Blade Runner 2049: Enthralling sci-fi action thriller unearths a birth of freedom

directed by Denis Villeneuve
written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green; story by Hampton Fancher; based on characters from novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
acted by Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, with Dave Bautista and Jared Leto
photographed by Roger Deakins
scored by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
presented by Warner Bros. Entertainment and Alcon Entertainment
MPAA rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language
running time: 164 minutes

by Bill Stamets

A Los Angeles Police Department officer undertakes a noir quest in “Blade Runner 2049,” set thirty years after the original “Blade Runner.” Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) directs an absorbing sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi thriller in an even more dystopic California. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) tracks clues that point to his past. After detouring into a cul-de-sac of self-knowledge, he uncovers things that could incite a sea-change of liberty in the labor economy. Already I can see another sequel coming.

The titles of the two films refer to a law enforcement specialty necessitated by willful and lethal “replicants,” android slaves manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation in the first film and by the Wallace Corporation in the second. A blade runner tracks and terminates renegade models among these laborers, soldiers and “pleasure units.” The 2019 blade runner in the 1982 film was Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). He meets his 2049 counterpart K in the 2017 film, as the teaser trailer makes too clear.

This spot debuted on December 19, 2016, repurposing some of Deckard’s 2019 dialogue for an opening voiceover: “Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit it’s not a problem.” Deckard and K are the focus of the 1:45 video, which is disproportionate to the screen time the two end up sharing in the 164-minute film.

The chain of clues includes the date “6.10.21” carved under the hoof of a wooden toy horse K finds on an out-of-the-way protein farm, windswept with red dust. One tiny yellow flower blooms somehow. Rib bone scrapes made with a combat medic’s scalpel lead to a serial number. As in “Children of Men”– Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film set in dystopic 2027 U.K.– a singular birth augurs salvation. Heroic sacrifices are made to safeguard this unique individual.

Records about the person of interest in “Blade Runner 2049” were erased thirty years ago. New evidence emerges. Warner Bros. Pictures and Alcon Entertainment asked reviewers to not categorize this character, among others, as human or replicant. Publicists stipulated at some advance screenings, that members of the press sign a Confidentiality Agreement itemizing “confidentiality obligations in connection with being given the opportunity to view the Motion Picture prior to its general release’ that reads, in part: “I WILL NOT POST, TWEET, EMAIL, BLOG OR OTHEWISE SHARE MY THOUGHTS, OPINIONS OR ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT THE MOTION PICTURE OR THIS SCREENING PRIOR TO FRIDAY, SEPT. 29 at 9:00 AM Eastern Time/ 8:00 AM Central Time/ 6:00 AM, Pacific Time.” (Upper-case boldface and typo in the original.)

Signing the agreement also obligates writers to not disclose this agreement or quote it: “I will not disclose any information to any third party not employed or engaged by Warner Bros. regarding how Warner Bros. conducts the screening…”

At a Chicago screening a publicist read aloud a prepared statement from Villeneuve: “I’m excited for you to see my film today. Before we begin, I have a favor to ask all of you… Of course, what you think of my movie is up to you. However, in whatever you write I could ask that you try preserve the experience for the audience seeing the film the way you will see it today, without knowing any details about how the plot unfolds… Thanks, Denis.”

“Do not reveal the fate of any of the characters,” instructed a follow-up email sent to those who attended the screenings. At the end of the film, we do see who is still alive or life-like. But their actual fates might not be known until another sequel updates us.

That lets us spend more time on design details, like the puzzling 20th-century expressions “Made in CCCP” and “Soviet-Happy” that co-writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green place in 21st-century signage. Fancher was the main screenwriter for “Blade Runner” and gets a story credit on “Blade Runner 2049.”

Archivist Coco (David Dastmalchian) speaks of “thick milky” records thwarting K’s inquiry. His odd phrasing sounds as if borrowed from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel “A Clockwork Orange.” Most electronically stored data vanished in a pre-2049 “blackout.” Coco recalls the ensuing “ten days of darkness” from his youth. Although K could be about the same age, he has no memory of his own since he is a replicant and knows his memories are “implants.” Never born of woman, he and his kind each come with convincing fictive recollections of their nonexistent early years.

Rachel (Sean Young) was a replicant in the first film who at first was unaware she was a replicant, a prototype loaded with images of childhood that came from the niece of Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Rachel’s employer and maker. In the second film, K meets Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), a Wallace Corporation subcontractor who makes up memories to install in replicants.

Humans learn who is a replicant by asking questions designed to elicit emotions replicants lack. The screenplay of the first film was replete with evocatively crafted prompts and scenarios for blade runners conducting sessions. A variant in the new film is a “baseline” administered by LAPD, apparently to monitor replicants in its employ. K, a known and self-knowing replicant formally identified as KD6–3.7, must reply to a volley of queries. Reaction times are key, he’s reminded by the  vocal device. Exchanging phrases with his artificially intelligent examiner, K spits out non sequiturs like “cell,” “interlink,” and an alliterative string “dark… distinct… dreadfully.”

Villeneuve tests viewers with misdirecting stimuli in the opening minute. Corporate logos are all frizzly glitchy. It’s a big screen cliché– this video counterpart of radio static. It is based on the anachronism of electron guns raster-scanning interlaced lines of pixels in a cathode ray tube. Destabilizing sight to index distrust in reality. Although Deckard will gruffly and defensively insists: “I know what’s real,” neither of the “Blade Runner” films are about any reality underlying or enveloping an unreality, as deconstructed in “The Matrix” films made by the Wachowskis between 1999 and 2003.

What is real in “Blade Runner” films is a personal crisis for humans and replicants unsure of what they are. Villeneuve politicizes this uncertainty and questions how different replicants and humans really are. “This breaks the world, K,” warns LAPD Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) when K’s clues align above his pay grade.

After a title card of set-up, “Blade Runner 2049” opens with an extreme close-up of K’s closed eye. It opens. There is no narrator, but the film centers on his perspective and blind spot. The first film’s first scene had close-ups of eyes belonging to a different replicant piloting a craft through the November night sky of 2019 Los Angeles en route to the designer of his artificial eyes. Towering gas jets were reflected on his eyeballs. Thirty years later, the city is even darker. Natural gas reservoirs must be depleted since no flames are in sight. Less neon too.

Locations multiply in Villeneuve’s film. The action gets out of L.A., starting with the farm where K targets AWOL replicant Sapper (Dave Bautista). The ruins of San Diego and Las Vegas are staging grounds for explosive set pieces. There’s an orphanage where wretched, albeit “nimble,” children take apart old circuit boards. “The nickel is for the colonial ships,” K is told. Lines in both films refer to “Off-world” enterprises requiring labor under conditions no human could endure.

Costume designer Renée April told the New York Times: “It’s snowing, freezing, pollution everywhere. There is no fashion.” Fancher’s story adds little to the backstory of who screwed up this world. A voiceover that never reached the soundtrack of Scott’s film, in one of its handful of iterations, blamed “overpopulation and the greenhouse factor.”

No country is named. Two corporations– Tyrell’s and Wallace’s– matter. The only historical item traceable to our world is “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Curiously, two characters in 2049 know the same line from that 1883 novel. There are no schools, libraries, universities, bookstores, theaters or cinemas in this Los Angeles. For that matter, nor is there a city council, board of supervisors, state legislature, U.S. Congress or United Nations.

“`Blade Runner,’ in a sense, actually is about paranoia,” Ridley Scott told Paul Sammon in “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner,” revised and updated in 2017. Sammon collates his seven interviews with the English director between 1980 and 1995. Scott is an executive producer of the sequel which Villeneuve perfuses with: “A kind of inner paranoia about yourself that I wanted to keep alive in the second movie.”

In Scott’s film Deckard deals with clues that he is a replicant, like Rachel. Scott called that twist: “A narrative detail which would always be hidden, except from those audience members who paid attention and got it.” Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), CEO of the Wallace Corporation, taunts Deckard in 2049 that the blade runner’s initial encounter with Rachel at Tyrell’s office was predestined by corporate design. A “single perfect specimen” was foreseen.

Scott and Fancher opened “Blade Runner” with text about the Tyrell Corporation conceiving replicants for “slave labor.” A replicant band of mutineers from an “Off-world” work site returned to Los Angeles. Their mission was metaphysical, as Deckard discovers. In 2049 newer models of replicants, in larger numbers, will announce a political agenda. It too is personal.

Villeneuve, Warner Bros. Pictures and Alcon Entertainment do not care if critics spoil the ideological mise-en-scène of their sci-fi action thriller sublimely crafted by cinematographer Roger A. Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner. Philosophizing on humanity and autonomy play no part in the marketing of “Blade Runner 2049.” Ford and Gosling are not playing deep thinkers, yet these two blade runners transcend their duty as slave chasers. (California’s governor signed the Fugitive Slave Law on April 15, 1852, but by 1855 the state assembly had stopped voting annually to renew it. Congress had passed national versions in 1793 and 1850, then repealed them in 1864.)

Between the blade running in 2019 and the blade running in 2049, there was a period of replicant “prohibition,” as it was put at the time. Villeneuve commissioned three filmmakers to imagine prequel vignettes. Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Blade Runner 2022: Lights Out” shows “human supremacy movements” and urban lynching of replicants. Christian singer-songwriter Lauren Daigle composed “Almost Human” for this 15-minute anime.

A replicant is “a being virtually identical to a human,” explains the opening card of Scott’s 1982 film. The human slur for replicants is “skin jobs.” Tyrell tells Deckard: “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. `More human than human’ is our motto.” Thirty years later, a post-prohibition replicant recycles Tyrell’s hype with an ominous sneer. You could call her an abolitionist or maybe an alt-human supremacist.

Tyrell’s goal is ungodly. Could he make a replicant capable of replicating? “Androids can’t bear children,” Rachael Rosen reminded Rick Deckard in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Scott and Villeneuve do not show the love-making scene that follows in the source novel of their respective screen adaptations: “I am not alive! You’re not going to bed with a woman. Don’t be disappointed, okay?” (Dick’s spelling of her name can be spotted in the ungrammatical admonishment to the press: “Please not mention of any cameo roles, including references to Rachael.”)

Tyrell told Deckard: “Rachel is an experiment. Nothing more.” Replicants cannot literally evolve unless they can procreate, but Tyrell upgrades his models faster than natural selection does.

Replicants are screen descendants of robots. Class interests typically conflict. Maria (Brigitte Helm) in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” is a one-off look-alike of a community organizer. “She is the most perfect and most obedient tool which mankind ever possessed!” exults her creator. He dispatches robot Maria to sabotage the workers struggle lead by the real Maria. Detroit labor strife flares when human cops vote to strike over an Omni Consumer Products contract for hiring, or rather purchasing robotic cops in Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop.” Cybertronics is at fault for manufacturing lovable robots for childless couples in Stephen Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Set in 2035 Chicago, Alex Proyas’ “I, Robot” puts a detective on the case of rogue machines at U.S. Robotics.

Wallace Corporation is the top suspect now. “Every leap of civilization was built off the back of a disposable work force,” declares Wallace. “We lost our stomach for slaves, unless engineered.”

“Blade Runner” films are as philosophically minded as they’re astutely designed. Rachel and Deckard were tormented by ambiguity: `who-or-what-am-I?’ and `where-did-I-come-from?’ Knowing oneself meant doubting one’s humanity, for both characters. Their identities hinged on untrustworthy memories and snapshots with no negatives in hand.

“Blade Runner 2049” reprises existential crises Rachel and Deckard faced in 2019. Political ideas enter the picture too. Left unanswered is who made Los Angeles so awful. One dirty bomb, we hear, went off in southern California since the first film.

Because Villeneuve, Deakins and Gassner put entrancing vistas before our eyes, it’s disorienting to hear words ungrounded in that story world. Lt. Joshi lectures K: “The world is built on a wall. Separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war, or a slaughter… It’s my job to keep order. That’s what we do here. We keep order.” Except Fancher and his co-writers– David Peoples in 1982 and Michael Green in 2017– omit a sense of how Los Angeles or society at large operates. Yes, there are multi-lingual, multi-national, multi-racial throngs in streets patrolled by militarized LAPD units. That’s only a caricature of civic order.

By “kind(s)” and “side(s)” that are “separate(d)” by a virtual “wall” Lt. Joshi could mean antagonistic classes of Angelenos. The film later implies there are human and replicant castes, with more and more of the latter working on Earth. Scott’s film limited their number to a handful of illegal immigrants from a colony. Villeneuve inserts an anomalous scene, at most two minutes long, where we see plainly garbed people in what looks like Roman catacombs. Intrigued as I am by Lt. Joshi’s loaded words, this assembly felt like a placeholder for a third “Blade Runner” film.

Standing among believers, Freysa (Hiam Abbas) delivers lines like Lt. Joshi’s, even if the two women are not of the same kind on the same side. In her only scene, Freysa informs K: “A revolution is coming and we are building an army. I want to free our people… Deckard, Sapper, you, me– our lives mean nothing next to a storm that’s coming. Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.” A slave revolt looms? Voltaire in a 1769 letter lauded the one lead by Spartacus in 73-71 BC as “a just war, indeed the only just war in history.”

The seed of insurrection was planted three decades ago. A select few replicants took a quantum leap of self-definition. Freysa and Sapper may be the only ones still around who witnessed what they call a “miracle” on 6.10.21 that “meant we are more than just slaves” and “we are our own masters.”

Christian motifs in “Blade Runner 2049” are more allusive than the unmistakeable ones in “The Matrix” and “Children of Men.” Ordered to kill his first living thing, K shares with Lt. Joshi: “I’ve never retired something that was born before.” Dick’s transitive verb for terminating replicants was “retire.” When she asks, “What’s the difference?” K answers, “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.” This is not the usual water cooler discourse at the office. “Hey, you’ve been getting on fine without one,” snidely cracks his immediate superior.

No souls– or winged symbols of them– are in sight but there’s one birth of sorts.  Wallace is inspecting a new model. This specimen is encased in a white sac suspended from the ceiling. It reminds me of scenes from documentaries about meat processing plants, where a carcass on an assembly line is hung by its hooves and a butcher’s cuts loosens its guts. Instead of viscera, Wallace’s slice yields a tremulous naked adult female replicant moist with goo.

“Happy Birthday,” blesses Wallace, dripping with irony. His best designer of childhood memories to implant in adult replicants happens to love making up birthday parties.

“We make angels in the service of civilization,” rhapsodizes Wallace in the obligatory monologue where the evil genius explains his master plan to the good guy for our benefit. “We can storm Eden and retake her.”

A more obscure Christian reference slips into some medico-bio-genetic engineering dialogue: the so-called “Galatian syndrome.” In Galatians 5:1 the apostle Paul preached: “[W]e are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit  again to a yoke of slavery.”

I leave that Biblical verse uninterpreted for now, although Villeneuve, Warner Bros. and Alcon did not ask the press to refrain from close readings of scriptural shout-outs. Truly original and thoughtful science fiction like “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival”– whose pivotal shot Villeneuve echoes here in concluding frames– is as rare as a tiny flower growing under a dead tree above an ossuary on a protein farm.

K’s and Deckard’s kinetic pursuit of clues merit the cliché `life-changing.’ Procreativist sedition is at hand.

@2017 Bill Stamets

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