This review contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
“It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” asks Gaff, frenemy-mine of fellow Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, in the penultimate scene of the 1982 sci-fi cult classic. Having been assigned by their superior officer to keep tabs on the titular private eye, and having taunted Deckard throughout the film with dream animal origami, knowing looks askance, and the hybrid polyglot “Cityspeak”—which the white man pretends not to understand whilst scarfing down his Chinese noodles—Gaff, perhaps unsurprisingly, lets Rick go free with Rachel in a sci-noir inverse of Casablanca.
But he won’t let Rick go without that last bit of parting snark. “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” Challenging the (two?) robot(s?) to find human love in the(ir?) brief time left, Gaff is at once casually dismissive of Rachel’s identity and equally optimistic toward all foolhardy souls’ attempts to live brave and blazingly unique lives—that is to say, not at all. But at least he gets wry amusement out of the vanity of those who try.
Blade Runner 2049, in contrast, doesn’t play with those questions. The sequel denies Rachel’s identity and agency before the movie even starts. We find out, through Driver’s investigations, that she’d died shortly after giving birth to a mysterious baby (“Phwoah my god, is it me? Am I Baby Driver?”), shortly after the original movie’s Rick and Rachel had absconded. Thirty-five years after the theatrical cut saw the unhealthy couple escape to a place of safety and serenity, surrounded by trees, presumably audiences in 2017 would be curious to see how, exactly, Rick and Rachel resolved the beginnings of their not-so-beautiful relationship.
Among other critics, Casey Cipriani noted in Slate that it wasn’t love, actually, that brought these two together. Watch the original movie again, if it’s been a minute. Remember that fucked up scene you probably suppressed, the one where Deckard assaults Rachel? Remember how there’s no follow-up, like: A lingering shot of an indecisive Rachel torn between her abuser and the even more abusive world? Something to make the audience go, Hey, maybe the hero is a piece of shit and not actually the hero?
Stockholm Syndrome does not a good foundation for a relationship make, hmm-hmm-hmm. So, how did they end up working that out? Well, they didn’t. Wah-wah. Anywho, Ryan Gosling walks into a bar….
And the movie begins. Gosling’s K starts an investigation of the mysterious baby of maybe his mom, Sean Young’s Rachel, which makes him maybe the baby. And so it goes, to a ponderous, electronica doom that, story aside, was psychedelic enough to transport me into the aesthetics unfolding in San Francisco’s darkened Balboa Theatre, on a cold, foggy night.
So the movie looks and sounds pretty great. That part was cool—the sheen of it. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins craft beautiful imagery. While the ubiquitous Hans Zimmer is no Vangelis, his thunderous SCHWOOOM ouvre is at peak 😲 here, and I dug it. Basically, I was ready for a trippy, contemplative, moody sci-fi mind trip, so I let myself believe that those elements permeated the, you know, plot. But I have questions.
If the search for identity is the theme, how come no one actually finds theirs?
Consider K’s holographic flame, Joi, who could’ve been a burning fire in a deific sense. As a hologram with millions of copies distributed throughout mid-21st-century Los Angeles, and who teases us—and herself—with dreams of self-actualization, Joi could have sparked a new kind of AI. Manifested as millions of emerging holographic personalities, Joi could have been an entire new civilizational tapestry for the detective K to investigate, and for her to interrogate us. In doing so, she could’ve thrown K off his own case and onto hers, like a reimagined femme fatale of 40s film noir. Rather, we get Joe’s 1950s housewife fantasies with Joi. (But she renames K “Joe” and we get alliterative allusions to Rick and Rachel, so agency, breh! — some executive guy.)
We also get a facsimile of a femme fatale, “alluring, hard core PUNK DOXIE” (p. 30) Mariette, played by Mackenzie Davis, who had a much better role starring in one of the best Black Mirror episodes, “San Junipero.” In Blade Runner 2049, her Mariette smirks tantalizing hints of her independence and opinions and stuff upon K the enslaved replicant with bemused disdain, but that’s pretty much it.
And Jared Leto’s the bad guy. Yawn. Menacing glare. Slicked back hair. Yawn. Kimono-clad zillionaire hermetically sealed off from the world, yet controlling it and the only one who really understands life as he casually creates it and takes it away. Yawn, yawn. Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg wore it better.
Leto’s bad guy is no fun. He’s not really scary, either—just ugly. He functions as an outlet for the movie’s underlying misanthropy. After resurrecting Rachel for Rick—who comes back from 30 years of self-imposed whisk(e?)y with Elvis in the film’s last 30 minutes—Leto kills her for the audience a second time, only now we get to witness the gratuity on screen, and so does Rick (and Morty with an illustrative clip). Wubba lubba dub dub.
All of the other women in the movie are also killed violently and denied spaces for memorial, reflection, and deeper meaning for themselves or the story. They just die. Shit happens in the future. No one cares, and it sucks, and life’s tough. Throwaway character Dr. Ana Stelline, that scientist sealed off in the bubble room who creates fake memories for replicants, turns out to be Rick and Rachel’s daughter in the final shot. She has 53 lines of dialogue and four minutes of screen time in the 164-minute film.
In addition to the misogynistic nihilism of this supposedly solemn sci-fi search for soul in the Age of Wokeness, Blade Runner 2049 is racially nihilistic. For example, one of the only black men in the whole movie is one “Mister Cotton,” who trades in enslaved mostly white kids. Huh.
This movie, ostensibly about liberation, does nothing to unshackle us from our racist reality with either a future multicultural utopia or a hyper-dystopian exaggeration of present circumstances. Instead, today’s cosmopolitan city in the most diverse state in the union is tomorrow’s Los Angeles of 2049, with racial demographics that evoke Salt Lake City’s. Gone is Gaff’s Cityspeak, along with its fusion culture and creative creole subversion.
This great big white world is further off still from San Francisco, the city in which Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” takes place, either in sterilizing 2017 or in rebellious 1968, the year in which the novel was written. By the end of our century, parts of the San Francisco Bay Area equivalent to one to three times the size of the city itself will be flooded by rising sea levels. Already, San Francisco is being carved up and torn apart by the forces of capitalistic wealth concentration, gentrification, and maybe one day soon, automation. These terrifying realities and things to come could form a frightening background to anchor the pretty images.
And finally, what of K’s quest for his own true self? If he discovers any bitterly funny revelation as he dies laughing (perhaps the “miracle” Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton alluded to at the beginning of the film), he doesn’t let us in on the joke. At least The Last Jedi had fun playing with nihilism when examining destiny versus self-determination….
As for Rick… it’s a shame this sequel wouldn’t rock the boat and settle the debate over whether he’s a Replicant. I would’ve liked to know more about what he learned about himself after 30 years of reflection. His only heroic deed in the first film came in the last 30 seconds, when he saved Rachel. Up to that point, he’d spent his life eating noodles, drinking, and murdering sentient beings for the crime of affirming their sentience. In fact, Rick didn’t turn away from that lifestyle until another psychopathic murderer, Roy Batty, showed him mercy and a touch of grace. That moment (lost in time, like tears in rain) is what gives the original film its poignancy. Rick’s otherwise a dick.
Blade Runner 2049 assigns the title Hero to the shipwreck in a bottle who will hoist up his own mast from within. Human relationships mean nothing. Even Rick and Rachel’s daughter is a fragile ship in a bottle, kept away from the outside world, but perpetually on display. What does she do when Rick finds her? Who liberates whom? When do the sleepers awaken from their electric dreams, as we wondered when the credits rolled on the first Blade Runner?
Maybe the future isn’t all that different from the present because we refuse to learn from either.