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‘Blade Runner 2049’: Denis Villeneuve’s haunting, meditative take on what it means to be human

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Few movies have revolutionized a genre like the Ridley Scott 1982 cult classic, Blade Runner. Interestingly, it took Scott almost 25 years to finally come out with The Final Cut – the digitally re-mastered version of the film that’s truest to his artistic vision. For, Scott didn’t have complete editorial and artistic control over the earlier four versions of the film. Of all the versions of Blade Runner, it is The Final Cut that’s the bleakest and most violent. It’s the only version to contain the original full-length version of the unicorn dream. It also features all of the additional violence and alternate edits from the international cut not present in the US theatrical version. All this information may sound trivial to an uninitiated viewer but often a new viewer of Blade Runner is not sure which version to watch and so if you want to acquaint yourself with Blade Runner then surely you need to get your hands on The Final Cut, especially now that its highly anticipated sequel, Blade Runner 2049, is out, more than 35 years after the original.

But, before we explore various facets of Blade Runner 2049, it’s essential that we first discuss some basic aspects of the original for the benefit of those who have yet to watch the 1982 film. Blade Runner is basically a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Sci-Fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As opposed to the novel, which is set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the movie is set in dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2019. In this nightmarish world, we encounter humanoid robots known as replicants that are bioengineered by the ruthless Tyrell Corporation to work on off-world colonies. However, these replicants are known to abandon their assigned workstations, often turning rogue. Special police officers assigned with the dangerous task of ‘retiring’ these replicants are called blade runners. Now, a blade runner cannot afford to mistakenly kill a human being and so has to rely on the Voigt-Kampff test to distinguish the replicant from a human being. Depending on the level of sophistication of a given model, it can take anywhere from 20-30 to 100 or more cross-referenced questions for a blade runner to identify a replicant. Rick Deckard (immortalized by Harrison Ford) is a burn-out blade runner, who reluctantly accepts one last assignment to retire a fugitive group of Nexus-6 replicants that has escaped back to earth. During the mission, Deckard falls in love with a highly advanced replicant named Rachel, who makes him question his mission. What does it mean to be human? Can an artificially created being capable of human emotions and feelings is any less human? These are the questions at the heart of Blade Runner. The dilemma is perhaps best expressed by the haunting monologue that the dying replicant, Roy Batty, delivers to Deckard moments after saving his life: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Blade Runner ended with a suggestion that Deckard himself was a replicant. It is a question that has haunted the movie goers for over three decades. Till date it remains one of the most befuddling questions in movie history. It is also a question that has over the years elicited contrasting answers from Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford. While the latter has always believed Deckard to be a human being, the former has gone on record to proclaim that Deckard is a replicant. Ever since the sequel to Blade Runner was announced, the debate has once again come to the fore. During the course of this article, we will try to touch upon various important questions revolving around the Blade Runner franchise including whether Deckard is a human or a replicant. But first let’s try and get a basic idea about the storyline of Blade Runner 2049. As the name suggests, the much-awaited sequel is set in 2049 – about thirty years after the events depicted in the first film. Following a blackout in the year 2022, which saw the end of the Tyrell Corporation, Niander Wallace (menacingly portrayed by Jared Leto), after taking over what remained of the corporation, has introduced a new line of replicants, which neither tries to escape nor disobey their masters. Wallace is now the new Tyrell, a megalomaniacal genius who sees himself as a god; only he is far more cruel, manipulative, and anarchistic. Make sure you watch the three short films viz. Black Out 2022, 2036: Nexus Dawn, and 2048: Nowhere to Run to get a better idea of what has happened in between the two Blade Runner films.

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Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049 revolves around K (essayed by Ryan Gosling with great subtlety), a replicant belonging to Wallace’s new line working for the LAPD, who is assigned the task of hunting down older models of replicants. K, a new age blade runner, travels to a protein farm outside Los Angeles in a bid to track down an older model replicant, named Sapper Morton (poignantly played by Dave Bautista). Morton, who at first introduces himself as a farmer to K, unleashes all his fury at him when he tries to arrest him. But K soon overpowers him while giving a demonstration of his freakish resilience and strength. Just before he is retired by K, Morton questions K’s mission which requires him to kill his own kind. He also tells him that K wouldn’t have done so had he seen the miracle that he has. Just after retiring Morton as he is about to leave, K notices an old dying tree next to the farm which unlocks a whole new mystery about the future of humans and replicants. K’s superior officer, Lt. Joshi (essayed by Robin Wright), a human, is threatened by it so much that she orders him to destroy all kinds of evidence associated with it, whether living or dead. What ensues is a deeply philosophical journey for K as he finally begins to grapple with the notions of what it means to be human.

Unlike in the original film, the protagonist is a certified replicant. In fact, K is looked upon contemptuously by the ‘real’ people around him. They use slangs like ‘skin job’ or ‘skinner’ while referring to him. He lives in a decent apartment but all he has for company is a holographic companion named Joi (beautifully portrayed by Ana de Armas). Joi is capable of changing forms and moods within a fraction of a second. It’s her job to meet K’s needs and desires and she is quite adept at it. But whatever she is capable of doing for him is just not good enough for her. K doesn’t complain that she isn’t real but she nonetheless wants to be real for him. So, she invites a hooker and tries to merge her own intangible form with the hooker’s physicality to give K a truly real experience. It’s just another day in the hooker’s life but for Joi it’s nothing less than some holy ritual. She devotes herself to it completely. During the ritual, she no longer remains a hologram but for the first time ever becomes a complete woman for K. Of course, she is only a program trying to do what it’s made to do but we all seem to forget that after some time. You see passing the Turing Test is no longer a concern for someone like Joi. For, the AI has become so good that the pretense of the real appears to be more real than the real itself. Just as the billionaire genius tells the young programmer in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, “The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.”

Blade Runner 2049 builds on the ideas established by seminal Sci-Fi works like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner itself. Perfecting the AI is perhaps the biggest challenge ever presented to mankind. Unfortunately, it’s also like a double edged sword. For, mankind is certainly set to lose its supremacy the day AI is perfected. This is the very idea that is central to several important works of science fiction such as The Terminator, The Matrix or Westworld. But Blade Runner 2049 takes it to a whole new level by introducing the idea of procreation. What if these artificially created beings are capable of reproducing offsprings in flesh and blood? Would killing them be the same as killing those humanoids created in the laboratory? Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men takes place in a dystopian future plagued by global infertility as humanity faces extinction. When a baby is born miraculously, after a long wait of 18 years, it unites the whole of mankind. Can such a miracle unite the replicants against the mankind? It is this uncharted territory that Blade Runner 2049 dares to tread, often asking complex questions that have no easy answers.

Blade Runner 2049’s box office performance has thus far been quite underwhelming. One of the reasons of course is its slow pacing. For, in the age of superhero movies, it is wishful thinking to expect a movie like Blade Runner 2049, deliberately paced with a running time of 164 minutes, to strike the right chords with the restless audiences accustomed to watching mini-climaxes every ten minutes. Another reason has to do with the movie’s complex and ambiguous narrative that can be too demanding on the average viewer. The movie hits us with too much of food for thought that it gets a bit too much to handle, at least during the first viewing. Also let’s not forget that Blade Runner 2049 relies heavily on the original film and so all those who approach the sequel directly without watching the original are bound to be left perplexed by its multilayered plot and characters. Remember, Blade Runner 2049 is no Jurassic Park or Avengers! And it is way more convoluted than some of the best films made by leading Hollywood filmmakers in recent times including Christopher Nolan. In fact, it wouldn’t be a hyperbole to say that Blade Runner 2049 has gone closer to touching the parameters of high art than any other commercial film in recent times.

Coming to the question of Deckard’s identity, all that can be said is that Villeneuve does play with it during a late sequence wherein Wallace tries to tempt an aging Deckard, who befittingly appears to be as big an enigma for the evil genius as he has been for the gazillion Blade Runner fans over the last three decades. In other words, the movie doesn’t provide any definitive answer to cinema’s most enduring mystery. In Blade Runner 2049, Harrison Ford plays Deckard with the same mix of charm and vulnerability. In a memorable sequence wherein Deckard repeatedly punches K, Ford demonstrates the same desperation that he had shown when Deckard was facing Roy in the original. Interestingly, one of Ford’s punches did catch Gosling off guard and some ice had to be applied to mitigate the pain. The scene takes place inside a deserted performance theatre and has all the makings of an instant classic. If not for what Villeneuve, Ford, Gosling, and Roger Deakins achieve together in the sequence, then certainly because of the love of Elvis Presley whose haunting presence elevates it to another level altogether.

Blade Runner 2049 is hypnotic and surreal and demands the utmost attention of its viewers. Made for a whopping blockbuster budget of USD 150 million, Blade Runner 2049 is actually closer to being a meditative art film made in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey than a crowd-pleaser like Star Wars. Villeneuve, easily one of the most sought after filmmakers in the world today, seems to have outdone himself as a filmmaker, finally overcoming the glitches and shortcomings of his previous films. He proves with Blade Runner 2049 that cinema still remains a superior medium than television (with all due respect to the likes of Westworld and Twin Peaks). The original Blade Runner wasn’t an instant classic. It took a couple of decades before it became a cult favorite. Blade Runner 2049 too needs time before it gets canonized as a gem of cinema. One viewing is just not enough and the film essentially demands a second viewing, and, although it’s a wee bit early to say this, one can hope to find something new to ponder over with each subsequent viewing. Roger Ebert had written in his review of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, “It has mastered the artificial, but not the intelligence.” Blade Runner 2049, on the contrary, appears to have mastered both.

P.S. An Academy Award for Best Cinematography finally looks like a certainty for the veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins – the undisputed master of mood in contemporary cinema.

Bio:
Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic  based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and has contributed articles to Huffington Post, The Quint, Wittyfeed, etc. He is also on the guest panel for live discussions on the television channel, News X.

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ead the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Narrating Care: Disability and Interdependence in the Indian Context’, edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata, India and Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad, India.

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