Releasing a sequel 35 years after the original is a risky move, especially a sequel to a film with the cult following that Blade Runner has, and yet, Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villenueve, not only matches some of the stunning visuals of the original film, but it also expands upon some of the philosophical questions of the original, especially what it means to be human in the age of the smart phone. It also warns about the effects of corporate dominance.
The sequel follows the story of LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner who unearths a secret that can thrust what little remains of society into chaos. The original film was gritty in setting and depicted the 1 percent living in towers, while replicants (AI, human-like beings) and actual humans fought for scraps on the streets of Chinatown. The gray reality of the working-class was juxtaposed with stylish advertisements for Coca-Cola and other products. The new film depicts an even more fractured society in which corporate power rules all and feeds off of division and wall-building. Sound familiar? Throughout most of the film, there is constant heavy rain, contrasted by even more big screen advertisements. The other cities depicted are either dry and barren, think of California after being engulfed by wildfires, or radiation-heavy, perhaps from a nuclear war. While the initial film showed how trickle down economics could lead to corporate overrule, the new film shows the consequences of oligarchy. The cities are barely habitable. Food is genetically modified. One of the main villains, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), is a heartless corporate master who wants to breed a race of slaves/replicants, no matter the costs, including the loss of human and non-human lives. For him, the only purpose of life, artificial or otherwise, is to serve corporate interests.
The original film raised questions about what it means to be human, especially through the relationship of blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and replicant Rachael (Sean Young). Deckard could at least touch and make love to Rachael, even if she was technically non-human. K’s girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas) is a projection, a hologram that dies when a smart phone-like device that contains her is stomped on by one of the film’s villains. All of the memories are stored on that device, much like pictures on our IPhones, so when it’s smashed, so is K’s fantasy of a meaningful relationship. This particular aspect of the story reminded me of Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, which also warned of a not-too-distant future in which humans fall in love with a technological projection, rather than seek out authentic human connection and physical touch. Joi is not that different from Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) in Her, in that both characters are not real. They are mere projections of the sexualized and idealized female. They can be whatever the male protagonist wants them to be. The difference between the characters, however, is that Samantha shows agency in Her and ends up dating thousands of other apps and AI. She eventually does what she wants.
The initial Blade Runner warned about the impact of trickle-down economics, consumerism, and the rapid advances of technology, especially AI. The new film is even bleaker in the world it depicts. The only hope that K clings to is merely a hologram projection to cure his loneliness, some façade of normalcy and a world long gone. Right now, I’m hard pressed to find a film that better represents 2017. This powerful sequel also reminds us what it means to be human and the power of real, lived experience and connection, which stands in stark contrast and opposition to the world that corporate masters like Niander Wallace want to create and rule over.