In the better-than-Dune sweepstakes is Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, now on Netflix for your watch-it-in-three-sittings pleasure. The long-gestating masterpiece sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner (yes, they’re both masterpieces) achieved many things upon its release in 2017 – being a brilliant progression from the original, gifting us another primo Existential Gosling performance, finally winning an Oscar for cinematographer Roger Deakins, giving Ana de Armas her mainstream breakthrough, blowing us away with its technical/visual wizardry, inspiring Harrison Ford’s best gravelguts performance in years and just generally being a new sci-fi classic. More mind-boggling than its what-it-means-to-be-human themes, however, were its box office returns, which disappointed bean counters, and means you maybe didn’t bother to see it. If so, now’s your opportunity to correct that mistake.
The Gist: Meet K (Gosling). That’s short for his Christian name, KD6-3.7. He’s a replicant, an artificial human, the new model, the type that doesn’t rebel against its born-from-the-womb human masters. His job title as a member of the LAPD is “blade runner” – hunter of rogue, old-model replicants. When he catches one, e.g., larva/protein farmer Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K will “retire” ’em by either blasting ’em or debilitating ’em with a raunchy throat punch. Then he’ll rip out their right eyeball, scan the serial number on it, be subjected to a deeply disturbing rapid-fire psych eval, get kudos from his boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), shrug off prejudiced co-workers calling him “skinjob,” then head back to his boxlike apartment to honey-I’m-home his AI-hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), who can blip herself from wearing June Cleaver updo and pearls to casually sexy comfortwear in the blink of an eye, and make whatever boiled synthetic moosh is on the dinner menu look like steak and potatoes with a little something green on the side. All in a day’s work for a not-a-person.
But that last gig? De-eyeballing poor Sapper? Well, it opened quite the squirming can of grubs. The scene turned up forensic evidence of a replicant, now dead, who carried and birthed a child – an impossibility, a miracle. Where’s the child? Joshi urges K to find it and execute it, because, “This breaks the world, K.” So he follows leads, flips over rocks, pulls threads, rustles through files, remembers a moment from his childhood in which he was bullied by other children who wanted his toy wooden horse, so he hid it in the ashes of a dead furnace. Wait. How can replicants recall memories from childhood when they didn’t have childhoods? Implants. K sits blankly, pondering this implant. Or maybe it’s a real honest-to-gosh memory? It contains a clue to the mystery of the dead replicant’s missing child, and has him wondering if he truly knows himself. Anyway, he sits. And stares. And one of Gosling’s eyes looks a little crooked, like it’s looking in a slightly different direction than the other one. Maybe a slight flaw in the eyeball install?
K’s detective work leads him to various bleak locales: San Diego, now a vast waste dump and junkyard. The surrealist corridors of the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures replicants. A bombed-out Las Vegas, drenched in reddish-orange. Etc. He meets a variety of characters: Tyrell CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a quietly menacing lunatic, and his right-hand replicant and savage enforcer, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), creator of replicant memory implants. Frizzy-haired prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). And of course Rick Deckard (Ford), the O.G. blade runner who wondered if he was actually a replicant. Interesting, how he ends up meeting K, the replicant who wonders if he was actually a human.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Blade Runner 2049 should be in the conversation with Mad Max: Fury Road, among the best true sci-fi films of the century so far. It also draws upon Metropolis, Stalker, Her, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Pinocchio (but not the Pauly Shore version).
Performance Worth Watching: Our MVPs here are de Armas, the highly effective catalyst for the emotional underpinnings of K’s journey, and Hoeks, as the ass-kicking machine, so very very nasty beneath her very severe bangs, telling K, “I’M THE BEST ONE!”
Memorable Dialogue: Deckard pours a puddle of Johnnie Walker on the floor for his dog.
K (gesturing at the dog): Is it real?
Deckard: I don’t know. Ask him.
Sex and Skin: Not much, just a towering nude Ana de Armas hologram that’s several stories tall, enticing passersby to take her home.
Our Take: Blade Runner 2049 is the rare film in which its extraordinary technical achievements match its narrative ambition. Its rich production design, cinematography and art direction all contribute to its arresting visual palette, creating a distinctive variation on the near-future dystopia that’s become so commonplace in modern film. Villeneuve shows us how suffocating wide-open spaces can be, creating an agoraphobic contrast to the original Blade Runner’s cramped future-noir aesthetic.
And as the director’s confluence of characters – superbly casted, I might add; even Leto stays on the leash – makes its way through this world, we’re subtly prompted to contemplate their individual and collective purpose: What inspires Luv’s loyalty, Niander’s lust to play god, Joshi’s desire for order? Does Joi have an objective greater than her programming, to inspire a good man, er, replicant, to make change? K senses something within him – is it a soul?
K’s physical adventure – staying a step ahead of the Tyrell Corp creeps – mirrors his emotional one, which provides the crux of the film’s big ideas. Sometimes those ideas are murky (by design, I’d argue), but they’re always provocative, rummaging around in notions of free will, biological programming, predetermination. K, I believe, wants there to be more to his “life” than just whatever this is. Do you yearn? He yearns. Wait – can replicants yearn? Can they be lonely? Can they feel hope and disappointment? Can they make moral judgements? There’s plenty of evidence to the affirmative here. Does that make K human? I… can’t answer that. Maybe realizing certainty is a myth and ambiguity is unavoidable truth, and learning to live with it, is core to the experience of being human. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
Our Call: I’ll say it again: Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism