This article contains big spoilers.
Blade Runner 2049 is so powerful, the canvas so wide, the cast of characters so big, and the plot sufficiently complex, that the first encounter with the film can only be reconnaissance. So far the author has three screenings under his belt, and it is still not easy to mobilise the analytical part of the brain. Nevertheless, this article shall delineate some impressions, ideas and thoughts that have reached the surface. (There is also an enclosure with input from others from various interesting Facebook discussions.)
Denis Villeneuve‘s follow-up to Ridley Scott‘s celebrated Blade Runner from 1982 twines Gordian knots of thematic strands like authenticity (humanity), copies (the manufactured replicants), and various types and degrees of reflections. There are fluid lines of demarcation: memories are implanted in the replicants to make their reactions and behaviour more human, but the recollections are artificial in the sense that they are staged, because it is forbidden to use real memories. But the more authentic they feel, the more comforting they are to a well-functioning replicant.
The temptation to settle for an artificial substitute is a theme also found in the two Solaris adaptations (by Tarkovsky, 1972; by Soderbergh, 2002) and in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). In the latter film the parents pretend that their robot son is a ”real boy” – this very expression is echoed in Blade Runner 2049, probably a deliberate reference – and in the epilogue the situation is inverted, since the artificial boy settles for the copy of his “mother”, who has been dead for centuries. In the Blade Runner universe humanity as a whole has to reconcile itself with a perverted version of life as we currently know it, in a world poisoned by decay and extreme cynicism.
We witness the so-called “baseline test” of a replicant twice in Blade Runner 2049, and two mantra-like words recur: ”interlinked” and ”cells”, which are emblematic for the complex interconnectivity of the film’s strands of themes and motifs. For example, the discussion revolving around copies and reflections is expressed in numerous ways.
After the opening shot, an extreme close-up of an eye, there is a cut to a large cylinder-shaped object that we assume to be some kind of funnel. The intention seems to be to visually connect the circles of human eye (but it might equally well be the eye of a replicant, a sort of copy organism) to a non-organic reflection of the same form. But in an astounding coup de théâtre, in the next shot we realise that the structure is almost flat, and as the camera looks up in the next image, in the horizon we see copy after copy of the same form, consisting of circles within circles.
In addition to announcing the film’s visual strategy, some kind of minimalist maximalism, this vista is almost even more intellectually and emotionally intoxicating than the famous opening scene of the first film. In its visual otherness (light instead of dark, flat landscape instead of skyscrapers, snow instead of rain) it also prepares us for the fact that the follow-up film will have its own distinctive personality.
The opening is enveloped in a thunderous but simple synth music, loaded with both doom and an almost optimistic, majestic serenity at the same time. On top of everything, an aircraft zooms into the last frame from below and out towards the horizon, with an exhilarating, snarling sound, suddenly injecting an excitable element of juvenile adventure stories. One rarely sees a situation that so perfectly fuses childlike wow factor and an adult capacity for contemplation.
The reflections go on. The protagonist (Ryan Gosling), a replicant called K (after the start of its serial number), is given the name Joe by Joi (Ana de Armas), a computer-generated companion. She is even less authentically human than Joe. We see her first as a reflection, a hologram inside Joe’s apartment. Apparently, he is so devoted to her that he has just bought a mobile solution extending her range of movement. Now she can come with him everywhere, and therefore becomes more “real”, more like a human being.
Later, when Joe’s personal copy of Joi is out of the story, she is multiplied in the cityscape in the form of enormous advertisements and holograms. In a memorable scene this form of Joi materialises itself to Joe as a gigantic, nude, crude prostitute trying to pick him up. The hologram calls him Joe, and we suddenly realise that it is a name she is programmed to give to all men who have bought the software. (Unlike the audience, Joe of course knows this already during the “christening” – he hesitates as she gives him the name but soon buys into this replicated affection for the sake of being comforted, in accordance with the film’s thematic thrust.) Joi’s programmed love for Joe is nevertheless indisputably the most authentic and unconditional instance of this emotion in the film.
Authenticity and reflections
Central to the plot is a small horse carved in wood. Here the levels of authenticity become confused: it is a representation of a real horse – real animals are very rare and valuable in this future – but the figurine is made of real wood, unlike other objects made of imitation materials, since wood too is in short supply. Incidentally, like in the first film animals are a motif, both in dialogue and plot, and the horse figurine calls back to the origami foldings that the inscrutable policeman Gaff (Edward James Olmos) is making in the first film. We meet him again in the follow-up, where he makes an origami depicting a sheep, continuing the tradition of his figures commenting upon the protagonist’s situation. It is also a nod to Philip K. Dick‘s source novel for this universe, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”.
In one scene the horse stands on a table, casting a pronounced, full-figure shadow, a reflection of the horse – which in the first place is a ”reflection” of a real horse. Eventually Joe will come to believe that it is he who is the son of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the protagonist of the first film, and the replicant Rachael (Sean Young). Joe would then be the first replicant in history to be born, not manufactured. Thus he has a ”soul”, as he earlier called it to his superior, when he is tasked with killing precisely this ”miracle child”. Later in the story he learns that his memories, whose authenticity is the very thing that makes him think he is that child, are merely a copy of the recollections of the real one, a girl. After he has received this information we see Joe as a stylised silhouette, a figure of darkness reminiscent of the horse; Joe is suddenly demoted – like the shadow the figurine cast on the table, he is only a reflection of the original child.
Earlier in the film he made a call at the institute of Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), the world’s foremost memory maker for implantation in replicants, to find out whether his childhood memory about the wooden horse is real. At this point he does not know that she will turn out to be the real child of Deckard and Rachael, but the visualisation of the scene yields certain forewarnings. Due to an immunity disorder she has to spend her life behind a transparent wall, and in one of the shots of her, Joe is shown as a reflection in the glass, in a position that makes it look like he is bending over her from behind, precisely like Joi did with Joe earlier in the film.
The lack of authenticity, both through his mirror image and the comparison with Joi, the film’s most obviously artificial character, is thus a mild foreshadowing. This grows more acute, however, when Joe leaves the premises. This is only seen as a reflection in the glass as he turns around and walks away. He ends the visit believing he is authentic, since she has told him that his memory is real, but it is actually only a copy of her own. This is perfectly expressed through the combination of him as a blurred, dark reflection and her, the authentic one, in the same shot. (It is rather ironic, then, that she makes her living implanting non-authentic memories.)
Probably there are many more ideas of this type hidden in the mise-en-scène, at micro level – smart moves that will only come to light through repeated viewings. This is more than mere cleverness; it is the less prominent instruments in the orchestra that are nevertheless playing the same melody as the more overt narrative elements, thus contributing to our perception of the work as a whole.
Reflections in action
There are also reflections through actions in Blade Runner 2049. Outside Dr. Stelline’s institute Joe performs an act that reflects Joi. Overwhelmed by being set free from Joe’s apartment, she was delighted to ”feel” the rain against her hand, possibly a milestone in a development where her affection towards Joe seems increasingly sincere. Now that Joe has been told that his memory of the horse is real, this conceptual breakthrough leads to him feeling, literally, soulful – even though this is completely illusory, simply a notion of himself as authentic – and he derives pleasure from feeling the snow falling on his hand.
In the film’s penultimate scene snow falls yet again: now Joe is aware that he after all is not ”real”, but it is suggested that he again, with wistful contemplation, feels the snow against his hand, before he apparently dies from his injuries during the climax. The precipitation points back to the earlier scenes, but also to the replicant Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) demise in Blade Runner, in pouring rain, and the same Vangelis composition, Tears in Rain, accompanies both scenes. Villeneuve also references the ending of Drive (Refn, 2011), with Gosling again as an iconic character, who was as nameless as Joe is in practice. (Also, in both films it is not absolutely conclusive that his character dies. The first image of Joe, sitting slumped in a vehicle, is another callback to the ending of Refn’s film.)
Villeneuve’s low-key depiction of Joe’s expiration is in big contrast to the pathos-filled situation in the first film, where Batty recounts his fantastic experiences in outer space. Joe too has been part of miraculous events, and through giving his life for another being he has made a decision of great authenticity. Like the resistance leader says: “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.” (Even though Joe lends Blade Runner 2049 a sense of finality, the rest of the plot shouts for a continuation, which one hopes will not be sunk by the film’s relatively poor financial result so far.)
Joe sacrificed himself in the intense climax, in the struggle against another replicant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). The word ”special” is used about both Joe and Luv, in early stages of the story, as if marking them as future antagonists. I am definitely not alone in having noticed the clear connection between Luv og Rachael, from the first film. Both are replicants (of a unique calibre), are closely bound to two magnates (Wallace and Tyrell, respectively), and they look alike through slim bodies as well as faces, and also in hairstyles and clothes with shoulder pads (although less prominent in Luv). Furthermore, both are expressing sexual urges, towards respectively Joe og Deckard, by asking them personal questions, which (explains Luv) is invigorating for the recipient, “makes one feel desired”.
In a film of many mirrorings and parallels, Luv is Rachael’s evil ”twin sister”. (Joe has his own ”sister” in Dr. Stelline.) Luv even gets the pleasure of liquidating, with a bullet through the head, the Rachael facsimile that the rediscovered Deckard is tempted with in Blade Runner 2049. (See here how the CGI Rachael double was created. By the way, this scene has a lovely instance of discretely meaningful mise-en-scène: during their meeting, in the one-shots of Deckard and ”Rachael”, we alternate between Luv and Wallace out of focus in the background, hovering in telling postures, waiting for the outcome.)
I have pondered a lot Luv’s torrent of tears as she kills Joe’s superior, an apparently wholly unmotivated reaction since she is seething with hate at the time. At first I thought that Luv might be unique among the replicants by not having any implanted memories, and that her reactions therefore are at times abnormal and incongruous. But we also see that a discreet tear is falling during her first audience with Wallace, as he laments his lack of ability to construct replicants that can give birth. He also calls the replicants angels, and Luv seems to be the main one. When tears are running during the violent scene she mentions Wallace’s name in that very moment, so maybe they express some form of twisted love for the magnate? (She is even called Luv.) The tears during the audience could be mourning the fact that she is barren like all replicants – otherwise, as the primary angel she would stand out to give birth to his child.
Thus the parallel to Rachael becomes even stronger. Both are replicants who have fallen in love, Luv with Wallace, Rachael with Deckard, and at the same time they are bound as two polar opposites on the axis of fertility/sterility. In the penultimate shot of Luv in the film – in her almost moving death scene, where a shade of innocence falls over her face as she drowns, pinned underwater by Joe – we see for the first time that Luv has green eyes. It was precisely this that Deckard claimed was lacking in the Rachael simulacrum lacked, and gives as the reason to reject Wallace’s temptation.
It seems strange that Wallace would have made such a grave mistake with the Rachael facsimile. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the whole situation is a test to find out how susceptible Deckard is for temptations – will he settle for the substitute, even a defective one? [Comment 2 November: This is on the wrong track, since Rachael does not have green eyes, which is evident from the first film. Deckard simply lies about it to get out of the difficult situation and/or sow doubt in Wallace. The situation may also reference the continuity error in the first film where the screen of the Voight-Kampff machine distorts both Leon’s blue eyes and Rachael’s brown into green. (The eye issue is discussed here, for example.)]
Strengthening this theory is another scene where Wallace also seems to test his surroundings: during the audience one of Wallace’s mini-drones keeps an apparently nervous Luv under close surveillance. Perhaps the magnate’s execution of the specimen of the new replicant model in this scene is a test of Luv’s loyalty, his own little baseline test where he looks for undesirable emotions? (Wallace gives the dying replicant a kiss, and Luv later repeats this gesture when she kisses Joe as she believes him to be defeated during the climax, gravely injured in the same area as the previous victim.)
It may also seem strange, and suspiciously convenient for the plot, that Joe’s superior so easily believes him when he lies to her by pretending that the replicant child has been “retired”. After all, his baseline test just before proved that he is far outside the limits for normal behaviour. At the outset, however, she is sure that Joe’s type of replicant is unable to lie to humans. It is also important that what he tells her about the child he says he has found – “he was set up as a standard replicant and put on a service job; he didn’t even know who he was” – applies quite truthfully to himself, and his report on the outcome is rather indirect: “It is done. What you asked.” It is also conceivable that she believes that the mission’s extraordinary nature, killing a replicant born, not manufactured, is precisely the reason for Joe being out of balance. But why does she not want a more detailed report?
The answer might be that the task has been such a delicate matter that it is better for herself to know as little as possible. But still one feels that the film’s plot believability is a bit on thin ice here, and the end of the scene with the declaration that she can hold off the authorities for 48 hours and then he is on his own, seem a bit of a cliché.
First a few words about the astounding similarities between Blade Runner 2049 (produced by Ridley Scott) and Alien: Covenant (Scott, 2017). Both films resume the story after many years. In the meantime the female protagonist from the previous film has died. In Blade Runner 2049 we see her, the original Rachael, only in a photograph (and in a brief shot taken from the first film), and in Alien: Covenant something similar happens (plus we see her autopsied body) for Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus (Scott, 2012). In both works, far into the running time, the male protagonist from the previous film is rediscovered in a desolate place, where he reigns in splendid isolation. Both works revolve heavily around questions of the genuinely human and artificial humans.
Blade Runner 2049 is with its highly deliberate pacing and visual stylisation much more Villeneuvian than (the excellent) Arrival from 2016. Roger Deakins is following up in dazzling fashion, but has to share a lot of the credit with the production design by Dennis Gassner, which is totally out of this world.
Even though the slow-burn, lingering approach to pace most of the time has the intended hypnotic effect, still my experience of the film has not been a continuous ecstasy. It is doubtless very good, but so far I think that Harrison Ford is trying a bit too hard and becomes a bit monotonous in all his toughness in his initial scenes. Furthermore, the idea that his confrontation with Gosling must be accompanied by holograms of historical entertainers like Sinatra and Elvis has something forced and heavy-handed about it, and goes on for too long (even though it fits nicely into the motifs of copies and reflections).
The customarily pared-down Ryan Gosling is as if manufactured to play replicant, with a deeply subterranean reservoir of emotions, which we never get tired of trying to decipher from his stoical face. The professional wrestler Dave Bautista is also impressive as a bauta-like replicant with an undercurrent of sadness.
I know some disagree, but I also think that Jared Leto is captivating as a megalomaniac magnate, mainly because his acting is so low-key. This character knows he is a godlike figure, and does not need any outsize gestures to make his mark. Even the execution of the replicant is done calmly. Especially the way he alternates between bending over and raising his head, in equally slow movements, has a hypnotic effect. His cavernous lair is a miracle of minimalism, reverberations and wavy reflections of water against walls.
Something I seem to have in common with almost everyone, is my adoration for the unknown Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks as Luv the witch, since she plays every scene with laser-like precision. The hate and contempt cascading out of her during the killing of Joe’s superior is literally inhuman, and is reminiscent of Agent Smith suddenly showing his true face in The Matrix (the Wachowski siblings, 1999). Even though Joe and Deckard are the central characters, and Wallace the most powerful in the film, Blade Runner 2049 is also distinguished with a large cast of female characters, who are all interesting and spanning a wide variety of personalities.
The resounding, oppressive score by Hans Zimmer and his protegé Benjamin Wallfisch works exceedingly well, also in tandem with the sound design. (According to my Montages colleague, film music expert and host/editor of the webcast Celluloid Tunes Thor Joachim Haga, Zimmer was occupied with a concert tour, so this time he functioned more as a synth programmer and producer.) After plot and structure had cleared up a bit, during my second viewing the score accompanying the extremely intense climax hit me with full strength. I virtually stopped following the action, and for several minutes of sustained nirvana I let wave after wave of monumental music wash over me, in something that must have been one of my most powerful film experiences ever.
The most moving moment in Blade Runner 2049 is as sudden as it is quiet, frozen in time with its framed photograph of Rachael (below), embodied by Sean Young‘s perfect, wistful face.
Yet another reflection and representation, but this is so definitely a real memory, and the tears flowing in the audience are authentic.
Many interesting discussions take place on Facebook threads and it is too bad that insights should be lost into the fog of cyberspace. This enclosure collects various items from public threads that had not occurred to me at the time of writing and enriched my understanding of Blade Runner 2049. [A Nabokov novel is discussed below – this is an article exploring the film’s subtext in connection with that.]
I had refrained from reading much in advance about Blade Runner 2049, but I brought one question (posed by John Erik Riley on Twitter) with me into the movie theatre: why does Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire turn up in two scenes in the film?
The communities (or their remnants) portrayed in the film are not really communities of readers: although the characters (and replicants) are surrounded by human beings from all corners of the world, and by signs and screens with a panoply of scripts (cyrillic characters are now as prevalent as Japanese ones, in other words a suggestion of several drastic geopolitical shifts during the thirty years that have passed, underlined by the fact that vodka is imbibed more than whiskey), but babelfish technology is available to avoid having to learn another language to understand it, everyone speaks in their home language.
The Blade Runner called K has only one book in his apartment. When our old acquaintance, Deckard the original blade runner, turns up (removed from any community), he is first introduced merely by his voice, quoting a literary work, from Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Treasure Island. K recognises it, and Deckard says something like: “Good, you read”, as if having had one’s nose buried in a book is a rarity. So it is safe to assume that it means something when a novel in the shape of a physical book, with classical typography, is present in the film, highly visible in several scenes.
“Pale Fire” is known as sophisticated meta literature with multiple layers of meaning; consequently it becomes tempting to read all kinds of clever parallels and allusions into its appearance. I had problems succeeding in this, even after having slept on it. I think we should rather start at the basics: Nabokov’s title.
Blade Runner 2049 itself does not have any real name, only a declaration of contents, a series title with a specification. “Pale Fire” would have been the perfect title for the film.
The two words are taken from Shakespeare: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” The “pale fire” is thus the reflection from the moon. We call it moonlight, but the source is the sun – like everything we see of the outer world is not the world itself, but our brain interpreting the reflections from light sources.
The absence of proper daylight is the most striking thing about Blade Runner 2049, both cinematically and in the portrayal of the future: one of the first situations shows an enormous area cover with solar cell panels moving almost yearningly, searching for something to convert into energy. In the first scene where K sets foot on the ground, he emerges out of a thick fog engulfing the now barren Californian landscape; he is hardly visible.
Later, every scene is lit with various kinds of artificial light or light in some sort of post-apocalyptic extreme ends of the spectrum. Turning lamps off and on, dimming or increasing light are often-repeated acts in the film, several times commented upon [like when Luv turns on the light as she enters the office of K’s superior – translator’s note]. The transition from turning on lights to turning on the hologram, in the meaning of artificial forms of human bodies, is fluid, not least in the case of as K’s “housewife” Joi.
Furthermore, one has seldom seen a film where eye contact is playing a bigger part, eyes expressing trust, hostility or desire. Ryan Gosling does not have many characteristics indicating him as suitable for playing the protagonist, other than the fact that his gaze is inspiring confidence to an extraordinary degree, making us instinctively perceive him as particularly human, despite playing a replicant. The opening shot of the film is a close study of an eye, the villains either have eyes without pupils or never blink, the leader of the resistance has lost one eye – and the replicants are identified precisely through their serial number, down to the left on the eyeball (seen from the front).
Obviously, this is also the way that Blade Runner 2049 is reflecting on itself. Cinema is the art of the light. What you see is what you get, is said numerous times, but seeing is far from a simple operation: “what you see” is not the thing itself, but our brain interpreting the light captured by the eye, coloured by knowledge, memories and everything else conceivable that has formed (or more correctly is constituting) our synapses. Thus we are right in the middle of the film’s philosophical question: in the long run, is it possible to distinguish between human and artificial intelligence, real or artificial memories, organic and artificial personality?
Without doubt, all of this is sufficient to call Blade Runner 2049 too a meta film, and we can therefore suggest a budding parallel to the layers upon layers of literary meaning in “Pale Fire”. Whether there are more connections or the existing ones even more important, it is hard to say, at least until I have seen the film again. Admittedly, BR2049 too is an “arrant thief”, borrowing its force of attraction from an outside source, but there is enough here to be fascinated by; a reflection too has its pleasures.
In the same thread, the Norwegian film and arts critic Kjetil Røed has an interesting comment (this is also translated by Dag Sødtholt):
On my part it was the doublings that interested me the most, since K’s hologram girlfriend (which of course already is a spectral doubling of both the girlfriend-body and the idea of a girlfriend) picks up “Pale Fire” from a table in his apartment, but it is not the book, instead she peels off some kind of simulated hologram scan that she pulls with her into the room, an after-image so to speak. The book itself remains lying on the table. There are no obvious interpretations here, but mirrorings in the form of after-images and doublings are my point of entry.
In connection with this, also consider the scene with the real woman [she is a replicant – translator’s note] (who is a prostitute) and the unreal woman, the hologram/simulation (who is the real girlfriend) – it is a quite moving and thought-provoking scene when these two are converging, into one body.
Other than that, you have of course the labyrinthine motif with the Kafka reference, since the protagonist (after all) is named “K” – it has to mean something. K is searching for the origins of power, while K in this film is searching for his own identity, and the origins connected to that.
“Pale Fire” is one of the Nabokov novels where precisely comments, or the notes apparatus, take over the main text, as in also, for example, “The Real life of Sebastian Knight” – and this happens here too, since Villeneuve’s film functions like some sort of comment on the original film, but ends up expanding the horizon of how the first film will be looked upon and understood.
Furthermore, the small figurines (the unicorn in the first film, the wooden horse in the new one) are some kind of notes apparatus (a seemingly subordinate detail) that, it turns out, redefines the main action. Keywords: memory, identity, how the copy becomes the original, and in the process sows doubt about what an original is.
In a comment to a very long thread to a public status at Nick Clement‘s page, Jonathan Bloom had obviously thought a lot about character motivations and arcs, writing (only very lightly edited): “K’s arc was immense, going from blank slate to a man believing himself to be purposeful, to losing that, and then regaining it upon realization that programming is a baseline at best.” … “And it most certainly is an arc, as the K in the beginning would not have done what K at the end did, and his actions both alone and with Joi in both final sequences were indications of how far his character had come.”
Joe’s “final encounter with Joi, in advertisement form, was him coming to terms with the truth that Joi was never truly in love with him – it was only her programming on a digital level – whereas his reaction to that (hearing what he wanted to hear) was a more human programming: loneliness and desperation. When he gets that, he makes the choice to bring together someone [Deckard and his daughter, Dr. Stelline] who have the chance to escape what he can’t. That’s a major character arc for him since the beginning.”
The other “final sequence” would be “his fight with Luv, where when he fights her like he did Sapper Morton, he loses, but when he starts fighting more like a human (dirty, desperately and ugly) he triumphs. Even though his fight ends in a similar chokehold, it’s an intense reversal on how clean and decisive his first fight is. I’d argue that throughout the film every action that K takes towards the end is him moving through a major arc that’s driving him towards a more real humanity than any of the other replicants. They’re all seen acting in unison, still taking orders and forming a hierarchy, whereas K breaks them all – becoming unique, despite believing in the end that he is not.”
In the same thread, Matthew Sanderson comments: “I liked the grace notes that both K and Luv were given in death. She looked peaceful. And K had his ‘tears in snow’. Both died for their individual cause, which gave them a strange serenity…” … “I enjoyed some subtle nods to the original Blade Runner. I believe Deckard’s bullet grazed Joe’s temple, just as it did Roy Batty in the first film. I think Deckard still ‘can’t shoot straight!’ He’s still very hard, cold, unsentimental and this helped me believe in Ford as Deckard as opposed to Ford revisiting 80s SF franchises. I still prefer the ‘80s Deckard, with Ford out of his comfort zone, and therefore suiting the material.” … “Interesting, the woman who designs the memories. She has further humanised the Replicants, by sharing real memories and emotions. Evolved them. giving them the choice to have a kind of awakening from the drudgery and servitude of their lives. Intrigued by the android tears of Luv and how they contrast with David’s android tears in Alien: Covenant, by the way.”