I was 11 years old in 1982 when Blade Runner came out, far too young to see it or to appreciate its cool aesthetic and philosophical musings. When I did finally catch up to it–mostly because this then-young Star Wars fan was looking for some more Harrison Ford–I got Rick Deckard instead of Han Solo (or even Indiana Jones), and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. I was probably in my mid-twenties before I realized how brilliant the film was, and I duly filed it away into the “Most awesome movies ever” file of my brain.
After some mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movies, I was a bit wary about sequels to long-beloved films–not Can it be done, but should it be done? After watching the trailer and knowing that Ford probably wouldn’t have signed on if he didn’t think it was worthy, I allowed myself to get a little bit excited.
And was rewarded with a rich, fully-realized film, not just as a sequel, but as a cinematic experience that stands on its own. Although it helps to have seen the first film, the story isn’t a simple re-hashing of the original plot, but builds on it, creating a core mystery concerning the original characters; but really the film belongs to Ryan Gosling, and his character, K/Joe.
K is a Blade Runner (someone who seeks out and destroys rogue Replicants, androids that can barely be distinguished from humans), but unlike Rick Deckard before him, he’s also a Replicant himself. He’s a new-model Replicant–programmed to obey–hunting old-model Replicants, who had the annoying habit of seeking their freedom from slavery.
The film opens with K finding an old model named Sapper (Dave Bautista), who disdains K for killing his own kind. Before K is forced to kill him, Sapper tells him, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Afterward, K discovers a box buried beneath a dead tree, which turns out to contain the remains of a female Replicant who, impossibly but undeniably, had given birth to a child thirty years ago.
This fact has the potential to change everything. K’s superior, “Madam” (Robin Wright), calls it “a bomb going off.” If Replicants have the ability to procreate, then it calls into question mankind’s right to use them for their own purposes. It’s her job to maintain order; she orders K to find the offspring and destroy it.
Thus begins K’s journey, not only of the investigation, but of self-discovery. For along the way, evidence begins to suggest to him that perhaps he is the child. He grapples not only with this stunning possibility; but danger in the form of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the mastermind behind creating the new Replicants. He learns of the child’s existence and wants it as well, not to kill it but to study it and make it possible for all Replicants to procreate. Not for any sense of freedom for his creation, but simply to create more at a faster rate, to enslave more and thus send more offworld, to conquer the stars. He sends Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), his Replicant muscle, to follow K and find the child at whatever cost.
Some have complained that 2049 is overlong and confusing. Perhaps to the average movie-goer, this may be true; but a fan of the original film understands the importance of the tone, ambiance (that synthy soundtrack!), and the underlying themes that make Blade Runner so special. Themes as basic as, What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of memory? But also, What is real? What is love? K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a female artificial intelligence in the form of a hologram, brings these questions into focus.
Inevitably, Harrison Ford has to make an appearance as Deckard, as a link to the original, but also to tie up some plot points. He does admirably well here, but the movie is totally K/Joe’s. Gosling (who I’d been aware of, but admittedly had never seen any of his other films) is amazing bringing to life K’s arc from obedient, resigned Replicant to questioning, emotional seeker of identity and meaning.
The open-ended conclusion to the film leaves some questions, but overall, this is the kind of movie experience I pretty much live for.