The original 1982 Blade Runner was not a great commercial success in its theatrical release, but had a huge cultural impact over time. Aspects of its vision of 2019 Los Angeles and noir style have appeared in hundreds of other movies. The production of Blade Runner 2049 as a sequel is another symptom of Hollywood’s creative exhaustion and the unwillingness to finance risky productions that don’t have a pre-marketed, built-in audience to guarantee at least some return. The sequel is lavish and lovingly crafted, in many ways more ambitious than the original. But I think it fails to live up to the original, and here’s why…
The original had a very simple story — Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is an updated noir detective, tasked with finding and killing escaped replicants. Like a classic Raymond Chandler gumshoe, he’s single and lives an isolated life estranged from all but his job. The dame in his story is Rachael, the embodiment of feminine beauty and vulnerability, who turns out to be a replicant herself, brought up with false memories of a childhood that never was. She has never experienced real pain, living as the protected “niece” of Eldon Tyrell, the brilliant billionaire head of Tyrell Corporation. Unlike most replicants, she is not doomed to die on her fourth birthday, as was apparently intended to limit the threat that superhuman replicants might rise to overthrow their normal human masters. Replicants have been made illegal on Earth, and are used only in space and the outer colonies. The Earth seems to have been largely depopulated, as most humans with get-up-and-go got up and left for the colonies. It’s noticeable that the humans Deckard encounters on Earth are all eccentric, physically imperfect misfits, while the replicants–and Rachael, and Deckard himself–are good-looking and healthy.
Deckard is ordered to find and eliminate six replicants who have killed humans and landed on Earth. The outlaw replicants are desperate to find a way to live beyond their programmed death dates and intend to force Tyrell to change their genetic programming. The plot revolves around Deckard’s gradual discovery of who Rachael (and by controversial implication, Deckard himself) is as he chases down and kills three replicants.
The story is of gradual discovery and the resonance of the personalities of the three replicants he kills. Because the plot is relatively simple, the art design, atmosphere, and nuance have greater impact.
[CAUTION: SPOILERS IN FOLLOWING]
Why is the sequel less effective? Because it tries to do much more — there’s more plot, violence, and most importantly an evil villain whose motive seems to be megalomania. In the original, flawed humans did their best to survive using replicant labor, and replicants, who have been enslaved and sentenced to death long before their time, are acting to survive as well. The evil involved is not a single man’s greed or megalomania, but slavery itself–which had been justified out of human fear. The sequel’s plot clanks along with a definite villain and his henchwoman as foils, and there’s so much plot that the characters are less compelling.
The sequel is set thirty years later, in 2049. Blade runner ‘K’ (played by Ryan Gosling) seeks out those rare surviving replicants who were built without a set date of death. ‘K’ knows he is a replicant but accepts his orders without question, and he kills an old replicant living alone in a desolate protein farm. When he checks out the area, he discovers a buried box containing the bones of a replicant woman who appears to have given birth via C-section–but it is supposed to be impossible for replicants to have children.
Wallace, the new Tyrell, first saved humanity by discovering how to produce food industrially, then re-introduced replicants after buying the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation and introducing new models who followed orders without the possibility of rebellion. The one thing he cannot create, it seems, is a replicant that can reproduce–and he must have the secret to allow his empire to expand without the limitations of one-at-a-time replicant production, and incidentally make Humanity 1.0 obsolete. There isn’t time for a good explanation of how he came to be so evil, and most of his will is expressed by his replicant assistant Luv, who provides the kickass female fighter every thriller now seems to require. He personally kills several of his creations showily, knifing one woman in the stomach during a demonstration–we are to assume he is a psychopath.
As in the original, the details of technology are left to be imagined since there is no way to address them on film. The sequel also introduces the now-common idea of the AI personality verging on human, in the character Joi. Joi is an off-the-shelf and heavily advertised AI companion who has customized herself to support K. The interactions between them seem like real human affection and support, and Joi demands to be saved to a physical memory and erased from the cloud so she can join him with the real possibility of death. Near the end of the film, K encounters an ad for Joi and realizes much of what he thought was her personality was off-the-shelf mannerisms, notably giving him the name Joe — as a Thai prostitute might.
But this movie is just toying with that issue, more effectively explored in Her and Ex Machina.
Because the plot is overly complicated, there are some significant plot holes. We see two birth records with identical DNA, but one is tagged male and the other female; this is to prime us to believe K is the male son of Rachael and Deckard. Later we discover the child was female and K was given some of her memories, but that means he was programmed after those memories had been created, and so he must have been decanted as a replicant much later. Deckard explains that he helped confuse the database and insert false information, but the contrivance feels forced to mislead the audience.
Another serious flaw: K rescues Deckard from a crashed flyer and tells us Deckard will be assumed dead and so is now safe from Wallace. Then he delivers Deckard to his daughter’s workplace. His daughter is a contractor for Wallace and it seems highly unlikely his visit would not be noted in such a surveillance society. K then apparently dies on the snow-covered steps, but who cleans up his body, and how will this not result in revealing Deckard and his daughter to Wallace and the police?
The movie is excellent and well worth the (rather long) time spent, with art design rivalling and extending the original. The soundtrack is apparently much too loud in some theaters. But like many recent big-budget movies, it tries to out-action and out-evil its source material in a way that actually diminishes its long-term impact (see “Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire for another example.) It seems likely that the characters from the original will be remembered long after the sequel is forgotten.
As a meditation on slavery, the sequel brings up more issues than the original. New-model replicants are supposedly incapable of rebellion, unlike the Nexus-6’s of the original. We see this in both K and Luv, who faithfully carry out the orders of their supervisors–at least until K begins lying, claiming to have found and eliminated the threat posed by the child when he thinks it was him, which verges on disobedience.
We can see slavery as a spectrum from acceptable to horrifying–from plants and invertebrates grown and harvested for food to mammals like cows and sheep who clearly have some sentience, but in those cases who would not have existed without the implied use for human needs. As we grow more sensitive and wealthy, sensitivity to the pain of our mammalian relatives has increased, and we strive to use them as painlessly as possible. Our nearest relatives, primates, are still used for medical research but under relatively humane conditions. Ethical quandaries grow as the intelligence and emotional understanding of animals grows towards human; we now know cetaceans, elephants, and others have societies and communication abilities analogous to primates. Is it moral to create and grow intelligent, feeling life only to use it and destroy it as suits us?
Both movies address this dilemma, which ties into current debates about slavery, autonomy of workers generally, and the immorality of any but voluntary contracts. If I create you and use my resources to support your growth and life, do you owe me work and loyalty? We see this accepted in traditional families, where children are supported, molded, and used to support the enterprises of the family until they reach an age of independence–this family transmission of culture and family production of children to create successor families is the foundation of human existence. Would it be wrong to commission an artificial human and expect some period of labor in return? Probably not–so long as the android is given the choice to leave for an independent life once the contract is up. The evil of Nexus-6 replicants is not so much the period of forced labor as it is the forced end to their lives; we can imagine the less immoral alternative of manumission after four years and settlement on a planet of their own, given humanity’s fear of replacement.
The self-reproducing replicant would, as is suggested by the sequel, make standard humans obsolete. It would be immoral for standard humans to be killed or restricted by the new model’s success, but also immoral for the new models to be prevented from living as they wish. This is a dilemma unlikely to occur in reality, as genetic alteration of humanity will likely be a smooth evolution that only widens the current spectrum of abilities, blending new with old without a split. It seems unlikely there is any way to program genetically modified humans to obey–it’s not that kind of programming. HBO’s Westworld revolves around that issue, with the creator designing its models to achieve human levels of consciousness only by allowing them memory and growing free will.
Extended HD trailer:
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“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
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