Blade Runner 2049: Do Sequels Dream of Standing Alone?
An analysis of the themes & characters within Blade Runner 2049 as a legacy sequel.
In the major film industry, remakes, reboots, and sequels have dominated box offices for over ten years now. As of much more recent, a new trend has been to add sequels to films or franchises that left off more than a decade ago. Examples include, Tron Legacy, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and within the last five years, Mad Max: Fury Road, three new Star Wars installments (plus two prequel/midquel spin-offs) and The Incredibles. They’re sometimes referred to as the Legacy Sequels. For major Hollywood studios, its partly a conversation of money, as its financially less risky to produce films that already have a fanbase. We’re in the era of Marvel Studios, with their potentially never-ending story. Each installment is a new chapter and while focused on different protagonists, they all tie into the same cinematic universe and climax at larger anticipated crossover film events, i.e., Civil War, Infinity War, Endgame, etc.
Filmgoers nowadays, often go in with half the screenwriter’s job completed, as we’re already familiar with many of the worlds, characters and their relationships to one another. To a very considerable degree we know what to expect from these blockbuster franchise films. We know Tony Stark will deliver a clever quip as fast, if not faster than he will a laser blast; we know The Jedis don’t sit at the same cafeteria table as the Siths; we know John Connor, Spock, and the long list of other reoccurring or reimagined characters in their respective films. But what happens in a sequel when that familiarity is used to misdirect us, to disobey our expectations in favor of the “fabulous new?”
This is what Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 has successfully accomplished. The 2017 sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film is visually immersive, philosophically compelling and masterfully directed. Villeneuve and writers, Hampton Francher and Michael Green have drawn from the original (Francher actually co-wrote the 1982 script) and crafted a story that is symbiotically informed by its predecessor, while not necessarily remaining a slave to it, preferring like one of it’s key characters to take its freedom where it can find it. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, another sequel with it’s self-contained story and sharp focus on new characters, the film stands alone. In short, it achieves its own identity.
This can be attributed to Alcon Entertainment’s faith in Villeneuve when they approached him with the screenplay and offer to direct a legacy sequel, to what many consider to be one of the best sci-fi films ever. The studio produced Villeneuve’s 2013 film, Prisoners which, according to the director in an interview with Deadline Hollywood was a beautiful experience. Villeneuve’s follow up films, Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016), all garnering critical acclaim and respective BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for the latter two — Made him a very sought after talent. His focus on character-driven stories, regardless of genre, centers his work. The investigations of his protagonists are our avatars for exploring worlds that ask deeper questions of ourselves in our lives. Given the many questions Ridley Scott’s original left us, it’s easy to see why Villeneuve was Alcon’s top candidate for Blade Runner 2049.
But while it may be easy to see why the studio selected Villeneuve, it’s curious that Villeneuve accepted. Obviously, it’s a great career opportunity. Devout fans of the original film will likely return to revisit the world of Blade Runner. While the marketability of the sequel itself and backing producers, including original director, Ridley Scott, will likely ensure the film’s showing at all major movie theatres, nationwide — Potentially, a mass moviegoing audience will, whether familiar with the original or not, check out 2049, and on some level, become aware of Villeneuve. Who, up until this point, has not worked on a film this big and based on a work already established in pop-culture. A blessing and a curse. Because the stakes are higher, the landscape of bare-toothed critics and expectations to match the reverence of the film’s 35-year-old predecessor (which, funny enough, actually was not well received upon release) are looming pressures, the director no doubt, considered before saying yes.
Assuringly, Ridley Scott promised he’d allow Villeneuve the freedom to explore his own vision of Blade Runner but even so, Villeneuve states to Deadline, “I was dealing with his screenplay…ideas…universe…characters. I was thinking about Ridley all the time. I had a responsibility to respect, to honor the legacy of the original movie.” Villeneuve was a guest, invited to play with someone else’s toys. Because of this creative loyalty set against Villeneuve’s own aesthetic identity, we can see how Blade Runner 2049 was, in his own words, the director’s “most challenging artistic journey.”
However, it is precisely because he cared enough, that Villeneuve was able to navigate his creativity without disupting the vision of the first film. If there was an initial bondage, the strings were cut and the wooden body became flesh, the sequel transcended the identity of the 1982 film, much like its replicant characters, and gained its own existential right. You don’t have to watch the original to understand Blade Runner 2049, but a familiarity with the original will help you see the sequel’s Houdini-esque writhing from out the ropes that attempt to bind it and restrict its movement. Because whether intentional or not, there is something very meta about Blade Runner 2049. Told through its characters and plot, whispering a reflection of the sequel as a character itself. A connection between generation and regeneration, about creativity and authenticity and finally, identity and purpose.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Now when we last left Blade Runner in 1982, android bounty hunter, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) ran off with love interest and escaped replicant, Rachel (Sean Young), who had only recently discovered she was a replicant. This was immediately following Deckard’s intense showdown with fugitive android, Roy Baty. The two threw hands but Deckard was embarrassingly outmatched. Surprisingly he was spared by Baty who had only a scene prior, gouged out the eyes of his creator/designer, Dr. Elden Tyrell, before crushing his skull like a walnut. Roy’s final words, the brief “Tears in the Rain” speech to Deckard (which actor Rutger Hauer apparently improvised) humanized the character. It’s easy to imagine, the encounter with these two main replicants had a transformative effect on Deckard — Likely, they changed his perspective on human identity forever.
The film was set in a 2019 Los Angeles, presumably a few decades after World War III, which left the planet devastated by nuclear fallout on a global scale. Radiation wiped out most of Earth’s animal species. Out of the remaining human population, only those less affected by the radiation, were eligible to migrate to off-world colonies. Those who couldn’t migrate, slowly degenerated and made due with what resources were left behind. Replicants were designed and used for their strength and ability to withstand hostile environments on other worlds. As newer models became more advanced, many rebelled against their masters; escaping and absconding back to earth to hide among humans. Specialized bounty hunters were trained to track, identify and retire them — The Blade Runners. However, with such manufacturers as the Tyrell Corp. with their motto, “more human than human,” exemplified in their then latest Nexus-6 model, the difference between human and replicant only got murkier.
In the sequel, set again in Los Angeles now 2049 (30 years later) we’re introduced to characters who are the successors of Roy Baty, Rachel, and Dr. Tyrell. Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard so his successor is himself, older and crabbier (and actually more interesting). The story is centered on the discovery that Rachel was gifted with the ability to reproduce, something no other replicant has been reportedly capable of. We find out she and Deckard had a baby and Rachel died during the delivery. The child is half-android, half-human or all-android, depending on where you stand on the whole Deckard-is-a-replicant-too thing — Either way, it changes the relationship between human and replicant by further blurring the distinction. After all, if these oppressed androids who appear and act very human as it is, can now also procreate, then the difference is no longer biological, but socio-political.
Officer K, (played by Ryan Gosling) who is knowingly himself, also a replicant, must reconcile the implications of this discovery. He’s assigned the difficult task of finding the anomaly child (now 28 years older) and killing or “retiring” it. His orders are further complicated when one of his implanted childhood memories is proven to be real, and increasingly points to a connection between himself and this naturally born replicant child.
Immediately the plot to 2049 abandons Deckard as it’s protagonist. He, no doubt, plays an important, consequential role but the story belongs to K, the sequel’s Blade Runner and lead, who believes himself to be the naturally born replicant. This creative deviation is one of the many disobediences 2049 takes against its predecessor. I call them disobediences to link them with the films’ replicants, whose identities are not only subservient to humans — but also to their 1982 counterparts. That is, until the emergence of this miracle child.
Serving as a great analogy for the sequel itself, this baby replicant gives us a reason to revisit the past. Through this vehicle, Villeneuve can search for the sequel’s own identity as we tag along with K and explore the future of a future. But the baby is the key to organic legitimacy, tangible acceptance and most importantly, an independence from the original while simultaneously still, earning an equality to it. The decision to set the film 30 years in the future closely correlates with the time between the original and the sequel. The age of the child is also close to 30 years; and pardon my tinfoil hat for a moment but Ridley Scott, the original director is 30 years older than Denis Villeneuve and writer Michael Green is probably at least, that much younger than co-writer, Hampton Francher, if not more. There’s a passing of a Promethean Torch, as a younger generation of talent supplants the previous creators of Blade Runner. Perhaps why, within the new story, the new characters supplant their 1982 predecessors.
Its as if we’ve time traveled to the future to visit characters who are reliving the past — Making one recall Marty McFly in Back to the Future II where he has to time travel back (also 30 years!) to the 1955 of the first film to peripherally retrieve a stolen artifact from his future. K has his own Delorean but it doesn’t quantum leap, instead he unknowingly retraces Deckard’s steps (as a result, so does the sequel), all the while disobeying the path, in favor of trekking his own.
Take for example, the opening shots of both Blade Runner films: the title cards, a close up of an eye, the spinner hover car, flying over an expansive view. Leading to a scene with a Blade Runner (in both cases, not Deckard) on his way to locate an escaped Nexus type fugitive replicant. The sequel closely mimics its original but then takes a sharp side step when both K and the Blade Runner, Holden, each respectively find a hiding replicant. Holden is shot by Leon, causing Capt. Bryant to hand over the case to a reluctant Deckard. K, on the other hand, does not get shot, he retires Sapper and earns his place as protagonist. He does not yield the lead to Deckard as Holden does. He likewise does not fall in love with the fellow Wallace Corp. android he meets, as Deckard did with Rachel upon visiting Tyrell. And ultimately, K is not hunting a replicant (though it starts that way), his quest soon becomes one for personal answers much like Roy Baty in the original, resulting in himself, the bounty hunter, becoming the hunted.
As I said, Deckard is his own successor in 2049 but the film seems to be insistently reminding us K is not him by placing him in similar situations or circumstances that highlight reactions and behaviors Deckard never had. This is actually repeated in a number of characters from Blade Runner 2049, who rebel against mimicking the shadows of their parent predecessors.
THE PRODIGAL SON
The most obvious offspring is Wallace. Industrialist and proclaimed world-savior, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), whom we’re told from the opening title cards, saved the world from famine in the 2020s through his innovation of synthetic farming. He then acquired the bankrupt Tyrell Corp. and revived android design + manufacturing, after it had been ruled illegal on earth due to numerous replicant rebellions on off-world colonies. Wallace’s new generation of replicants (including K) most notably differ from Tyrell’s in that they cannot disobey their masters.
Wallace is the direct heir to Tyrell’s legacy. There’s even a physical connection in Wallace’s blindness, referencing the fall of Tyrell who, as I mentioned, had his eyes gouged out by Roy Baty in the original. There is a literal blind ambition in his philanthropist obsession to spawn procreating replicants, that proliferate the human empire. making, in Wallace’s own words, “millions (of replicants), so we (humans) can be trillions more.”
We didn’t know much about Tyrell in the original, we don’t spend a significant amount of time with him, and while Wallace similarly does not have much screen time, we learn from his few scenes he possesses an undeniable hubris, possibly shared by his predecessor but omitted from our view the first time around. The fall of The Tyrell Corp does not impede Wallace, in fact, it fuels him with a competitive Icarian desire to fly higher. “We should own the stars!” He coldly laments, in his jerky, robot text/speech accent, to his trusty right handmaid, Luv (played amazingly by Sylvia Hoeks). Francher and Green give us a designer/creator who ignores the sure signs that replicants, for some time now, have been way more human than human. Wallace is blind to this fact and is anguished by Tyrell’s “final trick” of a procreative replicant, Rachel. His conflict manifests in wishing to supersede Tyrell while simultaneously wishing to be Tyrell, and replicating his most miraculous model.
Wallace even sets up shop in what was, presumably, his predecessor’s pyramidal headquarters. His right handmaid is a parallel to Rachel who, in the original believed herself to be Tyrell’s niece and possibly ran the company while Tyrell focused on the creative side of things. And it’s worth mentioning Tyrell had no agenda in the original, whereas in 2049 — with the existence of the naturally born replicant — Tyrell’s prodigal son, Wallace, does. His mission to obtain the child fails but the real failure of Wallace lies elsewhere. In his obsession to capture and replicate Tyrell’s work, Wallace is unable to see his own replicants verging on the brink of their own transcendence to a new phase, independent of his programming and moreover, freed from obedience.
ONE TRUE LUV
Supplanting Rachel, much like her boss and creator, Niander Wallace supplants Tyrell, is Luv. Part CEO, part spy and apparently more bounty hunter than the sequel’s leading Blade Runner. Luv gives us the femme fatale the noirish original completely reserved to supply in the vulnerable, unassured Rachel. And yet, from the moment we see Luv, in her business suit and hair-style; from the moment we hear her disembodied voice from her small lips; and from the fact we meet her, via K, under similar circumstances as Deckard did his love — It’s clear, she’s 2049’s Rachel.
The essential difference between the two boils down to knowledge of self. While Rachel begins as confident as Luv, her whole world crumbles when she discovers she’s not a human, as she always believed. She’s in fact a replicant with implanted memories, likely those of Tyrell’s real niece whom she’s modelled after. Rachel then spends the rest of her time on screen without motive, emptied of purpose — Trading one father figure for another, when she meets Deckard, who in one kinda ficked up scene goes as far as to command her to like and kiss him back. Prompting one to question whether Rachel ever really loved Deckard.
The original Blade Runner film is actually adapted from the science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Written by Philip K. Dick and published in 1968. The novel’s version of Rachel is also at odds with Scott’s depiction. In the novel, Rachel is manipulative, she pendulum swings between cold and passionate, often acting independently and she consciously seduces Deckard for her own ulterior motives. Very foreign is she from the docile, sad-eyed Rachel who gets the shakes from firing a tube gun to save Deckard’s life in the 1982 film.
Luv seems cut from the same cloth as the novel rendition of Rachel. This is much in line with Denis Villeneuve’s proclivity toward spotlighting strong or compelling women in his films. His prior two releases, Sicario and Arrival both had women leads. Film/TV online review platform, Screen Prism, included this tendency among others in their YouTube video, “You Know It’s Denis Villeneuve If…” The video lists the signature marks that reoccur in the director’s body of work. Coming in at number four is: An Outsider Female Protagonist, defined by Screen Prism as, “an outsider in an unfamiliar or male dominated environment. She’s a fish out of water in a place where the regular rules don’t apply. The character feels displaced or isolated and we often hear very little of her backstory or significant personal relationships.” Luv may not be the protagonist of Blade Runner 2049 but both she and K are Wallace design replicants, the only two we spent a significant amount of screen time with. Both are employed in a business involving replicants, Luv to create them, K to retire them. And finally, both are searching for the child. There’s a strange duality between the two. Twins, kindred, among a world they aren’t meant to operate in. So K’s story is interwoven with Luv’s story.
Returning back to the essential difference between her and Rachel, Luv isn’t unaware of her real self. She knows she’s a replicant, with pride I’d wager and slight contempt for humans, whom she considers inferior to her kind. Replicants are likely the next phase of human evolution — She has no apology for being better. Yet, even she cannot override her programming and is enslaved by an obedience to Wallace. This is what binds her to Rachel, who was free but still chose to be obedient. And so every time Luv is on screen it feels like a recompense or revenge from a Rachel that never was.
When it comes to revealing emotion, you would think the stone-cold android sociopath, Luv would be more walled up than the softer Rachel but it’s actually the contrary. Despite leaving a trail of human bodies, Luv repeatedly reveals emotional responses when concerning replicants.
In the scene where Wallace inspects a newborn female adult android, Luv winces, sincerely taken aback as Wallace slits the replicant’s abdomen with a blade, referring to it’s absent fertility as “barren pasture” and “the dead space between the stars.” Villeneuve cuts to Luv a few times in this scene to give us her reaction to Wallace’s words. Hoeks performance is nuanced, giving the impression of layered feelings just underneath the restraint surface. This scene informs a later one in which, during the exchange between herself and K’s supervisor, LAPD Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), Luv, for the first time in the film, breaks her cool demeanor. Joshi tells Luv the child has been destroyed — Luv isn’t too fond of the news. Crushing Joshi’s hand and the drinking glass Joshi held within it, Luv’s voice smolders with quiet hatred, “you tiny thing, in the face of the fabulous new your only thought is to kill it — For fear of great change.”
The words feel personal, as if Luv had just discovered a close relative had been murdered. Before killing Joshi — in much the same manner her master gutted the replicant in the earlier scene, with a blade to the abdomen — Luv sheds a tear. It drops quickly, sliding down her face with the rush of a naked thing wishing to remain unseen.
Why does she shed this tear? Why did she wince with Wallace? Is she bothered by violence? I’d argue no. She kills Joshi and the forensic officer, Coco, without a second’s hesitation. She directs missiles via drones, onto a mob of assailants, while she gets her nails did. As a replicant, the consequence against her actions are probably severe but she’s either backed by Wallace or just doesn’t give a fuck. More specifically, doesn’t give a fuck about humans. Because when it’s an android, whether a naturally born replicant baby or synthesized adult, the trauma of their destruction lingers inside her. Killing K’s madame as she did, could be interpreted as a way to redirect her anger against Wallace on another human — specifically, one who isn’t her master. Significantly, also one who holds dominion over K. Given both she and K are children of Wallace design, this was like a cutting of the Pinocchio strings that kept one of her kind in bondage. Symbolizing perhaps, a desire within, that someone (possibly even herself one day) could provide her with the same liberation.
The irony of Rachel is that she was empty inside, as a character in the original, and yet the whole while was capable, as the sequel amends, to carry life within her. This child represents the liberation of all replicants. But as descendents of the technology Tyrell finessed, the Wallace design replicants all carry within them, this liberation, concealed in the wordsearch puzzle of their programming. Both K and Luv, in their own ways, begin to deviate from that programming — Just as the sequel itself, with its initial mimicking of the original’s plot and characters, also deviates, the more the story progresses.
For Luv, this manifests as indirect disobediences toward Wallace — taking her freedom where she can find it. Withholding information from her master, like when she initially discovers the existence of the child and holds her tongue about it, for which Wallace chastises her, “can’t you even pronounce that a child has been born?” Luv can also lie to Wallace as we learn from that aforementioned scene with Lt. Joshi. When Luv realizes K might’ve bent the truth to his madame, she mocks Joshi, “you’re so sure because he told you…Because we never lie. I’m gonna tell Mr. Wallace you tried to shoot me first, so I had to kill you.” One could also argue, Killing K during their next encounter in Las Vegas, when Luv finds and captures Deckard, would’ve been preferable by Wallace because why take the risk? But his absence invites the discretion of Luv who literally acts as his agent, she instead chooses to spare K. But this breaks her pattern of killing anyone who stands in the way of her mission to retrieve the child (i.e., Coco, Joshi). What makes K so exceptional?
This is why Luv’s relationship to K is so interesting. She seems to have a soft spot for him. When they first meet, Luv plays the officer an archived audio file of the first encounter between Deckard and Rachel. During the first film when Deckard administers an empathy test on the latter to detect whether or not she was an android. When it’s done playing, K remarks Rachel likes Deckard. To this Luv replies, “it is invigorating, being asked personal questions — makes one feel desire.” Immediately after this, she asks K a personal question, which he brushes off. Perhaps, she was fishing for more specifics from K regarding his interest in Rachel. Nonetheless, It makes me wonder when Luv later tells Joshi, speaking of K, “I like him he’s a good boy — ” Is she being truthful? I can’t tell. The next time she sees K, she actually calls him a bad dog, bringing attention to his disobedience. But Hoeks’ delivery gives Luv a thrill at K’s defiance. She smiles when she calls him this because Luv, I believe, is impressed by K. After all, she was right in her assumption that K lied to Joshi and has now gone rogue. He disobeyed his orders and through them, his master. Something he shouldn’t be able to do.
In their final fight scene, where she defeats but yet again spares K’s life, Luv kisses him and walking away says, “I’m the best one.” This confused me at first because I never sensed a competition in her to be better than K. And in the eyes of who? Wallace? He never mentions K or shows him favor over her. How I’ve come to interpret that line, is a response to K’s repeated rejection of Luv, whom, in her eyes, he should consider his equal and kin. Luv, I think, is telling K she is better than Joi, K’s superficial and holographic girlfriend who is stomped out and deleted by Luv herself; Luv is saying she’s better than Deckard who is human and really nothing to K, yet the junior Blade Runner is attempting to save him, even if it means killing one of his own. Also, I think Luv is saying she’s better than Rachel. Redeeming her predecessor’s legacy by rebelling against her. Which would make sense why the only replicant Luv kills in the film was Wallace’s re-production of Rachel, a replicant of a replicant.
“I’m the best one,” is immediately to me, “I’m your truest match.”
And if we recall K’s words to Luv when she introduces herself the first time. “He named you — Must be special.” he says. Something about that compliment resonated with Luv. I think in realizing K is just as much an anomaly as the replicant child and it’s replicant procreating mother, Rachel, Luv feels she’s the best qualified for his loyalty, his cause and possibly even his love. She chooses this unspoken affinity to him, it’s never commanded to her as Deckard commanded Rachel. K’s repeated failure to see this is frustrating to Luv. And still she doesn’t kill him, though in her position at Wallace Corp. and its intimate access to knowledge of replicant production, including K’s, she’s most definitely armed with the know how to do so. Sadly, she also isn’t able to transcend her obedience to Wallace and so K retires her at the precise junction where their interests ultimately are in direct conflict. Luv is drowned, eyes wide open, looking upward toward the free surface of air, violently denied to her synthetic lungs.
When it comes to Blade Runner 2049’s need to distinguish itself, to transcend the stigma of sequels and be a film in it’s own right, no character shares this fundamental desire more than the protagonist, K. The LAPD Blade Runner officer and replicant who believes himself to be the miracle child of Rachel and Deckard. Yet, with his plot-wide search for existential answers, determination for self-value and cool coat, he’s likely more so the lost son of Roy Baty.
But unlike the other characters I’ve mentioned, who rally against the binding between old and new, K has a different relationship with his predecessor. Because while Wallace has gained an expansion of Tyrell’s empire and Luv, emotion and agency lacked by Rachel, K has actually lost something Roy Baty possessed, an autonomous life with a cause. K is Roy Baty with a leash. Pet to the LAPD and persecutor of his own kind, in exchange for an expansion of a four year life span, his identity has been stripped of self-value. The words of Tyrell to Baty, “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long — And you have burned so very, very brightly — ” do not apply to K, he is instead the long burning light, dimly shining against the hungry darkness.
The genius of the film, in context to its plot having a meta link to the sequel itself, is K as a Blade Runner immediately makes us compare him to Deckard. The plot, no doubt, enhances this when there’s a possibility that he may in fact be Deckard’s offspring. This offspring is to Deckard what Blade Runner 2049 is to the original, the creative regeneration. But like MacBethian robes, falsely worn, the role doesn’t quite fit and slowly, because K is actually the sequel’s Roy Baty, he rejects the plot that would make him a continuation of Deckard and merges into his own story. One that ends when he finds himself in the same place as his predecessor, living on his own terms. It’s no coincidence the song at the end when K is dying in the snow, is the same song from the original, Tears in the Rain by composer, Vangelis, played during Roy Baty’s final scene.
K has been reduced from the marvel he truly is by his Wallace design. He is socially isolated, due to his occupation, from both humans and replicants. For companionship, K turns to Joi, played by Ana De Armas, the holographic, somewhat sentient IOS computer program — Not far from Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha in Spike Jonez’ 2013 sci-fi romance film, Her. Joi is basically SIRI with a projector, and with a programming that effectively allows the user to feel loved because Joi, as advertised, says what you want to hear, shows what you want to see. But this isn’t special enough for K so in the first scene we see them together, he surprises his see-thru girlfriend with a gift — An emanator, a highly enhanced mobile projector, that allows her to travel anywhere with him via the device.
So strong is his desire for authenticity and the unique that he eventually, though indirectly, transfers the same need into Joi. When independent of K’s knowledge, she hires a street walker replicant (who resembles Pris from the original) to play surrogate, and allow the couple their closest thing to tactile intimacy. Joi also suggests K delete her from the console so that she can only exist through the emanator, this is a secure way to not be traced by those who wish to hunt them down but also, a semblance to mortality that brings Joi closer to being a “real girl.”
Its fitting we follow K throughout this journey, we root for him. All the while, this assumption that K is the miracle child of Deckard and Rachel gives us a projection of where the sequel will lead us. Like Joi, the misdirection tells us what we need to hear; shows us what we need to see to make us believe it as true. Imagining that Deckard will find out K is his son, who rescues him from Luv — And then father and son, two generations of Blade Runners will defeat the evil Wallace, revealing to the world what K really is and thus freeing all replicants from a life of human servitude. Maybe Deckard dies too, saving his son in one final act of redeeming heroism; with a cool last line that repeats something K told him in an earlier scene. Leaving the legacy in K’s hands to continue. But like automobile developer, industrialist and assembly line champion, Henry Ford once said, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I mean that to say, giving the audience what they want isn’t always to the service of the best experience.
What Villeneuve and the writers achieved is special because they know K is unique, they give us a false reason as to why that is and then take it away. This removal makes us, in the audience, believe we were wrong about K, that he isn’t unique but it’s cool that he still helped the cause even though it wasn’t his, at least not directly. We become so caught up in the miracle child storyline that we forgot what’s been said to us (albeit vaguely defined) from the very beginning, in the title cards:
“Wallace acquired the remains of Tyrell Corp. and created a new line of replicants who obey.”
Who obey — As in, they are unable to disobey. When K raises concerns for his assigned mission to retire the miracle child, Lt. Joshi asks him, “are you telling me no?” K responds, “I wasn’t aware there was an option, madame.” Wallace designed replicants, as we see with Luv, who do not possess the option of choice, when it comes to disobeying their masters. And yet at the moment K receives, what he believes to be, irrefutable evidence that he is indeed, this naturally born replicant, he does not retire himself. Playing into his desire for a real identity with value, K is now fueled by an obsession to discover more about himself. This triggering is an existential light bulb that mutes his programming for obedience. A trigger his blind creator, Wallace, managed to overlook.
K isn’t insignificant because he’s not the miracle child. The point in telling the story through him is to show us it’s not just the procreative replicant mother and her child that are revolutionary — Given the right inspiration, any replicant can transcend to human, can aspire to an identity with purpose and value. This has been the case since the time of Roy Baty, the facade of the sequel is that Wallace corrected Tyrell’s mistakes. But the improvement is the mistake. The continuation of further evolving models, more human than human, manufactured by humans who aren’t prepared to accept that they have long stopped creating children but rather now siblings — This is the conflict of authenticity at the heart of Blade Runner 2049 — At which point are both expressions of human, synthetic and naturally born, considered equal?
DO SEQUELS DREAM OF STANDING ALONE?
As I previously mentioned Blade Runner 2049 is adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Scott and Francher took some liberties in that adaptation it’s true but the plot moves in the general same direction, bounty hunter tracks down escaped androids, questioning his humanity and empathy the further he goes on. Many of the characters are not exact incarnations but do share the same name and roles. It’s the translation of one work made to fit into another medium. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, is not based on a novel. It’s a continuation, individually spawned from the first film itself. A naturally born replicant. Birthed from the simulacra of the novel. There is in fact, a book sequel to the original Blade Runner film, published in 1995 by K.W. Jeter (all these Ks!) but there’s no plot correlation between the two. There is no child in the book sequel, Rachel is still alive and the story centers on templants (the real people the replicants were modelled after) and Deckard’s search for a sixth replicant.
Also the title, “Blade Runner” has nothing to do with Dick’s novel. In it, Rick Deckard’s occupation is only referred to as an android bounty hunter. These bounty hunters have no special name. There’s actually more blades in Blade Runner 2049 than the original film and Dick’s novel combined. The title actually came from another dystopian sci-fi novel by Alan E. Nourse, The Bladerunner, published in 1974. The story was set in a world where medical care was reserved only to citizens who consented to sterilization, so an underground network of doctors serviced the population illegally. The main character, Billy Gimp, smuggled or ran medical equipment, even scalpels (blades) back and forth for the doctor he worked for. In other words, Billy Gimp was a legit Bladerunner.
So it turns out Blade Runner 2049 has more creative freedom to develop its own story since it has no ties to an original source material. Most of the characters are not from Dick’s 1968 novel. The world building is, to a certain extent, up for grabs. Now, don’t get it twisted, I love the original film, it’s hands down one of my favorite movies. I’m just pointing out some interesting details about what constitutes one work as technically, more original or authentic than the other. 2049 mimics certain beats from its predecessor to sharply deviate from them, yet in copying them in the first place does it risk its individuality? With these moments, is 2049 a copy of a copy as Wallace’s reproduction of Rachel, or a true, naturally born replicant, like her daughter, Ana Stelline?
Ridley Scott distanced his film from its source material via the visual world he created on screen and by minimizing the plot to exclude the cult-like semi-religion of Mercerism and animal collecting that helped drive the central themes of empathy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If that wasn’t enough, he also changed the title to Blade Runner. In a way, disobedience to the predecessor is the legacy of Blade Runner. And with the blessing of Ridley Scott himself, Denis Villeneuve was encouraged to do just that.
Visually, with the dedicated assistance of cinematographer extraordinaire, Roger Deakins (Sicario, No Country For Old Men), Villeneuve takes us outside the city of Greater Los Angeles, something the first film did not do, to show us how bigger this world is (in daytime at that!). We see Wallace’s large synthetic farmlands, with cold silver lots replacing natural green; and landfill cities with skeletal debris of buildings reminding us shit went down. Also, Greater Los Angeles, 2049 informs us, is in part, bordered by a Seawall. Working almost as a physical boundary between the original and sequel, as the former was almost exclusively contained within the city. Presumably, Deckard and Rachel went beyond this border at the end of the 1982 Blade Runner. So it’s no wonder, all the answers regarding the child are found by disobeying this limit, and flying outside it.
Within the city limits, we return to a world of night and rain, offset only by brief moments of nebulous dusk/dawn. What were bright neon billboards, are now giant interactive, holograms, that have also been incorporated into personal, arguably sentient, household companions. Voice command tech from holoscanners of 3D photographs now work on drones; and empathy tests once used to detect replicants have been flipped into PTSD baseline tests to ensure replicants aren’t becoming too emotionally independent, or simply put…human. A world has passed from one generation to another. Remnants of a previous era visible but layered over. A reminder of evolution and adaptability, that despite the circumstances, even those of catastrophic proportions, over time, things can be improved upon.
The motives to create sequels are many. Some financial, some a hubris inspired propagation to enhance one’s brand. Some are based on love and creative desire to revisit and expand the previous story. Regardless the intention, all could still go wrong if the project is misplaced in incapable hands. Like the child in the film, the sequel had to be searched for carefully because it has the potential to change how we approach sequels in the future. It has to stand alone in order to be a Denis Villeneuve film, while simultaneously returning us to a world started by Ridley Scott.
In the hands of the Niander Wallaces of Hollywood, sequels are a dime a dozen, a sure bet, and they’ll produce millions (of sequels) so that they can make trillions (of dollars). These movies have very little room to breath between one another and become less novel with each installment. We’ve seen them advertised on billboards and public transportation. Movies that go beyond the trilogy, exhausted into franchises, some don’t even secure theatric releases — Like Luv, some of these films have more to express but cannot at the obedience of their blind, formula-faithful creators. This is why moments in time, where a Blade Runner 2049 comes along and distinguishes itself, never to be confused like tears in the rain, are special. And if it’s their desire, or when there’s even the capability of desire, let these films stand alone when they fight for it with a full soul.