Blade Runner 2049: a dystopian look at what it means to be human (review)
Denis Villeneuve is slowly becoming my favourite Director. His films are insanely beautiful and thought-provoking, and seem to abide by the continuous theme of our lack of control of the circumstances that we live in, and whether or not we have the courage to accept the uncertainty of the world in which we abide. In Prisoners (2013), Hugh Jackman’s character Keller Dover is led to near insanity by a situation he cannot control – the abduction of his daughter. While the mystery eventually comes to a full circle, it’s his inability to properly deal with the situation that turns him into a monster, abducting someone himself, and meeting an uncertain end. In Sicario (2015), Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer doesn’t get what she signs up for after joining the war on drugs and ultimately fails to derail the corruption that she sees, leaving her to dwell in the lonely place of moral ambiguity and uncertainty. Yet in Arrival (2016), it is Amy Adam’s character Louise Banks that comes to peace with the lack of control she has over her future, after being able to see it as clearly as she does the past. It is almost as if the message of Villeneuve’s films – which themselves are uneasy to watch and perhaps occasionally difficult to understand – is that the only way to tackle this uncertain world is to be at peace with it.
Blade Runner: 2049 is no different. While it is incredibly difficult to draw out the beauty of this film without revealing too much, it thrives on Villeneuve’s aforementioned themes. A sequel to the 1982 neo-noir, 2049 is unique enough to be a stand-alone film, and yet connected enough to be a fantastic sequel.
The world of Blade Runner is quite easy to understand – humans have reached beyond Earth and are actively colonising other worlds. To help do this, they have created replicants – engineered humans that act as slaves, building and working on the command of their masters. In the original, replicants are illegal, and Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard sets out to hunt them down. In 2049, it is older models of replicants that must be retired, and it’s the job of Ryan Gosling’s Officer K to carry this out. This already raises questions about humanity – are replicants human? Do they have the right to be? Do they have souls? Is it inhumane to kill them? This is where 2049 shines.
“Every weave of civilization was built off the back of slaves”, Wallace, creator of replicants, proudly says. The beauty (or horror) of Blade Runner’s depiction of the future is so clear: in many ways, it is simply history repeating itself. There is still immense poverty, immorality and perversity galore, capitalism preying on ghettos in the form of 3D women, colourful and dazzling in contrast with the dark and dirty underbelly of Los Angeles. Villeneuve takes a future-based sci-fi film and has the craft to make it painfully relevant.
The world he has built is incredible. At the beginning of the film, ‘California 2049’ superimposes itself on the screen, and yet what we are greeted with is anything but the California that we know – it is dark, gritty, raining, full of smoke and dust, with a literal wall built between the city and the oceanfront. You may have already heard about the glorious visuals of the film, and there is no doubt that this is the best looking film not only this year but perhaps of the decade so far. Regular Villeneuve collaborator Roger Deakins deserves his overdue Oscar for this, creating stark contrasts in the various environments of Blade Runner 2049 that draw you in like a Da Vinci painting. A simple watch of the trailer alone shows off this incredible feat.
Despite this, and almost paradoxically, the film is no easy watch. Villeneuve has a tendency to make films that are hard to watch and he indulges in it here. There are moments of extended silence, well reflected by Ryan Gosling’s semi-silent character, and yet the score screeches at your ears, demanding that you cling to your seat in unease. The future isn’t easy, and this kind of future is certainly meant to scare the hell out of you.
Therefore, much like the original, this film won’t be for everyone. It performed horribly at the box office despite being hailed as a masterpiece by the critics, perhaps because the world isn’t ready for it – but I’d call it far more refreshing to have a deep, thought-provoking piece of art bomb at the box office than have a mindless horrible action movie perform fantastically (yes, Fast & Furious scarred me).
While the film does seem to suffer from some storyline imperfections, it saves itself by using its tone and visuals to boast the journey itself and its implications on our main character, rather than rely solely on plot twists to create a spark of suspense, which gives it more soul than a typical drama/thriller may have. The visual narrative of the film is a film in itself, and it will take multiple viewings to (almost) fully appreciate what the film is trying to say.
As mentioned earlier, 2049 explores what it means to be human. The replicas (and in fact, even A.I. characters) come off as more human than humans themselves – capable of warmth, love and humility, whereas the humans are cold, tyrannical and evil. It is in this world that Gosling is caught, and without giving too much away, it is important to appreciate that it is his story that we are following and his journey that asks us to explore what it means to have a soul. Until today we have minority groups dehumanised and hijacked of their humanity by use of the term “other”, which can allow them to be made subservient as a direct result of entitlement. In the year 2049 it is the replicants that are the “others”, making it evident that this vicious cycle will forever continue, all while we succumb to our own lusts of power and greed. What Blade Runner 2049 teaches us is that, in any time and place, any circumstance we live in, we must look at the “other” and appreciate that they may have more humanity in them than we do in ourselves.
We look to the past to understand our present, and we dwell in future fiction to ponder on where our actions may take us. Blade Runner 2049 wants us to rediscover our humanity now, and reminds us that simply being human doesn’t equal being humane. That’s a pretty deep message, and one that will echo in the minds of its viewers for a long time.