Note: This article contains spoilers for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 2049 is a towering, high-budget extravaganza but also forces us to rethink what a big film consists of because that budget and scale aren’t there to provide seat-shaking action movie antics or epic feats of universe-trotting heroism. Many movies are big to make their protagonists and us feel big, 2049 is big to make its protagonist and us feel small. It uses the full size of the cinema screen to let its deserts of meaning stretch out long in front of you, and its squalid, overcrowded city loom over you. Movie theatre speakers blare a soundtrack that’s barely recognisable as music, ambient drone drowning out the scenes as reality comes crushing down on the protagonist. Moving through the Los Angeles of 2049 feels like being trapped in the belly of some dying beast and the groans and whines of the sound design feel like the calls of that beast.
This is unlikely to be a film most people are going to enjoy. It requires viewers to maintain close attention for almost three hours to a plot that isn’t delivered with a lot of reminders of the current state of the character politics and frequently requires scads of audience inference. Scenes with minimal development are stretched long for the sake of establishing tone and atmosphere, and the film asks a lot from viewers in terms of interpreting its themes and symbolism, probably more than even the original Blade Runner did.
It’s possible for worlds to have scarcities of something like money or food or clean air and 2049’s world suffers from all those insufficiencies but most importantly there is a scarcity of the real. K is a protagonist who is biologically synthetic and also experiences a mostly artificial reality. Not just in that the only barrier his city has against the depressing state of the outside world is this cacophony of commercialism, but also because K’s employer decides his actions and even his emotional condition. His only refuge is Joi, his AI partner who ironically feels more real than the outside world but she is eventually killed, and K suffers the ultimate indignity of hearing her style of speech replicated to him by a hologram on the street. His girlfriend’s intimate conversation with him was not the result of some personal connection they had; it was spat out of some corporate algorithm or database somewhere.
Touch or hands are a recurring theme in the film, a seeming verification of what is real with a unique satisfaction to be found in touch. The film opens on Morton who can’t touch the product of his work because of his hazmat suit, K can’t touch his wife because she is a hologram, and Stelline can’t touch anyone because she is inside a plastic dome. Joi, however, gives K the gift of touch using a prostitute, K kills Luv in a final confrontation that is all about the literal grasp the two have on each other, and when Stelline and Deckard finally meet they touch their hands against her dome. The original Blade Runner was all about eyes and their functions, and 2049 carries on that tradition, even expanding on it in some ways like writing the serial number of replicants on their eyeballs or having the sections of the farm in the opening look like a field of eyes. However, while the original ended with a wounded replicant crying tears in rain, 2049 closes with touch in snow, a confirmation that K has found something real in Deckard and Stelline.
This attempt to seek out the real is perfect for a neo-noir as it sends K out hot on the tail of the investigation, and Deckard, having solved the mysteries of the previous film, is an ambassador of the real. He lives a classical home, far away from the artifice of Los Angeles and as he puts it “I know what is real”. While Wallace tries to disabuse him of this notion, manufacturing him a second Rachel, Deckard stays staunchly aware of reality, remembering that the real Rachel had green eyes. However, while uncovering reality ultimately gets K to a better place, the truth is often disturbing rather than comforting, at least in the immediate. The world of the real that Deckard lives in is long dead, a series of monuments to fallen gods and K is highly distressed by learning that the memories he thought were implanted are real. This makes sense as a direction for a sequel to Blade Runner: Deckard thought his memories were real, and they were implanted, K believes his memories are implanted, and they are real. It’s Stelline who tells us the importance of seeking out reality. She says that memories that are real can be identified as real because they have emotion connected to them. To find the real is to find the emotional; K is a numb person searching for feeling but giving feeling to someone in a world like Blade Runner’s is going to lead to anguish.
While 2049 is more than worth seeing in theatres, digital and hard copy releases will be essential for decoding all the film’s big ideas. Some parallels in there I found more parsable like the dead tree and the flower representing fertility and the death of someone with fertility. Or there’s this lovely trick where K’s ringtone is a tiny snippet of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and then when Deckard arrives the first thing K sees is the silhouette of his dog, appearing like a wolf in the doorway. But there are more complicated questions. Whether the story is modelled around Peter and the Wolf in some way is more ambiguous. And what is the relation between the film and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which it goes out of its way to mention?
I suspect that like the original Blade Runner, 2049 is only going to become a more layered and appreciable film with rewatches but for now, I just love that this thing which, by all logic shouldn’t exist, still does. In a realm of blockbuster rollercoasters which reach for a wide audience, 2049 is a big budget film about tone, atmosphere, theme, and despair which goes out to a far slimmer audience, but one that is sure to hold it close. Thanks for reading.