In undertaking Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s much-theorized 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, director Denis Villeneuve had some big shoes to fill. His shrewd move was not seeking to rewrite or explicate the Blade Runner mythos but rather inviting his viewers to venture still further into that mystifying terrain. “I don’t want to tell the audience what to think,” insists Villeneuve, and this is how the film achieves a philosophical tone and pays proper tribute to the original.
In 2049, as in his 2016 sci-fi success Arrival,Villeneuve works in a meditative mode, urging us towards the questions rather than the answers. Not only does the film not tell us what to think, it maintains a shimmer of uncertainty throughout; in the manner of John Keats’ notion of negative capability, the film dwells quite beautifully “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I think we can all agree this is not par for the course in your average blockbuster sequel.
Villeneuve has asked repeatedly that reviewers not give away the plot points, but suffice it to say that K (Ryan Gosling), the replicant blade runner protagonist, makes a discovery that could shift the whole balance of power between replicants and humans forever. In the process, he journeys through cinematographer Roger Deakins’s stunning visuals and Benjamin Wallfisch and Han Zimmer’s world-shaking soundtrack that form the film’s mystical ecosystem.
This sequel examines the existential questions as much as the original did. In his Claim of Reason philosopher Stanley Cavell considered, “the perception of the precariousness of human identity . . . the perception that it may be lost or invaded, that we may be, or may become, something other than we are, or take ourselves for, that our origins as human beings need accounting for, and are unaccountable.” It is just this sort of precariousness that 2049’s K faces, just as Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) did in the original film. As even a minor character from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, puts it, “Mors certa, vita incerta”; death is certain, life uncertain.
Both Blade Runner films take as their focal point this uncertain life with its inevitable questions: what makes us human, what makes us, and what will unmake us? In 2049 K is regularly tested for signs of this very questioning. In order to ensure he hasn’t developed any dangerous signs of humanity, K’s administered the “Post-Trauma Baseline Test,” in which he’s bombarded with phrases he must respond to (“Cells,” “Interlinked,” “A Tall White Fountain Played”), which are actually lines from the titular poem of Vladimir Nabokov’s astounding 1962 novel, Pale Fire.
In the “Pale Fire” poem, after a near-death experience, John Shade perceives, “A system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked / Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” This vision becomes a metaphysical thread that Shade follows to further understand life and whatever lies beyond. The Post-Trauma Baseline Test gets trickier after K embarks on his Joseph-Campbell-style hero’s journey, slouching toward a soul and all the angst this entails.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the characters address these existential growing pains in much the same manner as we do today: through religion and Roku; in the face of an unthinkable existence, they pray or watch TV. Deckard lives in a world of perpetual television and mood organs that allow him to control his emotions. Authenticity, even authentic pain, is hard to come by. For this reason, Deckard’s wife feels a certain sense of satisfaction when she finds a setting for despair on her mood organ, and schedules it bimonthly. It’s fitting, then, that 2049 turns to Pale Fire, a work of metafiction—a form that puts its own inauthenticity on display, just as the replicants have certain qualities that give them away.
In one memorable moment in 2049, K’s virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) employs an Emanator to attain a physical body. She goes outside and feels the raindrops falling on her skin; it’s a sequence that reminds us how a simple moment such as this can be holy somehow, when we come up against the shock of being alive. But then Joi pauses, frozen in mid-ecstasy when K receives a voicemail. Of course, the real question androids raise is not whether they are truly human but whether we are. Joi’s freezing makes us ponder our own times when calls and texts from the outside world can invade our most private moments. We recognize this “future” and its onslaught of increasingly invasive technologies that fracture human closeness as our “present,” which is only fitting since the first Blade Runner was set a mere two years from now.
Furthermore, 2049 forces us to reflect on our current sociopolitical landscape. Notably, K’s boss’ (Robin Wright) point that, “the world is built on a wall that separates kind; tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war” packs a mean punch in a nation that seeks to erect great barriers, institute travel bans, and deport “Dreamers.”
Dick has said he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep using some of the research he did on Nazis for The Man in the High Castle (1962), but there are also undertones of other more American atrocities, as when the television advertisement for humanoid robots claims their free servitude, “duplicates the halcyon days of the pre–Civil War Southern states!” For this reason, the original Blade Runner’s inclusion of a snippet (even if misquoted) from William Blake’s 1793 poem America: A Prophecy, which looked at rebellion in the American colonies, seems apt. The replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) recites his own version of Blake’s lines, “Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.” In the original poem, the angels didn’t fall; they rose.
So, as you might have guessed by now, the frightening realization that eventually dawns on us is that the androids are us. In Dick’s book, Deckard says to the humanoid robot he’s about to kill, “An android…doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one of the indications we look for.” She responds, “Then…you must be an android.” I’m fairly certain that more than a few people today would fail the book’s Voight-Kampff Empathy Test designed to tell human from machine. It’s not merely that androids aren’t human enough but that humans aren’t either.
The denizens of Dick’s book eventually discover that their religion, Mercerism, is a “swindle” and that empathy, too, is a “swindle”; and it really is if you think about how the book treats animals versus how we do, for example. If you doubt this, consider the abattoir. Ultimately, so much of what we accept on a daily basis is a horror, from the knowledge of what we do to other creatures (both human and animal) to our own deaths hovering somewhere before us. As Nabokov’s poet Shade frames it, “A syllogism: other men die; but I /Am not another; therefore I’ll not die. / Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time / A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m / Locked up.”And so what’s left?
Perhaps there is nowhere to go from here except back to Shade, who finds that, “this / Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;/ Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream / But topsy-turvical coincidence.” And so like a good android, I cling to my own implanted memories, my own glittering delusion of humanity, the rain falling on my emanated hands, not text but texture.