I’ve enjoyed seeing plenty of movies this year, but none have really exceeded expectations or left me in amazement like Blade Runner 2049 did. Not everyone will love this film, as demonstrated by the man sitting next to me who heavily sighed every few minutes. It was quite long and not nearly as action heavy as the trailer make it out to be. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t regard these as flaws of the movie, and indeed I have very little to criticize.
Firstly, the cinematography is unbelievable. I saw this movie in IMAX, and the stunning frames were just breathtaking. I liked the aura created by the world of the original Blade Runner, but the visuals of the sequel make it feel almost cheap. The expansion of scenery outside of the rainy, dirty Los Angeles from the first movie is welcome. And yet the production design keeps that constant feeling of darkness and dilapidation omnipresent. The visual effects were also pretty incredible. Without going into spoilers, there’s a scene where two different actors’ faces are digitally layered on top of each other, and I could not believe how well the effect worked.
The sound. Wow. I had Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack on repeat for a week after watching 2049. I assume a loud and bold musical score is either expensive or difficult, because more mediocre movies seem content with letting the the music stay in the background. When you really notice how incredible a movie score is, that appears to be a symptom of an excellent musical effort. This one was jarring, suspenseful, and made every scene in the film seem huge.
The acting, the direction, the production of this film is pretty much spot on. Denis Villeneuve has done an incredible technical job (again). His skill set clearly adopts well to telling these beautiful, yet off-putting dives into humanity, and I’m excited to see his future work. I also want to talk about the characters and story, although I don’t want to get into spoilers yet. The original Blade Runner was a story about what it means to be human. 2005’s I, Robot had a similar theme although it was a tad bit more in-your-face about it. Blade Runner was more subtle, and when you watch it, it was striking how cruel some of the humans were, while how caring/affectionate/alive the replicants were. 2049 continues to delve into this question, and I think does an even better job than the first movie. If you like Sci-Fi that asks questions about humanity, this film is a must-see.
From here on I will be going into plot points that were not revealed in the trailers, so if you haven’t seen this movie, I would highly recommend it: A+, 5/5, etc. You should watch it. If you have already seen it…
K, the protagonist and blade runner (played by Ryan Gosling), as noted in the very beginning of the film, is a replicant. Much of the story revolves around who he is and to what extent he is human. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch. There seem to be few physical characteristics that distinguish replicants from humans. K, as one of the newer replicants made by the Wallace Corporation, was constructed specifically to avoid having the obedience problems of the old Nexus models. Yet, of course, his decisions are the fundamental decisions of the film. Certainly he appears to be stronger than regular humans, but otherwise, he has emotions, he has desires, he is even given implanted memories just like the replicants of the original movie.
K is forced to do some pretty terrible things by his human superiors, and most humans he encounters in the film are pretty unexcited to see any replicants. Yet K himself seems to express desires to be human. He has a holographic AI girlfriend at home. At one point he embraces the fairly human “chosen one” trope, and it affects him so much he is essentially branded a criminal.
The relationship with Joi, his holographic AI, is interesting. K’s feelings for her are real, and it seems that we have to trust that her emotions are real as well. Yet, it’s also clear that many of Joi’s actions were programmed (her calling him “Joe” specifically is also done by an advertisement). Does this make her less real? Humans, after all, have biological programming in DNA. As Joi points out, using 0s and 1s instead of nucleobases doesn’t seem like it should de-legitimatize life. And, of course, if AI counts as “real” life, then what meaningful moral distinctions can be made between replicants and humans, who have even fewer differences?
Accepting replicants as people deserving of moral rights (a perspective which both Blade Runner films push the audience towards) also puts many character actions into question. K’s police superior orders him to kill a child to prevent a war. While her character protects K despite him being a replicant, the morality of her orders have to be questioned. She fears that if this child is found out, there will be a war between humans and replicants, a fear that is apparently well founded given the group K finds later in the film. Yet, there seem to be so few differences between replicants and humans, especially given the revelation of Rachael’s death early in the movie. Thus, the idea of a war or conflict between these two groups seems absurd, at least morally. Of course, if I’m sitting here wondering how humans and replicants could justify a conflict when they are so alike, then what does that say about conflict in our world?
I’m really excited when I get to see movies like this, which bring up interesting questions of humanity and society. Not every movie has to ask those questions of course, but when a movie wants to reach for those deep ideas, and then delivers with impressive technical film-making on top of that, it is a rare treat.