Amidst near-universal critical acclaim, Blade Runner 2049 is being hailed as one of the best sequels of all-time. And while I hesitate to call it a cinematic masterpiece, I can’t help but agree with that sentiment. 2049 is a dense sequel, one that expands on the first Blade Runner in new and interesting ways. Beyond its sharp production design and elegant cinematography, the film asks plenty of philosophical questions, tapping into subjects like epistemology, ethics and metaphysics.
It is the most audacious Hollywood sci-fi movie since last year’s Arrival, which, funnily enough, was also directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Taking place 30 years after the first movie, Blade Runner 2049 follows K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant who works as a blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department. After K retires a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), an investigation of Sapper’s property reveals a monumental discovery. Fearing a war between humans and replicants, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders K to find and destroy any evidence related to this discovery.
If any of this isn’t making sense, even for those of you who have watched the first Blade Runner, it is probably because 2049 installs a bunch of backstory before the movie even begins. Three short films, released online, detail the major events in the thirty years since the first movie: a city-wide blackout that wiped out all data on existing replicants, the collapse of the Tyrell Corporation and its subsequent buyout by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), and the manufacturing of a new line of replicants made to live natural lifespans.
Of course, having read a good handful of reviews, I’m aware that Villeneuve issued a request to the press asking them not to spoil any of the plot details. Luckily for me, I’m not part of the press, and I am free to analyse the movie more closely. To quote Brian Tallerico’s review, “I suspect some of the best writing about [Blade Runner 2049] will be done when its themes can be discussed beat by beat and explicitly.”
That being said, I will issue a small spoiler warning. While I won’t completely ruin the entire movie, I can understand why Villeneuve didn’t want critics giving away the plot to unsuspecting viewers. Like any good movie, 2049 is best experienced blindly, so consider yourself warned.
So what does K unearth at Sapper’s farm? Hidden under a tree, there is a sealed box containing the bones of a woman who died in childbirth. But surprisingly, with a serial number written on one of her bones, they find out that she was a replicant. What? How could a replicant give birth to a child? This inciting incident propels the story into an interesting direction, one filled with all sorts of philosophical challenges.
Let me start with a brief lesson on existentialist philosophy. There are two forms of existence: “being-in-itself,” and “being-for-itself.” Being-in-itself is the purposeful being of an object. For instance, a chair is made for people to sit on, or a stove is made to cook food. These objects were designed by humans, and exist with a purpose. Being-for-itself, however, is the purposeless being of a subject. This applies only to people, who are born without purpose, and are condemned to be free.
So how does this apply to Blade Runner? Replicants, despite their sentience and free will, are objects designed and manufactured by people. Every replicant possesses being-in-itself; they are slaves with a built-in purpose, whether that purpose is sex, labour or combat.
This all changes when a replicant is born, because a person that is born cannot have being-in-itself. Like other humans, a replicant that is born cannot possess being-in-itself. Eventually, they become conscious of their own existence and free to choose what they want to do.
In other words, a replicant that is born is essentially identical to a human being.
Of course, the film doesn’t explicitly talk about ontology. The movie only implies its philosophy through motifs, symbols and dialogue. These implications are particularly noticeable in K’s holographic girlfriend, an artificial intelligence named Joi (Ana de Armas). Her name is a cruel joke in itself; in a world that is devastated by pollution and corruption, joy is something that you can see and hear, but never feel.
Joi is a product sold by the Wallace Corporation, highlighted further by the giant AR advertisements of Joi in the streets of LA. There’s something unnecessarily indulgent, even manipulative, about Joi. While she makes the perfect companion for K, one has to wonder why she is being so supportive. Does she love K because she chooses to? Or because she was designed to? Her product slogan seems to suggest the latter: “Everything you want to see, everything you want to hear.”
2049 even takes a page out of Spike Jonze’s Her, emulating the scene where the AI hires a prostitute so that she may make love with her user by proxy. Except in this movie, K actually goes through with the act. And as Joi flickers over a surrogate body, the illusion could not be more apparent. Joi, despite her kindness and affection, is not real.
Mashable’s Jess Joho makes a compelling argument on the feminist philosophy in 2049. In a world ravaged by natural disaster, nuclear fallout and mass extinction, mankind has created a culture entirely dependent on technology. As a result, the basic needs of people have been turned into soulless commodities: “In 2049, Joi commodifies domesticity and love. Pleasure models commodify female bodies and sexuality. Wallace commodifies sustenance. K is a commodification of justice and labor. The replicants as a whole commodify the whole spectrum of human existence.”
But there is a chance at salvation in a miracle childbirth. Paraphrasing the movie, Joho writes, “to be ‘born of woman’ is the irrefutable proof of one’s humanity.” It seems fitting not only that this replicant resistance began with a woman, but is led by women as well. And as K gets swept up by the resistance effort, he becomes renewed with hope. His life may be plagued by artificiality, but his efforts can bring about a future where life is worth living.
I really enjoy thinking about Blade Runner 2049. It’s a rich piece of cinema, populating Scott’s original dystopian world with people, politics and culture. I also love how this sequel inverts Rachael’s existential crisis from the first Blade Runner. While Rachael’s identity crisis comes when she realizes she is not human, K’s identity crisis comes when he begins to question his identity as a replicant.
My favourite scene in 2049 occurs when K visits the location of a childhood memory. Despite knowing that his memories are implants, he stumbles upon evidence that proves otherwise. But this discovery is not met with joy or elation; instead, K is anxious, even afraid, at the uncertainty of who he is.
This scene alone is a comprehensive guide to existentialism. K begins his journey with confidence in his ontology. As a replicant, he accepts his existence as a being-in-itself. His self-fulfillment is irrelevant; K believes he is a blade runner whether he likes it or not. But when he finds out that he may be human, he realizes that he has been living in “bad faith.” Thus, K is forced to confront his own inauthentic lifestyle, and find new purpose as a being-for-itself.
Unfortunately, there are a handful of pacing problems with 2049. The second half of the movie mostly retreads a lot of the information given in the first half, confirming things that we already know. Moreover, Deckard (Harrison Ford) has no reason to be in the movie. He passively interacts with other characters and makes no meaningful choices.
But when a movie so perfectly captures the essence of an existential crisis, I can’t help but overlook its shortcomings. And K’s story isn’t so dissimilar from the men of today. In a world undergoing rapid technological change, young men wander listlessly through an unforgiving urban environment, resigned to an unassuming life. But when shown the possibility of something greater, they jump at the opportunity, eagerly hoping for a future they can build on.
Blade Runner 2049 is a fascinating sequel, and the best theatrical release of this fall season. Even for those of you uninterested in science fiction, its sheer breadth of ideas is enough to warrant at least one viewing. Like all good sci-fi movies, 2049 says more about modern life on Earth than we humans ever could.