BY BROOKE CORSO
As I watched Denis Villeneuve’s entrancingly spiritual meta-noir “Blade Runner 2049,” I struggled to figure out its conceptual style: Was it a symphony of humans and replicants, fire and rain and desolate sands blanketed by Benjamin Wallfisch’s and Hans Zimmer’s pulsing, foreboding score? Maybe it was a ballet of movement against negative space, a moving choreography by replicants aiming to possibly be “more human than human,” and the humans desperate to maintain the crumbling rigidity of oppressive structures designed to keep them restrained, set within Dennis Gassner’s magnificently geometric production design? It all boiled down to a book in a Blade Runner’s cold, metallic apartment, Vladimir Nabokov’s metatextual novel “Pale Fire,” that made the film’s structure explicit: it was not only a poem — each canto reflecting a basic human need: shelter, food, water, sex, and death — but also a critical commentary about those bodily needs through the lens of the spirit: love, hate, compassion, betrayal and sacrifice. What makes a human human? When does life assume meaning, is it inherent, or is it all lost in time, like tears in rain?
Viewers won’t be completely confused if they haven’t watched the groundbreaking 1982 original, although one’s appreciation for Villeneuve’s style as a sumptuous amalgam of reverence to Ridley Scott’s vision and innovation in the continuing story will definitely be heightened from watching both, as the former has influenced modern filmmakers such as the Wachowskis and the neo-noir look in everything from Strange Days to Ghost in the Shell. Here, a young blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling) is doing his job of hunting and “retiring” replicants when he comes across a secret that could throw society into chaos and civil war. His boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) assigns him to track down an older blade runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has been in hiding for thirty years, in order to put a lid on the situation before it explodes.
The first canto takes place at a farm of sorts: crude greenhouses surrounded by a blanched wasteland. The commentary is on home and livelihood. The second canto is the city turned inward, cannibalizing itself on pure sensation while its “disposable workforce” is either enslaved or hunted. Its powerful elite remain ensconced in geometrical structures like long triangular prisms and pyramids, suggesting a myopia of vision and sympathy toward life and spirit. Sheltered from the innumerable dilapidated slums stacked on top of each other, pummeled by incessant rain and darkened by the labyrinthine skyscrapers, the biggest fear of those in power is to “see the sunrise,” as it conveys enlightenment. The third canto is the ruins of Sin City itself: Las Vegas as a burnt and radioactive ruin, its statues of woman in Kubrickian poses of subjugation weathered by the heat and sands like the statue of Ozymandias, the glamorous hotels and casinos now dormant under a layer of dust, its lone inhabitant presumably eschewing the very debauchery for which the town was known.
Sticking to its noirish roots, it is a detective story, but Villeneuve deepens and focuses the original film’s examination of Deckard’s dubious humanity to actually dissect the story of our new detective himself as he tries to solve the case. K reflects on the “assignments” he has “retired,” as replicants are not considered humans as they were not born but rather created whole in a lab, and therefore are products that can be retired as they become inefficient, rebellious, or new models are created. His home is a tiny one room efficiency in the grimy, dark, rain-drenched cityscape of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, after a worldwide blackout erased all online content. New records are kept in governmental and corporate buildings resembling pyramids: endless rows of golden bars of data, catalogued transcripts of the dead and exponentially evolving maps of the living to be tracked and observed. K’s girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), switches on a hologram device as he sits down to dinner, converting his protein meal into a delicious steak. It will undoubtedly taste like a steak should taste, smell as he remembers it smelling. The Nabokov book is here, undoubtedly influencing his perception of the world as media is wont to do.
Original screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who wrote “Blade Runner” with David Webb Peoples) cowrote 2049 with Michael Green, and his continuing study of the pyramidal structures of memory, from a foundation of sensory experiences (such as the sound of a piano key or the buzzing of bees, the taste of a raindrop, the feel of a fist hitting bone), compounded by emotional connection (as with the burying of a precious toy) and then critical reflection on the supposed perfection of that memory which leads to enlightenment. It is often painful for K to dredge up these memories and then to rectify them against facts or his own prejudices, but as a villain mentions later, “You love pain. It reminds you of joy.”
The female characters of the film form its greatest strength and biggest challenge, a mix of powerful and hypocritical, voiceless and benevolent. Post-blackout, the business of the Tyrell Corporation was bought and continued by the Wallace Corporation, run by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who is blind and “sees” through different chips attached to his neck; he is obsessed with multiplying replicants so as to increase his product yield/slave population, and a scene with a newborn adult female is chilling and horrific as he realizes he has failed once again. His trusted enforcer is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who has an agenda of her own. Lieutenant Joshi (Wright) is committed to upholding the structures of modern society so as to avoid a war, even if it means perpetuating the mistreatment of replicants. In the bowels of the city, both replicant and human prostitutes offer sexual services devoid of emotion or connection for the right price. The design of the city itself, laid out like a computer chip with streets illuminated like circuitry, its alleyways and markets filled with neon holograms of naked or scantily clad female figures offering anything you want to see or hear. No emotion, just sensation. Though beautiful in scope and design, it all evokes an inevitable waning of the soul of humanity back into the void, deprived of creation or hope. Evoking George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” if men were the ones who scorched the world, then women will have to restore it and must fight becoming chattel again, prized only for their reproductive usefulness but without any agency over that value.
As the original film took place in 2019, it held a prescience that the sequel continues over what was predicted and what has happened, and what may come to be. Issues of control over human populations, a violent police state, addiction to technology, environmental disasters, and artificial intelligence are not just in world and national news today, but were part of the original story which was set a mere two years from now. “2049” goes back to the near future and questions humanity itself, as K wonders “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.”
“Blade Runner 2049” (2017)
STARRING Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Carla Juri, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, Edward James Olmos
DIRECTOR Denis Villeneuve
MPAA RATING R