Ghost in the Machines — Blade Runner 2049 Review

It only took 35 years for Hollywood to create a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — a critical and commercial failure at launch that eventually turned into one of the most influential culture pieces this side of the 20th century. 

Not that we asked for a continuation or a reboot — we all know know how those have turned out. Look at what’s happened to the Alien franchise. See Alien: Covenant review here

When it was first announced, I had my reservations. Blade Runner is one of my most favorite movies. And while I was resigned to accept the notion that no sequel — spiritual or otherwise — would be as good as the first, news of Denis Villeneuve being attached to direct gave me hope that it could come close. 

So is Blade Runner 2049 good? Yes. Emphatically, yes — but how much you’ll enjoy it might depend on if you’ve seen the movie that precedes it. And it might depend on if you’re okay with the final cut of the first film which definitively answers the question of “is he or isn’t he?” And it could also depend on if you’re into cerebral sci-fi movies that examine humanity through various lenses without beating you over the head (or steadily holding your hand) with exposition. 

Ryan Gosling stars as Agent KD6-3.7, a blade runner. Blade runners are specialized police officers-slash-assassins tasked with taking down replicants, which are bioengineered humans.

In the first Blade Runner, replicants were altogether illegal on planet Earth, and blade runners hunted them down in the act of “retiring” them. And because they’re engineered to do more (harder, better, faster, stronger), replicants were tough prey for those who ran “on the knife’s edge between humanity and inhumanity.” 

Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the events of the first movie, and a lot has changed. Replicants are legal now, thanks to Niander Wallace’s advancement of Eldon Tyrell’s technology. The newer models are more docile, incapable of lying or disobeying direct commands from their human masters. Still, they aren’t altogether accepted. As Agent K comes home to his apartment, he casually ignores the anti-replicant phrase spray-painted on his door.

After an assignment leads to a buried ossuary filled with the bones of a replicant that died during pregnancy, Agent K is ordered to track down the replicant who was born and terminate it before the discovery triggers a war between humans and androids. More than capable, Agent K follows leads with precision and with a bit of help from outside and unknown forces he might rather do without because what he discovers could change the entire universe.  

For the uninitiated, the movie may fly high above your heads. Had I not seen Blade Runner enthusiastically multiple times over the course of my life, I may not have gotten all of the references, technical jargon, and links to the past whose thematic elements expand to fill the world that Agent K now lives in. 

And were I not a huge sci-fi fan, I might have fallen asleep waiting for Gosling’s character to start kicking down more doors and fight more ex-WWE wrestlers. Blade Runner 2049, like it’s precursor, is a slow burn that needs to be absorbed through all the senses. 

So I’m thankful because this movie is as direct a sequel as it can be, and it doesn’t waste a lot of time reminding audiences of its pedigree. Blade Runner 2049 also doesn’t forsake the perspectives of its predecessor — it adds while giving us a view from another vantage point, all the while making pertinent arguments that coincide with much of what can be seen on tonight’s evening news. 

Gosling is excellent as K, a replicant well aware that his memories are falsified. When he’s not being thrown through walls, being propositioned by his station chief, or shying away from coworkers who despise his existence, he lives a simple life at home with his digital girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) — 2049’s version of Amazon Echo with Alexa in the form of a beautiful model who watches you eat and makes for excellent conversation as she switches sexy outfits on the fly. 

Joi is the perfect representation of all that’s good in K’s life — she’s a fantasy who provides superficial comforts without the emotional hang-ups of a real human relationship. But who needs real relationships when emotions are considered glitches? Each time K checks into the police station, he’s given a baseline test that’s about as triggering as the comments section on a political post you’ve seen on your social media newsfeed. Scanners check his body language, eye dilation, and response times to see if he’s too stressed to be viable. 

And as the movie unfolds, K hits his breaking point. In search of the replicant who was born — a possible reference to both Moses and Jesus, and whose legendary status inspires an underground rebel group to form — K tangles with corporations, loyalty to his department, and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s favorite angel.

Luv is an intricate antagonist — or is she a protagonist — and she is very formidable. In the employ of Wallace, the father of the modern-day replicant, she knows the extent of his passion and the terror of his remarkable ruthlessness. Wallace’s company has hit a wall; it can only create so many replicants at a time. If he could only unlock the potential of replicant birth, his creations could replicate themselves and populate entire planets to serve mankind. 

It could be posited that Luv is Wallace’s Lucifer — but in which form? Is she the morning star that shines bright at dawn or the rebel seeking to put herself on the throne. When she hears news from Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) — just before she crushes her hand and stabs her to death — that the special replicant was killed, Luv’s emotions betray her as her eyes fill with tears. While serving her master who she must obey, does Luv secretly hope for rebellion?

While cat chases mouse, K meets with several other characters who lead him further down the rabbit hole. Each character is compelling in their own right, but the most interesting of them all is Dr. Ana Stelline, a dream-creator whose talents put her in the front of her field. Forced to live in a bubble because of her compromised immune system, she creates memories for all of Wallace’s replicants in order to keep them placated. Proud but not arrogant, she explains the secret to her success by telling Agent K that her only friendships are the ones she creates.

The entire movie’s emotional weight hinges on the scene when K and Stelline meet — and it’s here that K begins to fall apart (or come together). After Stelline examines one of his memories, K shows an outburst of emotion that’s equal parts frustration, anger, and loss when he learns it’s  a true event.

It’s a complete paradigm shift — if it’s true that K is the replicant who was born, his entire world has been one big, giant lie. 

That’s what makes Blade Runner 2049 so remarkable. In the original Blade Runner, Deckard looked to external sources in order to complete his mission and find the fugitive replicants. His character, though aggressively reluctant at first, was forced to develop through reactions to outside stimulus.

In 2049, K looks within to find the answers that will lead him to the truth. His memories and programming — as much as he tries to deny his possible destiny — move him forward until his only remaining reason for a purpose is to find a reason to exist. 

And we follow him on his journey through strange yet familiar places in a future we don’t want that might become the future we’ve earned. San Diego in 2049 is Los Angeles’ landfill, and sunlight is so hard to come by that it’s reserved only for the rich. The cinematography — credit to Roger A. Deakins — is gorgeous, and the alien landscapes inform the way we see K’s world, which is a place unexplored and mysterious. Even in scenes of transition where characters walk to their next destination, the eyes dart from edge to edge to grasp the overwhelming assault on the senses that lead to overall numbness in a future where mass consumption has filled everyone to the point of excess.

All the while, the score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer takes Vangelis’ groundbreaking compositions, twisting it to fit a distorted future. Guttural groans and blaring synths explore the bottom and innermost depths of humanity on a sonic level. Is it the sound of the Holy Spirit groaning for intercession, buddhist chanting, or the explosive sound of vomiting? 

Blade Runner 2049 is a movie to be appreciated, and while some may call it intellectual fare for nerds — it’s a movie worth studying. It’s a discussion piece that raises a lot of moral questions. It’s religious, subversive, and provocative without being preachy.

It’s all masterfully directed by Villeneuve who imbues the film with a feeling of empathy that never devolves into a rant. And the strength of the movie lies in the fact that nothing is black and white — or even as it seems. And no character is flawless — even Rick Decker who  

In a world where designer wars are fought during nail salon sessions, and superhuman replicants smash through granite walls, the soul is the most prized of possessions. 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Edward James Olmos, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Harrison Ford, and Sean Young

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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