Arts movie review

On walls, society, and humanity: the story of a people of no women born

Blade Runner 2049 is an unoriginally original social commentary

Blade Runner 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
Based on the characters from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
Rated R, Now Playing

You are an LA cop, the year is 2049, the world’s ecosystems have collapsed, “Replicants” (genetically modified human clones with limited lifespans, with exception, and super strength) are a slave race to humanity, programmed to obey, but you’ve got to hunt down those that don’t. Better yet, you’re a Replicant too. Disposable, predictable, and beneath humanity, you do their bidding, but you can’t complain. Not for the life of relative luxury that you live, but because you can’t physically complain. You’re not designed to. You hunt down your own kind, “retiring” (read: killing) the old models which have gone off the grid, or stopped doing their assigned jobs.

Bleak, isn’t it? Yet, it could, with small modifications, very well be the pitch for any other cop action movie. So what’s special about this one? As it turns out, a lot. While on the surface, it feels like any other action film, complete with explosions, love, fight scenes, and (rather unnecessary) nudity, the undertones and overtones of this film give it a unique, yet familiar, feel. On one hand, the film offers a nuanced commentary on modern politics, and on the other, a thoughtful analysis of the human experience. We see the writers consistently deliver an engaging, accessible, yet deep story.

Through the eyes of K (Ryan Gosling), a young replicant “blade runner” (replicant hunter), we see a world divided: humans, lording over nine planets, using replicants as slave labor and AI for technical computation. All three tiers are approximately equally intelligent, but only humans are allowed true free will; replicants, at least the newest models, are designed to be perfectly obedient to their human overlords, and AI programmed to act exactly as predicted. To be a replicant is to be less than human, to not have a soul, to not be, in a sense, real. This is a central question to the movie; what does it mean to be a ‘real’ human being? Is it to be of woman-born? Is it to be mortal? The film proposes interesting, if somewhat unsatisfying, resolutions to these, and a host of other problems.

One such pair of resolutions is those to  curing a divided society. Because this is an action movie, of course one solution proposed is violence: to continue violent oppression of the underclasses, or, equivalently, for them to rise up from below. Whenever this happens in history, we see that the cycle continues, perhaps with different people on top, but still a cycle of violence. This is why I found the solution to be unsatisfactory. Alternatively, also in true action movie fashion, love is proposed as an intermediary for a divided society. While a shallow and cliché solution, it can be interpreted as destroying division by getting to know the other side and realizing how similar the two are (which is a recurring theme throughout the movie). This resolution, while more satisfying, it was not developed as a fully-fledged idea.

Interestingly, even though the film has just about every cliché it could, its internal explanations for them are intriguing. The senseless and unnecessary murder? Used to forward the undertone of the disposability of replicants and their corresponding lack of reverence to their less than benevolent masters. Fight scenes where the extras die after one shot, but important characters take several? Genetically modified humans aren’t all created equal. The main character being the only one who can save the world? Well, explaining that would require spoilers.

Among the philosophical and thoughtful foreground (which I could go on for hours about), lies a bleak backdrop in the spirit of the original film’s neo-noir visuals and soundtrack. While director Denis Villeneuve does an excellent job of presenting an aesthetic that feels similar to the original, he makes the world almost too monochromatic. Skillful use of color palettes to set the mood is one thing, but there are moments, clearly meant to be callbacks to the original, in which scenery felt too sparse to give the same amount of awe as the first film. In the story itself, this is explained by the total collapse of the Terran ecosystem in 2020, to which point it does aid the atmosphere. The music is definitely in the spirit of the original, albeit, like the rest of the film, made more action-movie-like and less of the adventurous Vangelis style. At points, the composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch manage to capture this style, but it feels almost like they tried too hard, resulting in the right sound, but not quite the right emotion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie (with only minor caveats), and would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first one. That said, I would recommend seeing Blade Runner: Blackout, the 15-minute anime short before watching this movie, just for some context as to what has happened in the 30 years between the original and this sequel.

One last thing for fans: after the first movie, I was on one side of the “Deckard is a replicant,” but I’ve flipped, with definitive textual evidence from this film.