Thirty-five years since the release of the original, the $185 million sequel Blade Runner 2049 is here.
It’s created by Denis Villeneuve, the French Canadian who, in the space of 10 years, has become the most sought-after director in Hollywood. Hans Zimmer does the score, Roger Deakins mans the cinematography.
It features the return of Harrison Ford to one of his most iconic roles. It showcases stunning performances from a series of virtually unknown actresses. And it stars Ryan Gosling, all hangdog gait and puppy-dog eyes and glacial blue stare, in what might be his most compelling performance to date.
This is American cinema at its most ambitious. Yet it’s a complex, strange juggernaut of a movie, a kaleidoscope within a Rubik’s cube of references to its past self; a compounded, elliptical mystery of shimmering sound and colour and light.
So what happens if you haven’t seen the original? Blade Runner is Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction film, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a slow-burn post-modern dystopia that references Andrei Tarkovsky and German Expressionism. Unicorns run through forests, androids quote Descartes and deliver a soliloquy about crying in the rain.
The original Blade Runner is set in 2019, in a toweringly dark Los Angeles. It rains almost constantly – an acidic, dirty water – and the city is cloaked in smog. The elite reside at the vantage points of cliff-high skyscrapers. Huge animated neon women beam out from the darkness, asking the disenfranchised to share their deepest desires. Down below, the lowly hordes bustle and swarm. This Metropolis-esque megacity is the new apex of civilisation – ‘off-world’, as it’s known, is in its 'silent spring', a ruinous, post-nuclear wasteland of ash and radioactivity and mangled junk from the early world.
Walking among the people of this Stygian underworld are 'replicants' – synthetic androids designed by their 'maker' Eldon Tyrell. They are indistinguishable from humans; in the marketing jargon of Tyrell Corporation, “more human than human”. Yet they are docile and servile domestic providers – “basic pleasure models”.
But some of them have out-thought their creators. They have gained their own consciousness, have started to develop emotional internal worlds. They have rebelled against their pre-programmed bondage.
Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an ageing ‘blade runner’ – an LAPD detective tasked with hunting down and ‘retiring’ a gang of four replicants seeking to expand their own set lifespans.
As one of Tyrell’s underlings tells Deckard: "The designers reckoned after a few years, the replicants might develop their own emotional responses. You know, hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So they built in a failsafe device."
"Which is what?"
In the classic lineage of film noir, Ford’s Deckard is an anti-hero. He’s a crumpled, grizzly loner, his back bent as he walks through the acid rain, drinking rye in the seediest holes of the city. He can be soft and persuasive and seductive, but he’s capable of exploding into violence, and happy to use the threat of it to get what he wants.
Up against Deckard, Scott cast the fairly unknown Sean Young to play Rachael, a replicant so advanced she thinks she is human. She was created with memories implanted within her – memories culled from the mind of Tyrell’s niece. She can remember fragments of her childhood. She carries with her a photograph of her mother.
Tyrell believes the rebelling replicants have no framework to deal with the emotions they are starting to develop. By gifting them with memories, even fragments of memories, he hopes they will remain malleable – “a better product”.
In one scene, Deckard confronts Rachael with the truth of her status as a replicant. He describes in detail a childhood memory she thinks is unique: "They're implants. Those aren't your memories, they're somebody else’s," he tells her. He takes the photograph of her embracing her mother. Later, as he studies it over a glass of whiskey, the image moves almost imperceptibly for a moment. For Rachael, the photo is proof she had a mother, that she was created in the midst of someone else, that she was “born, not made”. Yet the image is the product of an algorithm, merely another prop designed to pacify her. It triggers in Deckard that most biological of feelings: he begins to fall in love.
In the new film world of 2049, there are now two kinds of replicants. The old, rogue versions seen in the original and an upgraded, newly subservient variety designed by Niander Wallace, a godlike heir to Tyrell, played by Jared Leto.
Gosling plays a blade runner. He is himself a replicant, an employee of the LAPD officially called KD6.3-7, or K, for short. He’s known as Joe to his friends, leading us to recall Josef K, the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which tells of a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, who must go on trial for a crime that is never revealed to him.
K has a virtual-reality live-in girlfriend named Joi, stunningly performed by Ana de Armas. Joi is 2049’s version of Rachael, a mass-produced, customisable holographic AI who flicks between personas – a homemaker, a Parisian intellectual, a shimmering femme fatale – in line with K’s mood.
K believes they’re in love but he understands they are both merely constructs created by their human masters. Their relationship feels real, even though she's a hologram that often flickers and malfunctions.
And therein lies the crux of Blade Runner. "Could the feelings familiar to mankind abound within the man-made?” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane writes. “Could an operating system grow a soul?”
For we are still evolving. Just as our ancestors one day discovered fire, so we will begin to blend with machines, to plug our minds into the mainframe. Humans are imperfect creators. We’re the apex predators, gripping onto our control, holding back the tide. But how long can we keep a superior race in hock to our needs?
“Every leap of civilisation was built off the back of slaves,” Leto’s Wallace says. “The future of our species is finally unearthed. Replicants are the future.”