As the new Blade Runner film dissipates from the cinemas, I feel it acceptable to write about it in-depth, given that (hopefully) those of you interested in it, would have seen it by now.
*****warning MAJOR spoilers ahead*****
First off, I’ve now seen it three times and it improves with every viewing. Every shot is a masterpiece of aesthetics and pace. From the opening scene to the last, the dedication to, and love for, the original and its thematic messages oozes from every scene. The visual poetry draws you in; the musical score swells the very soul; the suspense builds nerve-shreddingly carefully, and it then leaves you breathless by the conclusion. It is intimate and expansive, majestic and dutiful, full of dread for the future that may come, but full of hope for the wonders of the present.
I’ve read many articles that have unpicked the films motifs, themes and its beautiful politics, all of which say something new about the film. That there can be so many of these and they all be right, speaks to the wonderfully intricate and complex film that it is. But if there is one central pillar that supports that complexity, it is that in order to live, we need to love. But first…
The original Blade Runner film used the eye forcefully throughout as a repeating motif, and Blade Runner 2049 builds on this theme. The most obvious is the opening close-up shot of an eye opening, which then cuts to overhead views of the vast solar panel fields (inspired by the PS10) mimicking the iris. K gouges out the eye of the first replicant he retires, the rebellion leader has no right eye, and even Deckard’s rejection of the new brown-eyed Rachel is because she “had green eyes” (even though she didn’t).
The link between Tyrell and Wallace is also via their eyes. In the first film, Batty kills Tyrell by squeezing his eyes into his head. In this film, Wallace is blind. He ‘sees’ through his ability to control (via a microchip in his neck) a suite of floating teardrop-shaped ‘eyes’ that circumnavigate around the subject. This is of course, deeply ironic given that he is unable to see what he so desperately wants, that is to create a replicant with reproductive capabilities.
But if our eyes are ‘windows into our souls’, then to explore what it is to be human is to look deep into our eyes; which is what the first film does so exquisitely. But Blade Runner 2049 uses this as the foundation, building upon this by using a different representative ‘hook’, namely…
Water clearly has a recurring motif throughout the film; because water is life. There would be no life on the planet without it. When searching for extra-terrestrial life on distant planets, we send probes to look for water. Biblically, in particular John’s gospel, the ‘living water’ has been used to describe the life-giving qualities of Christ. Judeo-Christian symbology is used heavily in the first film (as it is in much of Scott’s work), so it is little wonder then that Blade Runner 2049, with its preoccupation with what it is to live, uses water so prominently. In the Wallace Corporation’s building, water and its reflections flood the cinematography. From Wallace’s ‘office’ being surrounded by a reflective pool, to the shimmering and rippling reflections as Luv and K walk through the building’s cathedral-like interiors; water is utilised prominently. Also, the final climatic duel between K and Luv takes place in a raging sea, where ultimately K spares Deckard’s life. If the eye shows us humanity, water gives us life.
This is an important thematic development between the two films, because there is a deliberate attempt to position the positive affirmation of life through the most fundamental and visceral of ‘human’ emotions, that of…
As far as the film’s plot is concerned, it revolves around the character arc of K. As his journey throughout the film evolves, he becomes aware that to sacrifice yourself for a higher purpose, to be truly selfless (or even Christ-like), is to discover what it is to have a life-giving, very ubiquitous form of love; a love that transcends human life itself. His arc is intertwined with that of his live-in holographic girlfriend Joi. Her transfer from a domestic AI terminal, to portable holographic companion, to full-on physical lover is an important part of K’s realisation that love can indeed transcend the human-non-human divide. The constant visual cues that Joi is essentially a very advanced app (i.e. her continual transparency) butt up against the evolution of her love for K. By the time she is ‘killed’, her artificial yet obvious love for K is real, as it is for us as the audience. By juxtaposing the clear non-human Joi with the very human form of love, it forces us to consider that love can indeed be a transcendental, life-affirming force of ubiquitous agency. If machines can love, they can live.
And it is this live-giving love that K so realises when he is stared down by the gigantic, holographic, sexualised version of Joi later in the film. He realises then that their love was real, despite it being between two machines. Realising Joi was a product of the Wallace corporation is one thing, but loving her anyway is another.
Filled with this love, K then proceeds to carry out the wishes of the rebellion – to kill Deckard. However, K sets him free, at the expense of his own life. The Christ-like allegory here mirrors Batty’s actions at the end of the first film. Indeed, when K expires on the steps in the snow, he finally smiles (sort of) to the same ‘Tears in Rain’ soundtrack. Learning to love (as both K and Batty did), using that love to learn how to sacrifice yourself for others (be that a replicant rebellion or for a father yearning to see his daughter again); K’s actions really do teach us about the nuances of human life.
The first Blade Runner hinted that to be human is to fear death, but Blade Runner 2049 asserts that to be human is to have been born, to ‘have a soul’ as Lt. Joshi reminds us. It echoes the finale of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series, in that the fate of humanity revolves around a replicant-human hybrid (that is if you side with the reasoning that Deckard is a human), brought into the world and hidden by a radical, selfless and rebellious love (and the handy continuity of the presence of Edward James Olmos).
There are plenty more themes to tease out; feminist struggles (that Luv is killed by being pressed up against a glass ceiling is telling), capitalist realism (the survival of brands and child-labour sweatshops even in the aftermath of ecological catastrophe and artificial intelligence is striking) the fragmented nature of memory (allegorised neigh-on perfectly by the broken Elvis simulator) and even a smattering of geopolitical tensions (the talk of walls and rebellions is very Trump-era language). But the film anchors all these in the fundamental questions about our future that plague the struggles of the present; questions of an empathetic humanity, a more forceful love and a better life.
So, if the first Blade Runner film showed us what it is to be human, then Blade Runner 2049 shows us what is it to live.