Blade Runner 2049 Review: Everything Is Real When Everything Is Fake

Humans Need Not Apply
  • Theatrical
  • Science Fiction
NOTE: This article is a contribution and do not necessarily represent the views of Player One.
Ryan Gosling as K in Blade Runner 2049.
Ryan Gosling as K in Blade Runner 2049. Warner Bros.

The Los Angeles of Blade Runner 2049 has as its foundation seamless blocks of skyscraper-height buildings, riven by the main roads into deep, glowing trenches lit by neon advertisements, all surrounded by a forbidding seawall. The entire city, populated by replicant skinjobs and anyone too poor to leave Earth, is flat on top. This Los Angeles isn’t designed for the benefit of its inhabitants, including the blade runner K (Ryan Gosling), but serves as substructure to even larger temples of the elite. Massive buildings in the shape of pyramids and other gigantic totems project order, control, wealth and hidden knowledge. Looking at this city, this one possible future, induces awe and despair — we’ve populated the stars, but never changed society.

But before we get into what Blade Runner 2049 is, it’d be helpful to start with what it isn’t. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a franchise entry. Nothing feels like a soft reboot or a Marvel movie. This isn’t the output of a machine that grinds up old movies and spits out a familiar-tasting paste. It’s vibrant sci-fi worth exploring in itself, transcending the typical sequel cycle.

Blade Runner 2049 is a tour through circles of a hell we built for ourselves on Earth. More than a sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner — the sequel elements are actually its greatest weaknesses — Blade Runner 2049 portrays what happens when humanity’s vast numbers become valueless, pinched between god-like corporate entities above and a replicant slave class below. So valueless that they hardly figure into the narrative at all.

A lot has happened since 2019, the year Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) ran off with the Tyrell Corporation’s most advanced replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), after a life-changing confrontation with rogue replicants lead by warrior-poet Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Replicants are now under the control of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who wants to create replicant slaves that can breed, exponentially accelerating humanity’s labor pool as it expands through the galaxy.

After “retiring” (executing) an old Nexus 8 model with a mysterious past, the blade runner K finds himself enmeshed in a missing persons case that could change the balance of power between replicants and their human masters. Blade Runner 2049 is mostly populated with replicants. The humans left behind loathe the “Skinners” with good cause: while the replicants have a place and function in Earth’s society, all but a chosen few humans (including the cops that maintain this poisonous order) are left to scrape out what they can.

While humans have been pushed to the background, the replicants of Blade Runner 2049 have an exciting and treacherous future. If we failed to overthrow the masters of this world, maybe the replicants can. To say much more of K’s investigation would involve spoilers, but it doesn’t matter so much because the actual contours of his case aren’t all that compelling. And rather than a foil on the other side of the fulcrum, K in Blade Runner 2049 is searching more for the symbolic embodiment of the future than a person motivated by passions, like Batty.

After Arrival, with its austere, alien immensity, it’s not surprising that Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve flies us through a grand and imposing vision of the future (lit with sublime, elemental power by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins). Even the new music, Hans Zimmer by way of Nine Inch Nails instead of Vangelis, finds its own striking identity. But what is surprising is Blade Runner 2049’s endless poignancy.

Gosling as K has more of the flat affect you might expect from a “soulless” replicant instead of the howling animal energy of Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Batty in the original, but he offers just enough of his longing and compassion that we believe in his interiority. Nowhere is his inner self more present than during scenes with Joi (Ana de Armas), his mass-produced, software projection wife. When K gifts the AI an expensive peripheral that lets her go beyond the home projector, Joi becomes simultaneously K’s Beatrice and Virgil (Dante’s guides through Heaven and Hell). Freely projecting herself through, into and around K, Joi is like a being of pure soulfulness and spirit.

In maybe the most strikingly gorgeous, emotionally swollen romantic scene in sci-fi movie history, Joi (building off a scene from Spike Jonze’s Her) projects herself onto a replicant prostitute, their faces and hands doubling and dancing as Joi touches K for the first time. This scene is Blade Runner 2049’s rebuttal to the “real or simulacra” binary that’s the fixation of both the characters within the movie and viewers debating Deckard’s true nature. Real or fake isn’t the question. The food is synthetic and Joi is synthetic, but the food is a lying image projected atop a bowl of slop and Joi is the movie’s most soulful character. She is fake, but more real than anyone else. Through Joi, Blade Runner 2049 sets aside authenticity for a higher truth.

But a world of rigid order doesn’t care that Joi, K and the audience have found a hybrid meaning. Where Joi is pure consciousness and love, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is pure predatory biology. Wallace’s right hand, Luv kills with crushing and instantaneous violence. For her, every death is a victory: she’s outlived one more being. She’s my other favorite character in Blade Runner 2049 and the closest the movie has to a Roy Batty. She suffers life in silence, instead shedding tears, maybe of joy, whenever she kills. Expect Joi and Luv, essential and remarkable characters ultimately subordinate to more plot-important men, to be at the center of any discussion of Blade Runner 2049’s gender politics. The movie combines fantastic female characters — Carla Juri as memory-maker Dr. Ana Stelline anchors another moving scene — with an all-too common imbalance of objectification (the male sex drive seems to be the only part of the economy still running).

Once K catches up with Deckard, his search through the thought-provoking and astounding corners of this world complete, Blade Runner 2049 starts to droop. It’s hard to care about Deckard’s emotional baggage after his deeply creepy and forceful relationship with Rachael in Blade Runner, like 2049 is trying to retcon something ambiguous and unsettling into a traditional romance. In its last hour 2049 centers more on the aftermath of the original movie, bringing lofty new explorations back down to a dull and oddly action-focused conclusion. But there’s just so much to treasure in Blade Runner 2049 that its faults fade in recollection (also true of the original).

Blade Runner 2049 takes us to small slices of life within an immense world, bringing us along to protein farms where miles of shallow vats gestate edible mealworms, to ruins where human scavengers eke out life on the backs of child laborers and into the studio of a memory manufacturer. If the original Blade Runner is about individuals fighting for their own identity and place in the world, 2049 is more about finding compensatory meaning within a grinding dystopia.

Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 Review: Everything Is Real When Everything Is Fake
Blade Runner 2049 is a grand and surprisingly poignant look at a dark possible future that builds off the original to take the replicants in new and surprising directions.
  • Stunning depiction of a dark future
  • Fantastic new characters
  • Rich, not a franchise-building product
  • No magnetic antagonist to match Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer)
  • Connection to original movie is the most boring part
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