What makes us human? What makes us special? What makes our life … life?
Perhaps it’s best not to ask. Not in the world of 2049, where the line between man and machine is so very, very thin.
Replicants—engineered human facsimiles—populate this era, both on-world and off. They’re different than they used to be. So its makers say, anyway. They’re more “human” than ever, thanks to implanted memories. But they’re more malleable, too. They’ve been designed to obey implicitly, eliminating the wayward tendencies of earlier models. They live to obey. But do they live in truth?
Some earlier replicants run on as well—if, that is, they’ve run away. But they’re seen as threats to the natural order of things, which keeps blade runners like K employed.
K’s job, like that of all blade runners, is to hunt down rogue replicants and “retire” them. It’s not murder, of course. Never mind that they fight and bleed and sometimes beg to live. These replicants are human-like constructs, and no more—a clever blend of sophisticated machine and fabricated memory and one whopper of a motherboard.
K knows this. He accepts it. If he didn’t, the reality of his job might well drive him mad.
But then, after he “retires” a grub farmer, K runs across evidence of something else, something that calls into question who lives and who does not.
What makes life life? What makes humans human?
For K, such musings are no existentialist pastime. They have urgent relevance. But they trigger, perhaps, an even more immediate question.
Dare he ask it?
K seems to be a good man, for the most part. He doesn’t relish the messy parts of his job. And he even shows a certain respect and courtesy to the replicants he “retires.” And even though his immediate goals change during the course of the film, his overarching goal—to do what he thinks is right—consistently guides him.
K is also quite loyal to Joi, his significant other. Despite many a temptation that parades by, he stays true to her as much as he can.
He also meets Rick Deckard, a blade runner from decades (and another movie) ago. The two don’t get along right away. But each risks his respective life for each other. And both seem willing to sacrifice for a higher cause.
When you ask questions about what makes us human and special, you wade into some inherently deep spiritual waters. Blade Runner 2049 certainly does that, with K at one point even pondering when people—or replicants—are imbued with a soul. And before K takes down the grub farmer, the man tells him that K’s only willing to retire replicants “because you’ve never seen a miracle.”
Little wonder, then, that Niander Wallace, the head of the organization that makes replicants these days, casts himself as something of a God-like figure, someone capable of creating “life” who also has the moral authority to destroy that life whenever he sees fit. “We made angels in the service of civilization,” he says. When Wallace talks about a very special replicant from the not-so-distant past, he echoes the kind of language we hear in Scripture, saying that “God remembered” the replicant and “healed her.” And when he inspects a new “model,” he greets her in similarly biblical terms. “An angel should never enter the kingdom of heaven without a gift,” he says.
That new model, by the way, is completely nude when we see her—and we see plenty of her, including her breasts and backside. Wallace also places his hand where the replicant’s womb would be. We see another woman nude as well: a pink-haired but very real gigantic hologram that tries to seduce passers-by to buy “her”. (“Everything you want to see,” reads the advertising copy. “Everything you want to hear.”) Her breasts and backside are again visible.
K walks by some mostly formed replicants floating in vats of liquid, all of whom are obviously naked. (We see male genitals on some.) Statues of gigantic, naked women are scattered about a surreal cityscape.
Women and replicants constantly hit on K. And a trio of apparent prostitutes walk over to a table K sits at and flirt with him. Two leave once they discover he’s a blade runner, but one stays, continuing to chat him up. But he turns her down, too. K’s boss, Lt. Joshi, also asks suggestively what might happen once she finishes her drink in K’s apartment. (K demurs, telling her about all the work he should catch up on.)
K does eventually have a sexual encounter: We see the object of his desire remove her clothes (he gets an eyeful, but we don’t), and the two embrace. The camera leaves shortly thereafter, but returns to glimpse an awkward morning after.
Wallace’s replicant servant, Luv, says that being asked personal questions makes her feel “desire.” We see some women dressed in showgirl outfits and other revealing garb.
While “retiring” replicants isn’t considered murder in this dystopian future, it sure looks like it. Thus, I won’t make any distinction between human and replicant here.
A naked woman is slashed through the stomach with a knife, bleeding out as two people look on. Another woman, this one clothed, is similarly killed. A third is shot almost point-blank in the head, accompanied by a spray of blood and gore. K shoots several people in the head and snaps someone’s back. Perhaps a dozen others are killed via some sort of war drone. A massive melee leads to someone drowning. Someone else gets smashed in the back of the head, and the victim dies with blood spurting out of his mouth and floating in his eyeballs.
Speaking of eyeballs, K removes one from a deceased replicant (eyeballs contain replicant serial numbers) and takes it back to the office to be logged. We don’t see the eye’s removal, but we do see it in a bloody bag. K also gets into some serious fights that lead to his face being caked with blood. (He drools blood out of his mouth on occasion, too). K punches someone in the face, too, leading to a bloody and perhaps broken nose. A child is beaten by a bunch of bullies.
Flying cars crash. Replicants smash through walls. Explosions explode. People fly back. We hear someone threaten to torture someone else. There’s talk of dissecting replicants.
Seven f-words, three s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including “b–tard,” “h—” and “pr–k.” God’s name is paired with “d–n,” loudly, once.
K smokes, and we see him light up often. He serves himself and Joi drinks of some kind. Lt. Joshi downs an alcoholic beverage at K’s house as well. An old-fashioned bar features hundreds of old liquor bottles stacked in rather artistic fashions. Deckard offers K a glass of whiskey. “Got millions of bottles of whiskey,” he says. He also pours some on the floor for his dog to lap up.
K comes across a bevy of children working—essentially as slaves—in a massive trash collection plant. Their taskmaster tells K that he does let them play (perhaps a lie), but rationalizes that “the work … molds them into a child worth having.” And then he offers to sell/loan one to K, though for what is never articulated. “What child you have in mind?” he says. “I got all kinds.”
We see the interior of an unused casino, and someone absently plays with a roulette wheel.
Blade Runner 2049 is a ticklish movie to review for a whole host of reasons—and not just because everything that happens after the first five minutes is pretty much a spoiler. It’s that the film, in a way, resembles its own version of dystopian Los Angeles: It offers some remarkable creations, yet it’s stuck in a world of trash and squallor.
First, the good:
It’s a rare sequel that compares to the original. Most tend to be pallid imitations—unconvincing replicants, if you will—of the source material, drained of the vibrancy seen before. And given that Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner is now considered a science fiction masterpiece, the bar for 2049 was set particularly high.
And yet, this replicant—directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve—is full of life. Beautifully shot and expertly acted, Blade Runner 2049 pumps blood into this dystopian world. Like the original Blade Runner, it encourages us to ask big questions that may even challenge our faith in interesting, ultimately healthy ways. And even if every plot twist doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, it still feels like a well-crafted work that, if not quite the equal of its predecessor, certainly doesn’t embarrass it.
But let me remind you, that predecessor was also rated R. And both films are so branded for a host of obvious reasons.
Both Blade Runner films lead us into an unseemly, seedy milieu in which humanity’s worst impulses have been augmented and magnified by technology. As saturated as our culture is with sex, this gloomy version of Los Angeles is even more so—a distraction in a world so bleak as to be almost barren of pleasure. If life can sometimes feel cheap now, it feels much more so here, filled with literally disposable “people” who serve as so much fodder for civilization’s grinding machinery.
To see such a world is hard on both eye and soul. And that’s part of the point. But that doesn’t make it any easier, any more edifying. The original Blade Runner, from 1982, is hard enough to watch. This sequel—given the more advanced graphic tools at its makers’ disposal, and given that it’s been created in (arguably) a more permissive culture—is more problematic than the original.
Perhaps far more.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.