Massive Spoiler Alert!
I really did not enjoy Blade Runner 2049. Yes, it is visually stunning, but it’s all style and no substance, it felt like a series of set-pieces, just showing off the special effects rather than telling a meaningful story.
In spite of the stunning visuals, it’s very dull; I saw it last Saturday and wrote a first draft of this post the next day, and I can honestly say that in the intervening week, none of the imagery has ‘haunted’ me in any way. At three hours including all the trailers, it is physically arduous to sit through.
It is sleazy and gratuitously violent. Yes, the original Blade Runner is also sleazy and violent, and it is set in a dystopian world, but there is a difference between creating a film about a violent and misogynist future and using images of violence and misogyny to titillate the audience; why did I have to watch a scene of a naked women being stabbed in the abdomen by Jared Leto’s character, just to prove how crazy and evil he was?
There is another scene where an AI’s female avatar syncs with a replicant ‘pleasure model’ (a euphemism for a sex slave) to sexually service K, 2049’s blade runner (his identity as a replicant is made clear from the start of the film). If this is moving at all it is only because it is pathetic, the AI is programmed to please its owner, and both replicants are conditioned to not feel emotions; if it is not pathetic it is just more titillation.
The story itself is also disappointing; while the original Blade Runner asks interesting questions about memory and identity and self, Blade Runner 2049 instead goes with cod mysticism, and the questions it raises about the nature of the replicants just show how nonsensical it all is to begin with, enough to spoil the original film as well.
At this point I am going to put the rest of this review under the fold, because I am going to be spoiling a lot of the plot.
Blade Runner 2049 revolves around the search for the baby that Rachel (the replicant from the original Blade Runner) conceived with Deckard (the original blade runner – that he is actually a replicant has been more or less confirmed), and gave birth to 30 years ago.
The replicant underground want to find the baby because she is a ‘miracle’ to them, and to use her to kick-start a rebellion. Niander Wallace, head of the Wallace corporation (which has bought out the Tyrell corporation of the original Blade Runner film), wants the baby because he wants the technology to allow replicants to reproduce.
If you keep up with the plot while watching, you will come to the conclusion, as does K, that he is this baby – his childhood memories, which he thinks are fake, turn out to be real memories, but the twist towards the end is that although they are real, they are not his. There are no clues to this, they are retrofitted with a flashback to one of the characters talking, showing details of her body language we did not see the first time. This feels like cheating to me, especially as a lot of the emotional weight of the film rests on K’s belief that he is a ‘real boy’ after all, but maybe other, more attentive viewers picked it up?
The plot of Blade Runner 2049 revolving in part around the economics of creating replicants, brings up the question of what, exactly, are replicants? The term ‘replicant’ is original to the first film, it is not used in Philip K. Dick’s original short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; the Greek root of ‘android’ means simply ‘in the shape of a man’, but it is commonly used to mean machines that look like people.
But replicants are not machines, they are a ‘bioengineered’ (to use the film’s terminology) slave race. If they were made of metal and plastic, it would not be necessary to use the ‘Voight-Kampff’ test to differentiate them from a real human, you could just cut them open and have a look.
Philip K. Dick was not a hard science fiction writer, and it doesn’t matter that he wasn’t, he wasn’t interested in how the androids worked (it’s been too long since I read the story, but the Wikipedia summery does confirm that the androids are all machines), or why the police didn’t just cut them open to have a look, he was interested in those questions of self and personhood.
But Blade Runner 2049 does make it about what replicants materially are, the replicant underground believe the baby makes them “more human than humans” – which doesn’t actually make any sense, are infertile men and women ‘less human’? It makes sense from a practical point of view; if the replicants can reproduce they can exist as an autonomous people without dying out, but it doesn’t make them people or prove their personhood (bacteria can reproduce autonomously).
In the original Blade Runner the replicants’ personhood comes from their belief that they are people, with Rachel and Deckard’s self-belief coming from their memories, even if those memories are actually fake or someone else’s. Blade Runner 2049 has a new class of safer, more obedient replicants, they know their memories are fake implants, and that they are artificial creations; the implanted memories are necessary for them to function. In the original Blade Runner Deckard and Rachel don’t know they are replicants, but all the outlaw replicants know they are.
Wallace wants to make his replicants reproduce so he can manufacture them more quickly, so that humans can conquer more planets. The problem with this is that if replicants are so slow and expensive to make, why use them at all? Wallace says that humans are no longer prepared to accept slavery, but there is an industrial orphanage/slave labour camp out in a giant city-sized rubbish dump, so people are obviously willing to accept de facto slave labour. If replicants are so difficult to make, why waste them on ‘pleasure models’?
The implication, from both films, is that the replicants are built from scratch (which is very inefficient compared to sexual reproduction), rather than genetically engineered. I had always assumed that the eyeball-making studio visited in the original Blade Runner was a small-scale producer, that the Tyrell Corporation would be doing the same thing on an industrial scale; and that would have to be the case for a bioengineered slave race to be commercially viable.
Why is it so difficult to make replicants that can reproduce? There was a convenient ‘black out’ ten years ago that wiped all the records, so the Tyrell Corporation’s methods have been lost.
We already have the biotechnology in the real world to create synthetic organs or tissues by seeding scaffolding with cultured human cells, and the 3D printing of human cells. Replicants are manufactured to be stronger and smarter and to feel less pain, and to die after four years, but they must use human cells containing human DNA to make them.
At one point K goes through the genetic records of all the children in the orphanage the year the baby was born, he spots the baby’s record because it is duplicated and two children have identical records, rather than because the replicant has different DNA to a human – assuming the records aren’t faked beyond the duplication; if the replicants are genetically engineered and bioengineered, why don’t they just grow them from the embryonic stage, which would be much more efficient that building bones and eyeballs and everything else separately?
If replicants are bioengineered using human material, and the baby was conceived through sexual reproduction between two replicants, doesn’t that make her just a human baby (she has human DNA and grew in a bioengineered womb)? Even if the DNA is synthesised in a lab, rather than from any original human donor, it’s still going to be identical to human DNA at a molecular level (ie, still the same building blocks even if the sequence is unique).
The adult woman the baby has grown into is suffering from an autoimmune disease and living in an hermetically sealed world, implying she is human and genetically flawed (which actually makes sense, if replicants do have human DNA and their ability to reproduce is experimental and imperfect), unless the illness is faked to keep her hidden?
None of it really makes any sense, and it probably never did in the original Blade Runner (why did they give Rachel a uterus and ovaries in the first place? Why is a bioengineered uterus and ovaries harder to create than a bioengineered brain? Why are the ‘new, better’ Wallace replicants just as capable of rebelling as the Tyrell ones? Who implanted K with those memories and why?). I could overlook it with the first film because it was never about how the replicants were made, but I can’t overlook it with Blade Runner 2049, because it doesn’t have the same philosophical underpinnings that made the original film work.