Blade Runner should never have had a sequel. It was and is a work of art, self-contained. It bears watching and re-watching. Today, thirty-five years after it was first released, it still feels contemporary, is unarguably prescient. Blade Runner imagined a future history of urban decay, multiculturalism, corporate greed and corruption, boundless commodification and alienation, and was unerringly right on all counts.

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At the heart of Blade Runner is an ambiguity: whether Deckard is a replicant or human, and whether that distinction even matters. It is a noir masterpiece, with all the darkness, existential anxiety, and unanswered questions the narrative form requires.

It is the finest science fiction film ever made.

Yet Blade Runner has a sequel. Hollywood just cannot, fucking, help itself.

However, wonder of wonders, the sequel is a worthy one.

As a work of visual art, Blade Runner 2049 stands with the original, with breathtaking vistas and imagery that will earn it an academy award, if there is any justice in the world of cinematography.

Blade Runner 2049 is a fully-realised universe, expanding the dark vision of environmental breakdown and pervasive corporate control.

The sequel images a post-human future, where life is bleak for both human and non-human, and interrogates the difference between something born, something made, and something mass-produced. In keeping with the original, Blade Runner 2049 does not try to give clean, easily digestible answers to the ineffable, the numinous.

Blade Runner 2049 is not perfect, but neither was the original – it took several cuts to get it right, after all. I do not think it surpasses the ‘Final Cut’ version of Blade Runner, but I have zero doubt it honours the first movie, and that director Denis Villeneuve reveres and understands the source material. The man gets it: the philosophical underpinnings of the first, its visual and thematic audacity.

But let me be more specific. Normally I try to keep articles on this site down to 1000 words. I’ve no desire to do this for Blade Runner, for reasons that should be obvious. I’ve broken down this lengthy article into three parts: 1) review, 2) conspiracy theories, and 3) philosophical themes.


Aesthetically, Blade Runner 2049 embodies and expands the world of the original. It exists in a slightly alternate history/future where Pan Am, Atari and the Soviet Union are still around, and where technological progress is both ahead and behind the real world. On the one hand there are replicants, spinners, and off-world colonies; on the other there are no mobile phones or internet. DNA has been mastered, miniaturisation of computer chips has not.

The casting choices were inspired. Ryan Gosling as K, is surprisingly affecting as a replicant struggling with questions of identity. Gosling is a natural noir actor, and the narrative form brings out the best in his talents. By this I mean: the noir protagonist interiorises his/her emotions, hides their motivations from all around them, sometimes even from the self. Gosling walks the line of a seemingly unflappable detective who yet roils with doubt and supressed feeling, just under the surface.

There are some perfect scenes in Blade Runner 2049. Meeting the memory maker, where K learns whether a memory in his head is real, is one of them (a double-impact scene, as the viewer retrospectively realises Dr. Stelline was crying because it was one of her own memories, while K simultaneously believes it is his memory and therefore that he was born).

The new version of the Voight-Kampff machine – used in the original to differentiate human and replicant – is an unblinking camera on wall barking a call at officer K who must reply, repeating a key word. The chilling lines of questioning are taken directly from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire:

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked

Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct

Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

The Nabokov Pale Fire test – a worthy successor to the Voight-Kampff.

Women get some great roles, in this, as the film reviewer at Mamamia, argues: Even though this is truly K’s story, the film is littered with actresses working with compelling material and turning in extraordinary performances.

She’s right: Robin Wright is excellent, as always, as the police lieutenant Joshi. The stone-faced (but capable of shedding a single tear when a fellow replicant is killed), terminator assistant, Luv, is also very good. Mackenzie Davis has a small but crucial role as a pleasure model replicant / rebel Mariette – and may have given something away about a deeper replicant conspiracy (see part 2, theories, for more on this).

Yet, strangely, one of the best performances comes from a hologram.

My partner said to me after we walked from the theatre that the hologram, Joi, was the most sympathetic character (I disagreed, for me it was K). My partner wasn’t saying this as a criticism: she very much liked the film. But rather, among a cast of brooding replicants, messianic CEOs, isolated and abandoned children, and cold-blooded assassins, the hologram was the most human.

The hologram extends the questions raised by the first film, by suggesting a non-corporeal being programmed to say ‘everything you want to hear’, still might be sentient. It’s counter-intuitive – she / it can’t be considered ‘real’, surely, if all of her words, all of her actions were part of her programming (think of the capitalist fever dream here: a Wallace product uses his performance bonus to upgrade his Wallace product with another Wallace product. I think they call that ‘vertical integration’).

Yet as The New Yorker magazine argues: “whenever Joi appears, the movie’s imaginative heart begins to race.”

The Joi hologram is perfectly rendered, and the scene between her, Mariette and K in the apartment was an inspired fusion of special effects, acting, and thematic resonance.

Blade Runner has many moments of the sublime: the Mariette/Joi/K love-making is just one of them. K’s entry into Vegas is another; as is the Nabokov Pale fire test, and the giant hologram Joi reaching out to K. There are many.

However, I don’t believe any of the dialogue comes close to the ‘tears in rain’ speech. In general, I did not find the dialogue as powerful as the first film (caveat: I had trouble hearing conversation in parts, as it was drowned out by the soundscape, my view may change once I’ve seen it with closed captioning), and one or two of the scenes with Wallace underwhelmed. I’ve expanded on these criticisms (and refuted others) in Part 4 of this article.

Blade Runner 2049 is slow-paced, yes, at two and a half hours – thanks for noticing, haters. But in my view this was an audacious decision by the director, one he manages to pull off. Contemporary cinema is edited to death, exposition plonked in merely to link to the next rapidly edited action set-piece. 2049 breaks the mould.

I walked out of Blade Runner 2049 stunned by an aural and visual spectacle. Contemplating the themes and developing theories long after the movie ended.

One example: the change in K’s behaviour when he believes he is the first naturally-born replicant, and therefore has a ‘soul.’ He subsequently drifts from his replicant ‘baseline,’ presumably into a ‘human’ emotional make-up, and is marked for termination. All this, based on nothing more than the thought he may be natural born, that his memories of youth were actually real. Is the film suggesting our humanity based on nothing more than an act of faith?

Well, of course it is. The humanity of any single one of us is an act of faith. Even when K later discovers the childhood memory is an implant, his act of faith has made him independent of his conditioning.

This is what Gaff is really saying to K, when he makes an origami sheep for him:

Do you dream of electric sheep, K? Does the distinction even matter?

Score: 4.75 stars out of 5

Bechdel test: pass

Part two of this article, which covers my theories, is here.

Categories: Reviews

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