It’s 35 years since Blade Runner was released, and we are now very close to 2019, its once futuristic setting. In this framework the sequel seems a bit overdue, and the time of the sequel’s action, 2049, not all that far away. The new movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve, goes out of its way to bypass the first impression and to insist on the second. The weather is still terrible: torrential rain for much of the film, with some elegant snow now and then for scenic reasons. Los Angeles still looks like a crowded, run-down version of Tokyo. Coca-Cola is advertised, and Rick Deckard (played again by Harrison Ford) still drinks Johnny Walker Black Label, although it now comes in a fancy designer bottle. Replicants are on the loose, a lonely blade runner chases them, and is repeatedly and bloodily beaten up for his pains. The old metaphysical questions – what does it mean to be human and who cares? – continue to hang in the sodden air, and the portentous dialogue has not aged well. I had forgotten that in the first film Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, a charismatic and lethal replicant, encountering the director of the corporation that created him, says ‘It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.’
But the interval between the two films has left its mark in interesting ways. They have strongly related themes, but pick up quite different aspects of them. The first film, we might say, was about mortality, the four-year lifespan that was built into the design of replicants as a ‘fail-safe device’ to protect humans against these superior products. They would become dangerous, the argument went, once they had time to develop emotions, and would no longer serve as impeccably programmed slaves in ‘off-world’ colonies. This theme was memorably demonstrated in Batty’s death scene. Sitting in the rain, having saved the life of the human who was trying to kill him, Batty regrets not his career of murder and revolt but the particular memories that will vanish irretrievably when his life is gone – they will be ‘lost in time like tears in rain’. He pauses and then says, ‘Time to die.’ His head bows and he moves no more. He becomes not a corpse but a statue. The possibility that Deckard, the man whose life Batty has spared, is also a replicant has fuelled thousands of discussions, and has the backing of Ridley Scott, the director of the first film. But that was not what the initially released version suggested, and if the second film seems to settle the matter categorically, we can still wonder whether this decision counts outside the second film’s narrative.
This hesitation also helps to make clear what it is the second film concentrates on: not mortality but posterity, and the supposed attraction of what is natural. We could say the two films offer different answers – or different angles on the same answer – to the title-question of the Philip K. Dick novel on which both are based: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The first says: Of course not, they dream of a removal of the fail-safe device, a technical modification that will allow them to continue in existence a little longer. The second says: No, they dream of real sheep, or their human equivalents, they feel deprived because they are made, not born, as a character says in this film.
In Blade Runner 2049 Ryan Gosling, chaser of replicants by profession, is himself a replicant. He doesn’t have a name, only a serial number, shortened to K, and when he expatiates, in front of his LAPD boss, on the thought of having a soul, she (Robin Wright, fierce and firm as usual) tells him he has managed well enough without one so far. She’s not really being philosophical, though, just reminding him that cruel jobs require cruel people. But then things happen, within him and in the plot.
In the plot he kills a replicant and discovers relics buried in a casket, the bones of another, female figure. Scans show that she had been pregnant. Not only is the four-year fail-safe device not active here – some of the replicant survivors have a ‘concept date’ of 2021 or earlier – but replicants can replicate. The sinister head of the new ruling corporation, a character who combines fascism and mysticism even better than the old boss did, is very interested in this possibility. Natural childbirth could be a faster and better technology than industrial production.
The plot twirls away from here and involves K in a search for Deckard, who is holed up in a ruined hotel full of holograms of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and other heroes. After some serious mutual slugging that would have killed lesser replicants several times over, K and Deckard become fast friends. Round about here the old and new films meet up neatly and then part company. Both are interested in memory as a proof of some kind of reality and as a source of deception; and the new one is interested in phantoms in a way the old one wasn’t at all. Perhaps familiarity with fakery is part of the legacy of the 35-year intermission.
In the first Blade Runner the technicians are not only shortening the lives of their inventions, they are experimenting with other modes of adaptation. One is to give the replicants memories, so that they can think about the past they never had. ‘Implants,’ Deckard snarls at an unfortunate replicant who doesn’t know her own story. ‘Those aren’t your memories. They’re somebody else’s.’ By a curious rule of this game, there are no false memories in either film, only borrowed ones. The memories are authentic but living in the wrong place. The irony and pathos of Batty’s awareness of what death means for him is that his memories really are his – he was part of the other programme. And of course the chance that Deckard’s memories – and especially the memory of a dream of a unicorn – are not his is what allows the suggestion that he was a replicant all along.
When replicants replicate, the stakes change, and this plot turn gives rise to the new film’s great set-piece, a view of a municipal waste-processing district where the only processes at work seem to be rot and ruin, and the apocalypse is pictured as a vast dump. Here among the rubbish and skeletal structures is a factory full of (presumably replicant) children being exploited in training for their future exploitation.
The other set-piece is a performance, not a place, and it runs throughout the film. It involves the corporation’s evil enforcer, a female replicant called Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. She looks like a genetically engineered Judy Garland hardened by years in Oz, and is the best kick-boxer the movies have seen for quite a while. I was sorry to see her die, as of course she had to. Perhaps she can be resurrected for a sequel to the sequel.
The idea of the replicant child creates interesting terminologies. At the very beginning of the first Blade Runner we were told that replicants were not executed but retired. In the new film, faced with the task of finding and disposing of the child of the lady in the casket, K says, ‘I never retired something that was born before.’ Soon he will find himself saying to his boss, ‘I feel a little strange telling childhood stories since I was never a child.’ But what if he was? What if his implanted memories were not implants? Suppose he was, as his companion suggests, ‘a child of woman born, pushed into the world’? This wouldn’t make him human, but it would give him parents as well as memories. I would have thought the echo of Macbeth was an accident if the film weren’t so full of other, more recondite allusions, to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for example, a copy of which appears on screen.
And the phantoms? The companion who is urging K to embrace his genealogy isn’t even a replicant. She is what he prefers to ‘real’ women, a purchased computer-programme called Joi, plausibly and engagingly represented by an actual actress, Ana de Armas, but in the story occupying vision rather than space; a mirage rather than a three-dimensional replica. Since she is one of the more ‘real’ characters in the film, and K says she is ‘real enough’ for him, we may wonder where this is going. Perhaps electric sheep, weary of mechanical physicality and borrowed memories, dream of phantasmagoric androids, and humans don’t make it at all into the final cut.