The ending is schmaltzy. The plot is a quasi-religious quest to find a savior figure. Its twists are easy to anticipate. The best parts of the film—the visual sound and the visual style—are directly borrowed from its predecessor, though denuded of their 1980s-ness: goodbye shoulder pads and obsequious synths. Like Star Wars and many of the franchises that have followed it, Blade Runner 2049 has daddy issues—though this was true of the original, which owed a debt to Frankenstein. And when it comes to the Frankenstein myth, Blade Runner 2049 signals that we’ve reached a state of exhaustion in telling stories about the monsters, robots, replicants, operating systems, or beings we might someday create.
The sequel has abandoned the ambiguities of the original—was Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard a replicant or not?—for leaden certainties that unlock the film’s pile of mystery boxes. (Spoilers ahead.) Perhaps not so surprising, since any sequel is going to aim to please more than to confuse. In the original, Sean Young’s Rachel was a new kind of replicant because she had not only emotions but implanted memories. Discovering her own status as a replicant, she achieved an evolved form of self-consciousness and became a complicated moral actor. In the new film, the replicants hope to gain a something like a soul through a simpler process: by the prospect that their kind can have children.
The replicants in Blade Runner 2049 have heard a rumor at large that one of them, Rachel, has given birth. One of the film’s few human characters, Lieutenant Joshi, a.k.a. Madame, played by Robin Wright, says that this knowledge could tear down the “wall” (hello, Mr. President) between humans and replicants. She says it to Ryan Gosling’s K, a blade runner (i.e., replicant hunter), who’s also a replicant himself. He says that the difference is that something that’s born has a soul. She quips back to him: “You’ve been getting on fine without one.” He’s not so sure of that, and he undertakes his own investigations. He finds that the possibility of reproduction has set off a religious liberation movement among the replicants, founded on salvation through fertility.
All this (plus the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature) put me in mind of the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro’s novel (and the 2010 movie based on it) is a quieter dystopia than Blade Runner, but its stakes are just as lethal. The replicants in the Blade Runner films perform slave labor (how much freedom K enjoys is an open question: He has an apartment and a measure of choice, but quitting his job or disobeying his boss or simply straying from his “baseline,” in the film’s jargon, would get him killed). The clones in Never Let Me Go grow up in a pleasant countryside boarding school but one day learn that their fate is to have their organs harvested for transplants to non-clone humans, perhaps after a phase spent as caring for donors. There is a rumor going around that clones might be spared if they prove they’re in love, and one clone has a theory that the art they made as schoolchildren is being preserved and might be used as proof that they have souls, and should be spared.
None of this comes true, the clones are doomed, and it’s heartbreaking. That’s because the narrator, Kathy H., is so richly drawn, with friendships; jealousies; sentimental attachments to corny-sounding popular songs (the title is from a song by a fictional crooner named July Bridgewater, and it makes Kathy H. think of holding a baby); and sympathy with her imagined reader (“I don’t know how it was where you were,” she says memorably). She has a keen aesthetic perception of the world around her that extends to noticing garbage blowing down a country road and then thinking of herself as a kind of living trash. The replicants in the Blade Runner films are subject to slurs (“skin jobs”) and in the original four-year lifespans. Rutger Hauer’s character laments just before his death that all his memories will be “lost in time, like tears in rain.” Indeed, whose memories won’t be?
Never Let Me Go and the original Blade Runner derive their power from the problem of self-knowledge and the existential disappointments that accompany reckoning with mortality. In the sequel, self-discovery means joining a movement and believing in “miracles.” It’s a politically heartening message—the film portends a revolution of emancipation—and it lends itself to a rollicking adventure story, but it’s ultimately disposable: bromides about hope wither; tragedy lingers.
There’s a curious subplot about mortality in Blade Runner 2049. When K goes home to his apartment, he turns on an artificial intelligence companion who appears as a hologram named Joi, played by Ana de Armas. As critics have pointed out, their romance bears resemblance to the love affair between a man and his operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her. And as in that film, it’s arranged for K to have sex with his A.I. companion through the medium of a flesh-and-blood surrogate. (The results vary.) The operating system in Her leaves the user to evolve with other OS’s into something higher than human—an original and fascinating ending to a ludicrous story. In Blade Runner 2049, K acquires a data stick that will make Joi, in her many sexy outfits, portable. When the heat is on, they go on the run and erase her from the home computer. They realize that if the data stick is crushed Joi will be erased. But the potential to die, she says, makes her “like a real girl.”
I confess I’ve never been able to take anxieties about humans—men or women—falling in love with computers, robots, virtual reality machines, or artificial intelligence devices very seriously. There’s a slim distinction in science fiction between the artificial and the genetically engineered but it strikes me as a crucial difference. In Blade Runner 2049 the Joi subplot shifts the existential burden from the enslaved replicant to a character who’s designed and sold commercially for wish fulfillment. It’s a creaky allegory for pornography in the internet age and it undermines the film’s vision of human (and replicant) nature. Clones and replicants are always less hollow than holograms.
What if, once they arrive, clones or replicants or superior artificially intelligent beings don’t want to kill us or fuck us or even be like us? What if they don’t find us interesting at all?