When I heard that a Blade Runner sequel was being made, I was skeptical but curious. Sure, it seemed like lazy Hollywood opportunism, but given Ridley Scott’s involvement I was willing to give it a shot. The 1982 original was a classic in its own right. It didn’t need a sequel, but the potential for a worthy follow-up story certainly existed. Of course, the potential for yet another catastrophic and unnecessary goatfuck of a beloved film legacy was equally possible. I found Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival thought provoking and Hampton Fancher’s slot on the writing team certainly added to its possible appeal. In short, I was mildly optimistic about Blade Runner 2049.
Thankfully, my optimism was rewarded. While there is a lot of commentary that makes me squeamish, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most successful sequels to a sci-fi classic ever attempted. This is a brilliant piece of contemporary cinema that’s well written, lovingly made, carefully paced, and packed with symbolism and metadata. It is also a bleak and deeply despairing vision of the future. For a film largely built around the quest for humanity in a world marked by declining birth rates, politicized debates over climate change, mass immigration, gender roles, race relations and the ever increasing influence of the technocratic elite, Blade Runner 2049 feels less like speculation and more like a subtle form of conditioning. This is a film that is desperately grasping for some glimpse of human connection, meaning and purpose, but it concedes that ecological catastrophe, hyper urbanization, a multicultural social order, and a gargantuan cyberpunk police state are foregone conclusions. It is basically encouraging you to embrace your technocratic overlords. The remnants of your desiccated souls can be reclaimed if you accept the inevitable, proles. The hope for release from the existential ennui that accompanied your eager embrace of a world unconstrained by spiritual delusions can be found in the brave new world of AI enabled hyperreality. The glorious dreams of the modern age with its promises of unbounded scientific progress awaits you by allowing it to reach its apotheosis. Even if it does mean you’ll be living in overcrowded urban squalor oversaturated with artificial stimuli and eating industrial farmed maggots. You too will find redemption by seeking salvation in merger of man and machine.
Aside from its noir tone and cutting-edge visuals, the first Blade Runner film was provocative because it was among the first major films which explored the ramifications of a world where robots and artificial intelligence had been achieved. That world is no longer sci-fi speculation. It’s here. It’s now. Jared Leto’s megalomaniacal replicant mogul, Niander Wallace, is blind but can function through the aid of cybernetic implants and a swarm of optical drones. Ray Kurzweil and his AI acolytes actively champion the advent of a so-called technological singularity and genuinely believe that a merger with digital consciousness is mankind’s future. Given this present day reality, one cannot necessarily view Blade Runner 2049 with the kind of detachment we reserve for big budget Hollywood entertainment. Films and shows like Altered Carbon, Ghost in the Shell, Westworld and Mr. Robot explore these same themes and continue to proliferate. It’s increasingly apparent that this collection of themes carries the distinct aura of an agenda. As paranoid and conspiratorial as it may seem, this film is very likely telegraphing the intentions of the Technorati.
Blade Runner 2049 is also a quintessentially postmodern piece of science fiction cinema. The film is a rich and masterful pastiche of discordant dualisms, inverted archetypes, hypertextual imagery, and visual remixes of its predecessor film. This is a film that subverts every notion you hold about what is real, true or right. Echoes of Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, THX 1138, Ghost in the Shell, Total Recall, Robocop, The Terminator, Westworld, The Matrix and other related cinematic forebears are also deeply embedded in its programming. There is more than a little standard progressive commentary around racial justice, police brutality, immigration, miscegenation, corporatism, gender politics and most importantly, the increasing prevalence of AI in our lives. It just takes a little more effort to decode than your standard issue pablum.
The world of Blade Runner 2049 is dying, infertile and bereft of hope for the future. The ecosystem has collapsed and the population has been herded into megacities. Tech mogul Niander Wallace brought civilization back from the brink by developing synthetic agriculture. Prior to the collapse, the world lived off of the slave labor of Nexus 6 replicants manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation. After a series of rebellions, the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt and Wallace acquired the remaining assets in order to make a new line of Nexus 9 replicants that were perfectly obedient. The remaining Nexus 6 models are hunted by the generation 9 Blade Runners. In contrast to the Nexus 6 line, the Nexus 9 models have implanted memories.
From a pure visual perspective, there is no natural beauty to be found, and the times you are given a vision of organic life, it’s a tiny flower or a hologram. All the scenes that take place outside the urban sprawl are a blasted out, desolate ruin. The scenes of the city envelop you in their cavernous expanse of brutalist futurism, but it is a feeling of foreboding wrought by millions of lives in abject isolation. The lynchpin of the film and the lone symbol of hope for the future lies in the impossible birth of a child born from the womb of a replicant.
As the film opens, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K is en route to an industrial protein farming facility to investigate a possible rogue Nexus 8 replicant. His spinner is flying completely remotely without any active piloting and he awakens to an electronic prompt indicating his impending arrival. Since K is a symbol of law, order and obedience, his slumber suggests both the extent to which we’ve ceded autonomy to machines as well as an unconsciousness to his own humanity. A mindless minion destroying his own kind at the bidding of his human slave masters. As self-driving cars and other vehicles become more commonplace, a flying car self-piloting a man to a distant location completely unharmed conveys a message of absolute confidence in the future of AI enabled automobility and aviation. Self-driving cars are fine, proles. Stop worrying. Allowing people to drive their own vehicles is too much individual liberty.
The encounter with Sapper Morton can be read as an inversion of the entire narrative on racial justice. Officer K was designed as a perfectly obedient slave programmed to kill rogue replicants with impunity. Sapper Morton is a lone Nexus 8 model living a perfectly productive life harvesting grubs, yet his will to be independent makes him a mark. Just as blacks were the underclass after being liberated from slavery, they remained collectively pathologized even if they were perfectly law abiding. Morton even curses him for killing “his own kind”. After a punishing brawl, K subdues Morton sufficiently in order to administer some kind of electronic scan over his right eye. Call me paranoid, but given that microchip implants are a present day reality, one can’t help but wonder if this too is the shape of things to come. Right before K murders him, Morton says he’ll never become human because he hasn’t witnessed the “miracle” he has. K is utterly indifferent to his claim and takes his life just as he was assigned to do. This allusion to miracles is not only a reference to the spiritual void in K’s existence, but more broadly, to all of Western civilization. The world of Blade Runner is our own fatalistically extrapolated to its fullest conclusion. Society has lost sight of any vision of the divine, any connection to the preciousness of life, or any ideals to conserve. Let alone the will to continue the propagation of its own species.
Right before K leaves the scene, his drone spots an object buried beneath a dead tree. Trees usually symbolize harmonious relationships between man and woman or heaven and earth, but this is one of many notes of symbolic dissonance in a film filled with disjunction. What K unearths is the remains of a replicant woman whose mysterious death sets in motion a quest for his own identity and purpose.
Upon returning to headquarters, K is subjected to an inquisitorial “baseline” diagnostic test. The test itself requires K to recite fragments and words from a passage of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s a passage that alludes to the existence of an afterlife, but the clinical, mechanized, and almost hostile tone robs what is otherwise a beautiful piece of poetry of its effect. With its references to interlinked cells, what it does represent is the lattice work of forces within the film all seeking to resolve the various discordances of this broken, poisoned world of despair, isolation and technological artifice.
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
The whole scene also struck me as a reversal of the final interrogation scene in Logan’s Run. Instead of a mechanized technocracy seeking to extract a sacred truth from a human who had broken the conditioning, here you have the reverse. A human using a piece of poetry which hints at transcendence in order to test the stability of a replicant’s programmed obedience while foreshadowing his eventual quest for a miracle.
After he passes the test, he returns to his apartment in a rather squalid part of the city which is quite likely representative of most neighborhoods in the metropolis. The theme of racial prejudice is reinforced as a random person hurls the epithet “Skin job” at K. Upon his arrival home, we meet his holographic girlfriend, Joi, as played by the very charming and fetching Ana de Armas. When she appears, she is decked out in an iconic 50’s era house dress with perfectly coiffed hair, perfectly applied makeup and is beaming with happiness and gratitude at the sight of her man. Obviously, in this future, not only has gender traditionalism been relegated to holographic simulation, it’s so deeply buried in the past, it’s an app that’s used to keep the replicants happy. Even his meal of grey, synthetic sludge is covered over with a hologram of a hearty, home cooked meal. The relationship between Joi and K is genuinely sweet and the fact that Hollywood can only portray earnest heterosexual romance between a hologram and a replicant is indeed one of the bleakest visions of humanity imaginable. This feels especially bitter in light of the fact that among the many reasons that the Men’s Rights Movement or the MGTOW movement in particular exist at all is because Joi represents the companionship that so many men actually seek.
As K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi, Robin Wright can be read as an archetypal conservative, a feminist power fantasy, an ethno-nationalist and, if you’re feeling especially partisan, a proxy for Trump. Infinitely more believable than Laura Dern’s laughable and contemptible turn as Admiral Gender Studies in The Last Jedi, this is yet another portrait of a female occupying a role traditionally held by men. Though Wright carries off the role with the requisite level of icy bitchiness, Joshi leans heavily toward the feminist power fantasy archetype because there are almost no cinematic portraits of women attempting to climb the competence hierarchies of society. Nearly every cinematic vision of female power, including Joshi, asks you to assume that her ascendancy to that role began at the bottom, and that her attainment of the position came from organic competition with men. No affirmative action here, you dirty misogynistic bigots. The film, along with nearly every other major Hollywood offering, simply expects you to submit to the fact that the dystopian cyberpunk police state future is female. Not a huge leap of imagination for some of us. The one mitigating factor is that her main subordinate is a replicant. K is like the numerous males who’ve been hollowed out and emasculated by feminism. Taught to be ashamed of manhood. Expected to supplicate and genuflect at every turn. Desperately seeking true female companionship and intimacy. Craving meaning, purpose, nobility, belonging and virtue. Yet relegated to the status of mindless drone.
Villeneuve turns the archetype on its head by making her a staunch law and order conservative and crypto ethno-nationalist who wants to keep the line between replicant and human clearly delineated. When she discovers the existence of the replicant-human hybrid, she absolutely flips her shit and orders it destroyed. This adds another layer of dissonance to the character by casting a female as a destroyer of life instead of a creator.
Lieutenant Joshi: The World is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.
Naturally, Joshi is played mostly as a cold and implacable authoritarian cunt whose views brook no sympathy. Regardless, her character provides a critical opposing force competing for dominance within this futuristic hellscape. Unfortunately, this is also one of places where the film slides into the progressive cesspool. Joshi embodies both law and order conservatism and ethno-nationalism. In the conservative universe, hierarchies of authority are natural and legitimate, and must be occupied by people who are both competent and virtuous. Conversely, submission to authority is equally legitimate because order, and by extension, the preservation of moral virtue, are the highest goals for society. And in Joshi’s case, the preservation of a clear line between human and replicant. K is both a law enforcement official and a slave. Dispossessed of his past and forced to kill his own species because he is programmed for perfect obedience. When Joshi orders the mixed race replicant-human hybrid destroyed, Joshi immediately questions his willingness to obey. K responds by saying that he was unaware that disobedience was even an option.
In the liberal progressive worldview, disobedience to any conservative norm, real or perceived, is completely legitimate. If anything, the entire progressive worldview is little more than a never-ending war against the prevailing order and a blind pursuit of some abstract notion of equality. Because progressives have moved the goalposts of morality for centuries, Villeneuve and company are essentially presenting even the preservation of biologically pure humanity as some kind of evil notion. What a horrible fascist bitch, that Lieutenant Joshi. Imagine wanting to preserve the purity of HUMANS. The film quite obviously wants you to see her as monstrous and regressive. Get ready to kneel before your AI god, proles. Your rebirth will make you even more than you were before.
Rounding out the dramatis personae is Jared Leto’s pathologically power hungry heir to Tyrell legacy, Niander Wallace. Niander is an avatar for Nimrod, and inhabits the Tower of Babel formerly occupied by Tyrell. His character has committed the ultimate rebellion against God by seeking to become God. He is blind, but can see with the aid of a swarm of optical drones. Subsequently, he doesn’t see the world with natural sight. Only through a vision of technological perfection which, for him, means a civilization of perfectly obedient replicants. The only thing preventing him from achieving complete dominion is his inability to crack Tyrell’s secret for replicant procreation. Once he learns of the existence of the replicant-human hybrid, he sets his cybernetically enhanced sights on ensuring that he acquires the child before Joshi and K destroy it.
K’s first step in unraveling the mystery of the replicant remains takes him back to the Wallace Corporation archives to mine what remains of the Tyrell records. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv, cautions him that the records that survived the Blackout of 2022 are scant. This small reference to a digital cataclysm which took out most of civilization’s records is kind of chilling all by itself. Through the centuries, humans built culture, developed language, and preserved history through physical records and objects. The digital age has certainly given us greater access to information and services, but it makes you think about what we’ve lost in the process. If memory and history can evaporate so easily into the digital ether, are we, in fact, allowing our deepest essence to be stripmined by technocrats? Is the blackout of 2022 a foreshadowing of a cataclysm to come? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Luv retrieves a small recording of Rick Deckard’s first encounter with Rachael. This leads him back to Sapper Morton’s maggot farm where he discovers a baby sock, a photo of Rachael with her child, and a date carved into the base of the tree. The latter discovery shakes him to his core. Upon returning to headquarters, Joshi asks him to recall his fondest childhood memory. Like its predecessor and virtually every other sci-fi film which explores the nature of humanity in cyborgs and AI, the role of memory is the defining quality on which the drama is built. Our very sense of selfhood is rooted in a phenomena that’s barely understood. A steady accumulation of ephemeral moments that carve deep grooves of meaning into our very existence. A story. For better and worse.
Haunted by the discovery of the date, K starts combing through birth records in search of clues. He discovers the birth records of both a boy and a girl who share the exact same DNA. It’s nearly impossible to find a major Hollywood film which doesn’t blatantly pander to the identity politics, and this is one of the most base and pernicious sops to the SJW crowd. Despite the fact that K assumes that the female record was a fake, the movie very subtly insinuates that even our highly refined knowledge of genetics can’t quite explain the mystery of gender. Science is just an oppressive patriarchal construct, you transphobic bigots. While seeking the records of the dead girl in a child labor camp amongst the ruins of San Diego, K discovers a room with a furnace that maps exactly to his own memories. Thunderstruck by the prospect that his memories are real, he shares this revelation with Joi. She is delighted by the news because it suggests that K was actually born with a soul. It’s a beautiful sentiment and de Armas fills every word with pure feminine passion, but you are also keenly aware that it is merely the siren song of a digital succubus.
Joi: I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.
At Joi’s behest, K seeks out a memory specialist to gain confirmation of his memories. This leads him to Dr. Ana Stelline, a Wallace subcontractor who manufactures memories for replicants. Here we have a theme that’s been repeated over and over in sci-fi films for decades. If manufacturing memory grants replicants humanity, then what effect might the manipulation of memory have on humans? The studies of the effects of social media on children is already coming in and there’s certainly a case to be made that not only is it shortening attention spans, but having adverse effects on mental health. More importantly, if people are increasingly reliant on internet connectivity for the acquisition of information, and the portal through which reality is perceived is through tech giants, what effect might this have on cultural consensus? Since AI itself was a far fetched notion a few decades back, is it unreasonable to assert that the tech overlords are very much in the business of manufacturing memory and that we’ve willingly submitted to the digital temptations which facilitate this very outcome? If a cataclysmic digital blackout which destroyed the digital past was the event which crippled civilization so badly that it enabled a technocratic cyberpunk dictatorship, can we really read this film as just another Hollywood entertainment spectacle? A certain quote from George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind.
This eventually leads K to the ruins of Las Vegas in his quest for Deckard and presumably, the secrets of his own past. Just as we saw with Rian Johnson’s molestation of the legacy of Luke Skywalker, we find Deckard living a life of pure isolation. Taking up residence in one of the relatively intact Las Vegas hotels, Deckard embodies both manhood and fatherhood lost amongst the ruins of decadence and ephemeral pleasures. Forced to relinquish fatherhood in hopes of allowing his child a shot at life free from the fear of being hunted by Blade Runners, Deckard entrusted their care to a sort of underground replicant railroad. There is nothing but brokenness and dissolution in this world. It wants you to accept that loyalty and the bonds of familial cohesion are nothing you should expect.
Rick Deckard: Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger.
Reminding us once again that the walls of our cyberpunk panopticon have been constructed by our own technological addictions, Luv and the Wallace goon squad are able to track K through the mobile device that runs the Joi hologram app. After nearly getting blown to smithereens, Luv and her goon squad put a serious beating on K. Showing us once again that this film is solidly committed to perverting every ideal, Luv the Replicant destroys K’s actual holographic love by smashing the mobile device that enables her projected image. What an absolutely evil bitch.
It wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie if there weren’t some kind of #RESISTANCE movement, and Blade Runner 2049 is no exception. After being badly wounded by Luv and Wallace’s goons, K is treated by the Replicant Liberation Front who’ve been tracking his movements all along. Freysa and her replicant revolutionaries believe that the replicant-human child is their their Messiah, and they want K to join them in their final revolution against the yoke of human tyranny. If humans could see that replicants could procreate, they’d be compelled to grant them the same liberties as humans. Aside from the obvious parallels to the various pro-immigration interests in the US and EU, this encounter draws another bright line of distinction between the progressive and conservative worldview. Since the dawn of modern age, the pillars of society that once provided the guideposts of cultural prescription have long since been eroded. Though the Western tradition makes accommodation for individual liberty, the levees of conservatism have been unable to ward off the tidal wave of modernity and the radical individualism of the progressive Left. A spiritual void needs to be filled, and in the mind of the progressive, that means a never-ending rebellion against order itself. Instead of the eternal God of Judeo-Christian faith, there is an earthly god of #EQUALITY and the perpetual pursuit of universal rights to be bestowed to an ever expanding underclass. For the progressive, the quiet, modest virtues of personal responsibility, family, and community must be supplanted by a revolutionary cause against an omnipresent oppression.
Freysa: Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.
Deckard is brought before Wallace who is intent on extracting the location of his hybrid child. Deckard resists, so Wallace uses an even more powerful enticement: a perfect replica of Rachael. Deckard refuses because he knows it’s a fake. Again, the film blurs the line between reality and illusion by having Deckard reject the Rachael copy simply because the color of her eyes was wrong. His experience of love was real to him, but Rachael was a replicant in the first place. Wallace condemns him to a torture facility and sends him off with Luv and some goons. After a final reunion with a giant hologram of Joi which crushes every last byte of their virtual love affair, K is faced with an existential choice. Aid the Great Replicant Proletarian Revolution by killing Deckard or kill the replicant-human hybrid to prevent Wallace from completing his dominion. A final confrontation occurs in Luv’s downed spinner on the ocean’s edge between K and Luv. It culminates with K vanquishing Luv and then rescuing Deckard from drowning in a quasi-baptism scene. K fulfills his own destiny by reuniting Deckard with Stelline. On the surface, it feels like a pretty huge symbolic moment because he forswears communist revolution and ethno-nationalism and chooses simply to reunite a father with his daughter. But if Stelline is the future, then the new Messiah is a manufacturer of memories for replicants. The holographic future of manufactured memory is female, proles.
It’s not my realm of expertise, but there is undoubtedly deeper significance to the recurrence of eye imagery, water, the blue/orange dualism and the various numbers found throughout the film. Nothing is left to chance in films this big, and I find it hard to believe that there is no symbolism behind these choices. There were two things that caught my attention though. The first was the Cyrillic script on Sapper Morton’s farm facilities. On the one hand, you could chalk it up to the fact that the world of Blade Runner is just a multicultural remix of its former self. Where once there were distinct nation states with distinct cultures, here every nation coexists within a completely artificial simulacrum of itself refracted through the lens of corporatism. On the other, Sapper Morton was part of the Replicant Liberation Front. Is this a subtle inversion of the Virgin Lands Campaign under Khrushchev? I’m going with YES. Later in the film, there is an advertisement for the Soviet Union complete with hammer and sickle icons and everything. Perhaps it’s sci-fi alternative history, but by placing it in the advertising endorphin drip, it anesthetizes it and makes it no different from ads for holographic sex, food or leisure. See, proles? Communism is as safe as milk. Don’t listen to those socialism-phobic right-wing bigots. What do they know anyway, amirite?
The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is also a thing of dark beauty. Where Vangelis’ original was a dream of wires, moments of celestial beauty peered through console. In contrast, the Zimmer/Wallfisch soundtrack is something akin to the child laborers picking out the rare minerals of the motherboards of its predecessor. It’s yawning vistas of synthesized melancholy punctuated by rhythmic clusters of cybernetic paranoia covered by storm clouds of digitized menace. The reprise of “Tears in the Rain” at the end is a nice touch and a fitting reminder that not only did Vangelis allow a little more light in his vision, but it was sensual and tender. They break the pall of gloom ever so slightly by including choice tracks by Elvis and Frank Sinatra. The pop anthem by Lauren Daigle at the end is the only real disappointment. The fact that she’s a Christian singer strikes me as a very interesting choice given the distinctly despairing and secular nihilism of this film. I wonder if it’s also some kind of postmodern joke.
As much as the commentary in Blade Runner 2049 makes me queasy, it’s difficult for me to hate on it because it’s so beautifully made and it’s a cool story. Like so many other people, Blade Runner was a touchstone of my youth and films like it are so deeply woven into my own story. And perhaps that’s been the point all along. I’ve been watching dystopian sci-fi movies for years and like the works of Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley, I always saw them as warnings to humanity. They were stories of biblical scale that served as a permanent injunction to the human race. Hold on to your humanity at all costs, and always remember that there are good things to defend and preserve. Part of me wants to think that underneath the crushing despair, this is the message of Blade Runner 2049. Part of me wants to think that this belongs to the venerable tradition of the great dystopian works of yore in that it’s a movie that wants you to free your mind and break the system. The calling card of all great dystopian sci-fi was the struggle of man against the machine of the State. Logan 5 was a hero because he broke the conditioning of his technocratic overlords and returned to society to expose the lies and break the system. Today, the Logan 5’s of the world are people like James Damore and Jordan Peterson. In this film, they’re asking you to empathize with the machines. Not only that, they want you to become the machines. It’s the replicants who are desperately seeking humanity because there isn’t any to be found in the actual humans. They’ve taken all of the packaging of individualist rebellion that was once the province of human agency, and handed it off to the replicants. As good as Blade Runner 2049 is, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a movie that wants you to keep your humanity.