In philosophy there is a problem known as the P-Zombie (the P stands for philosophy). It goes, what if all the people you knew had no souls? No minds? No inner life? They existed solely as their external phenomena; they laughed, cried, expressed hopes and dreams, showed love, showed anger, did all that you can see writ large on their faces, words and the movements of their bodies. But inside was nothing. They just seemed to be real. And worse still, what if you were this creature, what if you felt real but knew you were a creation lacking the spark of a soul?
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner was not the first to use themes of this kind when it was released. We had seen the same in Alien, Westworld, Stepford Wives, and a wealth of others, right back to Bridgette Helm as Futura in Metropolis, and perhaps most obviously the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (who quite openly wanted a heart and felt incomplete until finally a man told him he’d had one all along…). But taking the subject, letting its ‘tin men’ characters (in this world called replicants) play out their short lives meditatively, in a neon-hued dystopia, created, if nothing actually new, a late-century angst that felt new.
Blade Runner wasn’t overly popular on its release. It was the 27th biggest-selling film of the year in the U.S. (for context the 27th biggest-selling film in 2017 is The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which I doubt you’ve seen) and the critics were divided. It became popular in retrospect, a slow burn, aided partly by the new appetite for home video releases but mostly because it continued to feel fresh through the ’80s, into the ’90s and beyond. It can’t be overstated how contemporary Blade Runner felt and certainly looked. It was a gatekeeper film alongside Star Wars, Alien and Aliens, so influential over subsequent sci-fi cinema it feels a part of the modern canon while films before them often seem part of an earlier cinematic canon. Films like Silent Running (1972), Westworld (1973), Soylent Green (1973) are period pieces. 1976’s Logan’s Run was six years older but feels a thousand.
It is an odd choice to revisit a cinematic universe 35 years later. But Blade Runner 2049 attempts this. The story picks up 30 years after the events of the original film. We meet K (Ryan Gosling), a new breed of replicant working for the police as a Blade Runner – a hunter of other replicants who have gone rogue and seek to live free from robotic servitude. Following a case, a set of clues leads him on a journey of discovery as he hunts the miracle of a child who may have been born from two replicants 28 years earlier. Also looking for the same replicant-born child are Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, a scenery-chewing, visionary zillionaire and techno-savior of humanity), as well as a shadowy collection of replicants hoping for revolution. It doesn’t give the story away to say that the clues lead to Harrison Ford’s Deckard, a character from the first film thought to be a replicant himself, hiding out in some style in a radioactive Las Vegas. There is an interesting dynamic here: the capitalist is looking for the secret to the baby so he can launch a revolution that has his name writ large on it; the revolutionaries want the baby to lead them to emancipation; and K, working on behalf of his police chief, is looking to destroy all traces of the child to maintain a fragile order.
Blade Runner is most famous for its rain-soaked, neo-noir cityscape. A stock trope of subsequent films, it had never been seen before (perhaps the closest was Carpenter’s Escape from New York a year earlier). For the sense of continuity, the Blade Runner world 30 years later contains much the same claustrophobia. An early establishing shot shows us the same night-time Tokyoesque, but this time we see it embedded in a near-endless shanty town; K, like almost everyone, lives in a neon favela. The scant elements of his life play out here. We learn very early on how hostile the world is to a replicant – sneered at, threatened, distrusted, there is a finely hewn tension in his status as both third-class citizen and yet superhuman. Perhaps most tellingly in an early throwaway scene he is shouted at in the corridor of the police station and shrinks away, cowed like a trauma victim.
The light in this living hell is Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s holographic girlfriend. She is uniquely, dutifully in love with him, and he with her. We meet her in his home. There is great truth and sadness in these scenes with her. It is perfect love, and she is a fabulous distillation of all the characterisations of the pliant, kindly, homemaking women cinema has offered up to us over the years. De Armas has the wet-eyed beauty of Audrey Hepburn and Anna Karina. It is seductive even as a cinema-goer: who wouldn’t want a little bit of Joi in their lives? But the conceit is that Joi is an over-the-counter product. Likely in this world all lonely men have one. K’s perfect love is designed to be a perfect love. We see great holographic billboards of her as he walks the streets.
In 1982 the idea of bio-synthesised humans, or mechanical robots that look like us, was as real as the idea of a virtually created one – our new digital world had yet to fully take hold and we believed we could be seeing humanoid robots within the next 20 or 30 years. But in 2017 we see things differently. Our digital worlds have so far outstripped the robotic that we know very well now that a computer-animated Joi is much more a reality over our near future than walking, talking androids. And for this reason the philosophical questions hinted at in her existence have much greater poignancy than the question of whether replicants have souls. This update of this question over the last film is commendable (though hardly novel, Spike Jonze’s Her would be the nearest corollary).
For all the presentation of cityscape, this film should be better valued for what it does when it moves away from what, since Blade Runner, has become a cliché. The film has a visual acuity and capacity for virtuoso scene-setting that is perhaps incomparable in contemporary mainstream cinema. The bees in Las Vegas, the hall of orphans, a love scene with a hologram overlaying a real woman like gossamer, a fight in a lounge while holograms of Elvis and Monroe flicker in and out are all exceptionally vivid. Even subtle moments: when a flying limo crash lands, it does so on the edge of the night-time sea. Black waves wash over it, and shifts from the outside dark to the fluorescent subway-like brightness of the limo are subtly, brilliantly discombobulating.
The writing is good, though not especially deep (although it thinks it is). If a thousand films and books to date have asked whether the tin man has a soul (which The Wizard of Oz answered rather convincingly 80 years ago – if you feel like you have one, you have one – cogito, ergo sum, etc.), a marquee film in 2017 should be able to go deeper and ask harder questions. I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 does this; much like the former, it confuses brooding with intellectual depth. But what it does do is give us a twisty, thoughtful narrative, and a meaningful journey for the central character that visually splendid sequences can flow from.
Carrying the film, Gosling convinces. He brings a compellingly gentle ennui to the proceedings; the weight of knowing he is a slave, knowing his memories are implants given to him, is writ quite delicately on his face (contrast him with Jared Leto, who is a ham). The discovery of his own purpose late in the story is the film’s central twist and he plays it well. The generational gap between him and Harrison Ford is pleasing to watch and is perhaps symbolic of actual change towards the feminisation of male central characters. In his prime, Ford was every bit the muscular proponent of derring-do that John Wayne or Gary Cooper were before him. But he undercut the overwhelming masculinity of roles like Indiana Jones with looks of bewildered, witty exasperation that hinted at a fatigue in the central idea of male heroism. Gosling is the newest thing, one of the much-chided millennials, and here we see his replicant character more docile, more feminised but physically stronger and deeper than Ford’s Deckard.
It’s hard to know how to feel about women in the film. On the one hand the number of roles is wonderful. There are perhaps six speaking male roles and seven speaking female roles (though the two stars are male). This parity is somewhat to be applauded. And certainly there are portrayals of strength from women characters in the film. Robin Wright channels her character from Wonder Woman, loses the accent and adds a dose of Mrs. Robinson to create her police chief. Sylvia Hoeks’ character, Luv, is a one-woman army (though I think indistinguishable from Sofia Boutella in Kingsman). But (and perhaps this is intended), they are deeply stock, neatly attired characters whose lives revolve around the central male protagonists. There are seven key women characters and yet the film still fails the Bechdel test. There are four conversations between women in this whole film, they are all fleeting, and the subject is always Gosling. The film alludes to a coming revolution and women are at the heart of this, so that in the end male characters are less agents in themselves but unwitting vehicles of this feminine revolution. This is a neat twist, I just wished it was happening in a film where Gosling wasn’t the only subject women could muster to talk about.
This future, also sadly, seems to contain only two black people.
In the end the film will fare relatively well though not wonderfully at the box office. It won’t capture much of the Transformers-based market, because it is long and meditative, but that is a shame because its action sequences and fights are well done. It will appeal to those who love cinema and want a blend of accessibility and quality filmmaking. It isn’t a masterpiece but it is very good, well-acted, with a relatively compelling storyline and moments of extraordinary vision. It is a better film than the original, even augmenting it. But people may not have the same attachment to cinema in this age and the idea that, like with Blade Runner, teenagers for the next twenty years will have Blade Runner 2049 posters on their walls is unlikely. Denis Villeneuve, directing this film, has shown that he can do remarkable things, and I look forward to him continuing to set out his own unique cinematic vision that might even capture today’s zeitgeist in the way Blade Runner did through the ’80s and beyond. This film is a good step along that path.