during a tense moment and he stops her, throws her against a window, and crowds her as if about to rape her. When this happened, I thought, “Oh no, he’s going to hurt her.” Then I thought, “So what? It’s not like she’s real, right?” That flopping fish all over again. Deckard doesn’t rape her, though. He forces her to say she wants him, and though I relaxed a little when this happened I couldn’t help wondering if she was only saying it because she was afraid or because she was a robot and had to agree to Deckard’s demands. Since her seducer is Harrison Ford, I figured she probably did want him, but was never completely sure. Young’s performance is so slugged out and inhuman that one way or another there don’t seem to be any genuine romantic stakes in what’s between them, so that their sleeping together is vaguely icky, making the ambiguous ending feel even more unresolved and unpleasant than it might otherwise.

The new Blade Runner doesn’t work us over on such a primitive level. It’s more distanced, brainier; almost metaphysical. Denis Villeneuve and his writers don’t have Ridley Scott’s horror chops either. There’s a great moment in the first film in which Rutger Hauer confronts his maker, Tyrell. When Tyrell explains to him there’s no way to extend his life, Hauer kisses him on the mouth almost sensuously, squeezes his head, and sticks his thumbs right into Tyrell’s eyes. It’s an extraordinary moment of Shakespearean violence, bringing all the unsettling eyeball imagery together in one horrifying gesture. Despite providing a couple of good gruesome moments, Villeneuve hasn’t the ability to create this kind of resonant menace, though he uses atmosphere and plot with a consistency lacking in the first movie. There’s nothing that doesn’t fit here. The speculation is more . . . speculative. While in the first movie we were left wondering if Deckard was or wasn’t a replicant, the events could be taken more or less at face value, but in the new film nearly everything’s up for grabs, because once you start to think through the story, it evaporates. Of course, most pop films are potholed with all kinds of logic problems, but Blade Runner 2049 is one of the few to use them deliberately as a thematic means to transcend genre to the point we’re reacting to an artistic vision.

* * *

The structure of the story starts to break down with the character of Joi. Joi is shown throughout as K.’s one domestic attachment. She genuinely seems to care about him, listening to his various problems and giving him good advice. When K. goes to that dump-orphanage looking for records that might prove he’s the replicant baby, he does so because Joi has suggested he pursue this line. When he is attacked at the dump – by a marauding band of trash people? – and they try to blow his car up, Joi projects herself outside it. Looking back in, she calls to K. desperately – he’s nearly been knocked unconscious by the blasts. Even as she digitizes and flickers in and out of existence here, we’re given the sense she’s an autonomous being acting on her own whims. But as things play out we’ll come to realize she’s a complete fake.

Not only is it Joi who puts K. onto the idea he’s the baby replicant, she also, on her own, obtains the services of the same prostitute Luv first enlisted to get the goods on K. earlier. While that little mission failed when the prostitute approached K. in a public square and realized he didn’t like “real girls,” she nonetheless crops back up to complete the job. It’s easy to forget how weird this particular coincidence is what with the Her-like sex scene that ensues. At the time I wondered why would an automated program want to involve a whore in its relations with its master? At first I wrote off the coincidence of Joi hiring the prostitute as the usual kind of bad Hollywood writing used to snarl the hero’s plans and jack up the action stakes; I figured they’d cribbed from Her as a way to get in a nice R-rated thrill and as a shorthand means of telling us Joi is more than just a mechanical mate. Even the morning after, when we are carefully shown the prostitute putting something into one of K.’s bags before she leaves, I still thought it was all just screenwriting shortcuts.

Not until after Joi’s part in the plot ends when Luv “kills” her did I start to catch up. Luv steps on the emitter that carries the only copy of Joi’s program and crushes it with her foot. As she does so she quips, “I’m so glad you’re a satisfied customer.” Earlier, when K. met Luv for the first time, she noted his emitter and said she was glad he was a satisfied customer then too, in a smirky knowing manner. Meaning that Joi is a Wallace Corporation product. Because K. is almost as slow as I am, and because he’s destroyed by the loss of Joi, he doesn’t get the point about all this until later, as he makes his way through the big city toward Deckard. During this walk he confronts a building-tall, nude, three-dimensional holographic image of Joi. A neon sign on the building beside her promises she’ll tell you “Everything you want to hear.” This huge eye-popping vision wears a whorey, punk, blue wig. Slowly, she steps off the building and floats toward K. with ghastly grace, like an X-rated nymph from wonderland, to proposition him. Though a tacky lifeless commercial representation of sex, there’s a beauty to it that goes beyond the pill-popping geisha image from the first movie, attaining a frosty pathos. Because the image reminds us of what movies like Her always want us to forget – that the underlying narcissism of having a “deep” relationship with a computer program is kind of gross, since no matter how sweet and responsive the robot might seem, its only purpose is to please you, a masturbatory fantasy masked as romance. The movie’s not moralizing us here, but works on our anxieties. What happens, the movie asks, when you can’t tell the difference between actual love and something that merely tells you “everything you want to hear”? And how are we meant take the deep romantic yearnings of a replicant for a virtual being?

It’s a plot point as well, though. Since Joi was a product of the Wallace Corporation, there is a strong suggestion that Wallace’s people must have messed with her programming in order to keep an eye on K.; to manipulate him into doing their bidding. The question is: when exactly did all this start? Obviously, Luv was behind Joi’s buying the prostitute so she could get a tracking device into K.’s bag so she could follow him to Las Vegas. Maybe the reason Joi insisted K. erase her programming from the mainframe in his apartment was really just to make it easy for Luv to get rid of any evidence that Joi’s workings had been tampered with, and leave the audience wondering. For instance, was Luv also behind Joi’s telling K. that he might be the replicant baby? If so, why? To make sure he’d be good and motivated to investigate its whereabouts? This is what the look of anguish on Gosling’s face is about as he watches the huge holograph Joi moving around him. None of what he’s been through her was real.

After we start to question Joi, the rest of the movie gets weird as well.

You think about it and suddenly you’re not sure why you should necessarily believe any of what you’ve seen. Everything is either K. jumping to self-serving conclusions or people asserting things at him. The revolutionary replicant Freysa, for instance. Do we accept what she tells us? Should we? Does it make sense? Why would she tell all this to a Blade Runner, someone who kills her kind, even if he has gone rogue? Seems likely she’s manipulating him to further her revolutionary agenda. I mean, it would be awfully dangerous for the leader of an army to give up such secrets as that the real baby replicant was a girl not a boy. And why does she want K. to kill Deckard? We know everybody took a lot of trouble to make sure Deckard never saw his own child – he doesn’t even know its sex. He forged birth records and other documents to muddle up the facts and secured the child’s place in that terrible orphanage, but otherwise he knows nothing. Even if Niander Wallace were to torture him for a hundred years straight, Deckard couldn’t tell him anything more than Wallace has already learned spying on K. So does this mean that in the scene where Wallace tries to tempt Deckard with a new Rachel replicant that Deckard is only pretending to withhold information? – to keep Wallace off track? Or am I missing something here?

Note also the way K. concludes Dr. Ana Stelline, the memory woman, must be Deckard’s daughter. Since Freysa, the revolutionary replicant, has told K. he can’t be the child, he recalls that Dr. Stelline told him that his childhood memories were real. Since they’re real, and since she reacted emotionally to them, this must mean she’s the kid. But is she? Why would she have put her own memories in K. and then told him they were real? To trick him into thinking he’s the baby replicant and keep the authorities off track? Had she planned to use K. in this way from the moment she began designing his memories? But then there’s another question: how could a woman so sickly she has to live in a glass enclosure to protect herself from germ-y human contact be a plausible leader for a new race of replicants? If she can’t get with other people, then how could she continue the replicant line? Or is her being sickly a cover story to keep suspicion off her?

Going through all this once the movie was over, my mind started generating various scenarios. My own personal favorite is this: the replicant baby isn’t Dr. Stelline, but Luv, who somehow got herself placed as Niander Wallace’s right-hand woman. The revolutionary Freysa sends K. on the mission to kill Deckard not so much because she wants him dead but because she wants any remaining loose threads dealt with, including K., and figures Luv will easily be able to finish him off. What she doesn’t expect, and K. himself never learns, is that he gets the better of Luv and ends the future hope of the replicants. Perhaps that’s why the camera lingers on Luv’s dead face for such a long time – her death is an absurd joke. Of course, the facts of the movie probably can’t support my reading, and I’m not going to insist that I’ve discovered the true story hiding under the illusionary surface. Rather, what I want to suggest is how uncertainty arises the more you contemplate the movie’s contents, and the vague sense of hanging questions and undisclosed possibilities is the film’s haunting magic. Which is why it ends the way it does, with Deckard rapping the window of Dr. Stelline’s workspace, ready for a poignant reunion which we never get to see. We have to imagine it. But what if that isn’t how it went after the screen went black? What if Deckard and Dr. Stelline discovered they weren’t related at all, that the whole thing was just an unfortunate misunderstanding on K.’s part? This Schrödinger’s Cat of a conclusion puts us into something of the same position K. was with Joi, imagining how we want things to be.

But even without the extra-deep analysis, K.’s death leaves him as a peripheral, unimportant figure in a giant plot about power, dominance, and slavery. He gets his pleasure only by proxy in reuniting Deckard with his daughter, so that even if he isn’t the hope for a new age, he still manages to go out fulfilled, or better say wish-fulfilled, because the two innocents in all this corruption are brought together because of him. There is an overhead shot of K. lying on the steps of the Memory center, dying, with little snowflakes falling on him, as if he were an isolated figure in a child’s globe, vaguely suggesting to this audience member that the ending is as much a fantasy as Joi. Viewers who’ve found the film cold, unpleasant, yet sentimental may have been responding to its quiet way of questioning what the movie’s handing out rather than simply accepting the usual storybook magic.

These days the self-congratulatory, socially ameliorative claims made for great literature, movies, and theater is that the whole enterprise is about evoking empathy for “the other.” Roger Ebert in his memoir Life Itself described a good film as being “like a machine that generates empathy.” But Blade Runner 2049 reminds us that so much entertainment is really about projecting our desires onto fantasy figures. The audience exploits the actors on the screen for their own pleasure; the actors, with the help of numerous technicians, manipulate the audience by going through the motions of experience, by pretending to feel things they’ve never felt, in worlds they’ve never inhabited, falsely playing to the viewers’ childish wishes to be the center of the world, because most of their lives are an endless battle with frustrated ambitions, which is where we came in, isn’t it?

Toward the end of Blade Runner 2049, K. seems on the verge of realizing that he’s a nothing, a nobody made to serve the desires of others, then at the last second he falls for yet another gratifying delusion – because in his world there are only layers upon layers of illusions. Work your way through one and you wind up sitting with another.

What makes this movie’s themes different from those in The Matrix is that Villeneuve and the screenwriters don’t try to suggest there’s an outside to the inside of their work. There’s only fakeness; the only reality is fakeness; the real and the unreal are fake. Vladimir Nabokov noted in his Cornell college lecture on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis that “The beauty of Kafka’s and [Nikolai] Gogol’s private nightmares is that their central human characters belong to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around them, but the central one tries to get out of that world, to cast off the mask, to transcend the cloak or the carapace . . . the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him, but pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans – and dies in despair.”6 This is pretty close to what happens to K., but his fate is neither tragic nor pathetic, just creepy and doomed, because though he senses the falseness of his world and himself, he can only disappear deeper into the smog of false perceptions.

 * * *

Note: All images are screenshots from freely available trailers on YouTube.

  1. “Dangerous Days: Making of Blade Runner,” documentary on the five-disc complete collector’s edition Blu-ray. []
  2. Lane, Anthony, “Replicant Redux,” New Yorker, Oct. 16, 2017 []
  3. Nabokov, Vladimir, Pale Fire, Library of America pp. 476-477. []
  4. Pale Fire, p. 479. []
  5. Nabokov wrote two other dystopic works, Invitation to a Beheading and his second English-language novel Bend Sinister. Invitation to a Beheading, which has some parallels to Kafka’s The Trial should be of particular interest to readers. It begins with the character of Cincinnatus C. being found guilty of “gnostical turpitude,” meaning that he’s just a little bit more real than everyone else and they don’t like it. After his conviction he waits to be executed in a grotesque absurdist prison where continuity errors are rampant and where he is emotionally tormented by various wacky figures whom he eventually comes to view as parodies of human beings. Eventually he’s beheaded, and the entire world comes apart like a bad stage set. Cincinnatus’ spirit subsists, however, and he makes his way toward other beings like himself, presumably actual people. []
  6. Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Literature, pps. 254-255 (HBJ, 1980). []