Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve direct Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks in this sci-fi series set in a dystopian Los Angeles where man made humanoids, created for off world slavery, are hunted by police sanctioned killers called Blade Runners.
**** SPOILERS ABOUND… You’ve had 35 years and five weeks so wind your neck in ****
As a child, when I first watched Blade Runner, I found it dull. Bored the tits off me. Let’s say my nine year old tits, to give you some rough context. Recorded off the telly, our old wood panelled coffin of a box was really dark, screen brightness in the negative. For example, watching the retail quality VHS on our old clunker meant I had no idea that Batman’s credit sequence was actually a close-up trip around the Bat Logo until the mid 90s when we as a family FINALLY upgraded. Suddenly mere yellow writing on black card, turned out to be an impressive sequence of illuminated dazzle. So with Blade Runner, I immaturely first watched a slow, ponderous, slightly garbled robo-detective story with all the SFX and the immense background detail fuzzy, obscured or lost in darkness.
But then in 1992, The Director’s Cut came along with the massive fanfare of critical reappraisal, right about the time I was getting serious about cinema (teen tits). I bought the Widescreen version, partly out of adolescent pretentiousness, setting out my stall as a serious buff who watched things proper like. Partly also to annoy my Dad, who felt those big black bars at the top and bottom of the screen were robbing him of the full picture rather than opening it up to its original cinematic ratio. And while I wasn’t instantly won over, I appreciated it more.
And I kept revisiting, and revisiting, and revisiting, upgrading to DVD, loving Paul M Sammon’s detailed history book of the movie (Future Noir – possibly my favourite book ever and definitely the one I have read and reread the most in its own right), and going to see The Final Cut at the BFI IMAX and then quietly, secretly, shush shush, being excited about the long gestating sequel to a movie that left as many questions open as it answered. More evidence to a mystery that cut like a cross section through a futureworld that felt complete and organic yet we’ve only for three decades glimpsed from one brief, limited vantage point. And now we are here, sequel released, critically beloved while the original, thanks partly to its constant evolutions and upgrades, now considered by me and the world as one of the finest acts of cinematic imagination ever conceived.
This long, rambler of a blog is not going to be a critical appraisal of the two movies. One is a bonafide classic, the other, though not quite as “good” in my opinion, has at least twenty years of rewatches in it before I could confidently actually verify that statement. It is an equally carefully made and philiosphically deep experience that astounds and entertains and thrills and takes risks as its father did and does. But it has had barely a month to become part of anyone’s movie watching DNA. Alien and Aliens ‘had me at hello’. History has taught us, Blade Runners work a lot longer and harder to ingratiate themselves at your table. Every time I watch the original I notice something new. This time, in prep for 2049’s release, I noticed Sean Young’s jittery graceful clockwork walk, hand on her hip like a looping mini-reel of femme fatale footage. And then this was repeated perfectly in a surprise key moment in the sequel. So this is what all these words will be, notes and comparisons… Emotional responses if you will.
After some title cards giving us context, and some epic establishing shots, our first scene sets the tone… A blade runner named Holden administers the “Voigt-Kampff” test; an instrusive, prolonged retina scan coupled with a litany of emotionally provocative questions. The test subject, Leon, a new employee at the company that manufactures replicants, is clearly perturbed by them. Does the test look for unchecked, immature emotion? Or lack of empathy? Or some all too human cynicism that a four year old fake adult would lack? Leon’s answers are distressed and guarded. Is he stressed out by the disturbing concepts being put forward to him? Or by the fact he is taking a test he will unavoidably fail? He is after all a replicant. And is it the fatal consequences of failing this test that perturbs him so? Or the inevitable official confirmation that he is a replicant, doomed to artificially and a limited life span, rather than a fantasy that might exist in his head that he is special or even a true human? He doesn’t need to physically worry about failing the test. He has a hidden weapon. He shoots Holden on the second question. And why is Holden even bothering with the test? His superiors have pictures of the replicants he is tracking, Leon specifically. This world weary blade runner knows this employee only started working for the Tyrell Corporation within the short time frame of their rebellion and illegal arrival on Earth. Surely the Tyrell Corporation might recognise one of their own models. Why on Earth did they even hire him in the first place?
Three minutes in and that is a lot of ambiguities. Some intentional – showing the sophistication of the set-up and the ideas explored. Others though, you have to chalk up as goofs, that logically show a messy production where motivations and narrative have been chopped and changed, so that even key scenes are flawed and inconsistent with each other. Blade Runner was a fairly troubled production and to assume everything in the final cut(s) will ever fit together perfectly is precocious. But these intentional mysteries and sloppy anomalies gift Blade Runner its longevity. There is enough looseness, enough room for the imagination to wander off, that Blade Runner evokes curiosity, repeat viewing, cult appreciation and theoretical leaps. You can noodle the fuck out Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Because so much is left up to the viewer, not explicitly resolved and often jarringly incomplete it becomes a maze with a thousand routes to get lost along.
So the stakes of being both a blade runner and a replicant spelled out in shorthand, we then get to meet our hero; a cold blooded killer, trying to stay out of the constant downpour of rain, who cannot even get the fast food he ordered. The Asian chef tells him he can only have two, he wants four. Rationing on this environmentally skewed world? Evidence of why the much advertised Off World colonisation has been embraced by a humanity who have stripped Earth bare of her natural resources and stolen LA’s eternal sunshine? Or, possibly, the chef somehow knows Deckard is a replicant and there is prejudicial limit on the food he, a skinjob, can eat? (What Deckard might be a replicant?!?)
Deckard is taken to his old boss to be coerced into tracking down and killing Leon plus fellow replicants Roy Batty, Zhora, and Pris. The stated number of this group is wobbly depending on what version you watch. Sometimes five are mentioned, sometimes six. The reason for this anomaly are multitude – the number of replicants shifts uncertainly throughout the movie. One, we are informed, has been destroyed in an escape attempt before the movie even began, one might be Mary (a replicant cast as Stacey Nelkin but written out of the script early into filming when her slow death subplot was deemed depressing and extraneous – shame as I like Stacey Nelkin), Rachael (Deckard’s eventual love interest) is added to the list much later, or is it possibly Deckard himself? (What Deckard might be a replicant?!?) He is doing nothing when we meet him, enjoying “retirement” – Hey?! Isn’t that the blade runner’s preffered vocab for ending a replicant’s life? Why use that word, you are only in your mid thirties, Deckard? His boss tells him “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.” Dialogue loaded with hidden meaning? Or faux hard boiled dialogue that conspiracy favouring fans have latched onto? When we first meet Deckard unsuccessfully ordering his four dumplings is he an automaton idling on standby waiting for a mission? Or an escapee trying to fit in as human, hiding in plain sight, separate from the group of replicants he has just arrived down on Earth with? Any way you interpret them, we are once again presented with an intriguing inconsistency that opens up to multiple fruitful paths of interpretations or fanfic.
Deckard is instructed to meet with Eldon Tyrell so he can administer the test on a Nexus-6 to see if it works. But why? If he is a seasoned blade runner, he’ll have tested and retired this model before, surely? We know that Roy Batty has been around for four year, he cannot be the first Nexus-6 to be break the rules and therefore require the attention of a blade runner – otherwise would Deckard’s trade be needed enough that it has it own infamous nickname? Or do replicants only rebel and head for Earth once their bodies show signs of obsoleting? Or once their emotion and desires develop over four years does their docility and lack of awareness turn to a lust for life and freedom? Does the four year life span exist because that is when replicants become dangerously aware of their servitude and lack of value compared to a human? Is there some deeper programming that kicks in at 4 years that makes them need to return to Earth… Blade runners waiting to retire them? A rigged game? Also, more to the point, Deckard has photos of his prey. No Voigt-Kampff tests are necessary.
One potential reason for the pointless test is alluded to in 2049, as much as Tyrell wants to see his new creation, actually a prototype Nexus-7 who thinks she is human due to implanted memories, tested by an expert blade runner, he also wants to pair her off with a man. For breeding purposes, we discover three decades later. Whether that man is a replicant or not is undetermined. (What Deckard might be a replicant?!?) Maybe Tyrell has perfected (or judging by her eventual death in child birth… moved closer to) only the female reproductive capability in his replicants and needs a human male to impregnate her? There aren’t many healthy human males still on Earth (I’ll explore this concept further soon, promise) so he needed to orchestrate a situation where his new fangled Eve can fall for or be made available to someone who can fuck her.
It transpires the unnecessary Voigt-Kampff on Rachael might have been a CEO’s method of matchmaking for his new creation. This is subtly implied in Scott’s film and explicitly suggested in Villeneuve sequel… but never confirmed. As both directors want to retain the mystery of whether the coupling is either with a rare virile human or another new male experiment? And using this cruel method to imply to Rachael that she is not the human she believes she is, and we can tell she is not, cracks her cold, self-assured programming and makes her more vulnerable to a seduction from Deckard. She is after all irresistible, specifically evoking the women in the sepia toned photos Deckard keeps by his piano. Noir affectation from the production designer? Or a suggestion that in a world where the streets are filled with cyberpunk geishas and electrified Hari Krishnas, that there is something attractively pure in replicating the look and simplicity of the people from before technology became rampant. Sean Young by the way is excellent as the troubled dream woman whose grip on her reality and identity is destroyed. We would never get anywhere near as good a performance out of her again. Not even in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective…
I could pick away at all of Blade Runner’s key and minor moments like this endlessly – pulling at loose threads to stretch out further and further from what is presented. Deckard’s tech manipulation of a photo to look around a corner that doesn’t exist. He, like us, is processing the fragments to hand and making imaginative leaps to invisage some kind of greater sense into this world. Rachael’s implanted fake memory – a mother spider being eaten by her hatchlings – an allergory on evolution and the cruel, briefness of existence, plus if we are to pursue 2049’s revelations, then also a foreboding prophecy of her own fate. Pleasure model Pris’ innocent seduction of sick but kindly J.F. Sebastian; a simple dollmaker loner who lives with glitchy replicant toys. “Methuselah Syndrome” he calls it. Is his curse rapid ageing? Or living forever among the fake temporary lives of the replicants he clearly loves?
Telling that everyone we know on Earth as actually being human is elderly or terminally ill. Tyrell has his windshield spectacles, Deckard’s boss his crippled liver (he pours two drinks but doesn’t touch his own) and J.F. his genetic malady that ages him. Have all the fit and healthy humans already abandoned Earth for Off World? “The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. Let’s go to the colonies. This announcement has been brought to you by the Shimago-Domínguez Corp. Helping America into the new world.” Maybe 2019 is a Los Angeles where all but the frail have already left, the bustle of people and adverts for defunct brands (Atari, Pan Am) are all replicants and robots, running through their programs obliviously for a master who has lone gone. No one to switch them off, no one to retire them. They just run their loops and it looks like a dystopian civilisation to our untrained eyes . The lights are on but no one is home anymore. Don’t believe me? Why in a city of such overcrowded streets do definite humans J.F. and Tyrell have whole crumbling Art Deco palaces all to themselves? Imagine what happens to all those automaton toys now J.F. is dead and nobody is there to enjoy their quirky company. “Home again, home again, jiggity jig. Goooooood Evening J.F.”
Or in an LA were the population are either obsolete humans (too sick, too old, too poor to escape the rain sodden dystopia) or replicant, why is a man in his prime like Deckard still there? (What Deckard might be a replicant?!?) Seriously why hasn’t Deckard moved Off World? Earth in 2019 is shit. Real animals no longer exist, the environment is fucked, you can’t get more than two dumplings from a street food vendor. How are you enjoying retirement, Deckard? Maybe he loves his work?
Is Deckard even good at being a Blade Runner? In 2049 he tells the replicant blade runner K “I had your job once. I was good at.” Yet what we witness doesn’t chalk up. He only really shows any detection prowess once, when he tracks down Zhora at a snake themed strip bar. She sees right through his Dustin Hoffman impression of a cover identity. (Interestingly Hoffman was attached to the Deckard role when the project was called Dangerous Days, so maybe the dressing room scene is a hangover from when the role was tailored for the verbose and nervy method actor, rather than the taciturn and manly star.) Then he only retires the two unarmed women replicants, slaughtering them when they are fleeing or on their backs. Rachael saves him from Leon, who easily stalks the “good” blade runner. Deckard only winds up at J.F.’s apartment, to take on Pris and Batty, as he gets a call saying the designer’s body has been found with Tyrell’s. And when he attempt to investigate this, Pris sees through him right away and lays a trap. And she’s just your “basic pleasure model.”
Turns out “that old Blade Runner magic” is clumsy and luck fuelled at best.
I throw up a lot of theories and potentially unconsidered connections in this run through. Do I believe them all? No. Are they my definitive interpretation of Blade Runner or 2049? No. But I probably should weigh in on the “Is Deckard a replicant?” arguments at this juncture…
There’s a lot of clues to suggest he is. The unicorn dream and Gaff’s implicit knowledge of it. His glowing eyes when he talks to Rachael from his dark kitchen. The fact he does appear a mere pawn in a wider game. His childlike seduction / forcing himself on Rachael. Is this a human who sees her as a mere machine and essentially sex object to which he can do as he pleases? Or two children in manufactured adult bodies… clumsily and aggressively giving into programmed urges? While there’s never a flashing neon arrow with “Deckard is a replicant!”on it, there are enough breadcrumbs left by Ridley Scott down that trail that you can never be certain.
But equally there are more than enough moments to suggest he is human. His general uselessness. His lack of strength or guile against the other replicants. They are all shutting down yet still all of them best him physically. The fact that when we find him, he is still alive 30 years later… In 2049, we have long living replicants, almost as old a Deckard, but they are still superhumanly strong and efficient. Now, Deckard could be a prototype for one of these Nexus 8s but they are self aware. He is not. Ridley wills it that Deckard and Rachael are seemingly the only replicants who don’t initially understand their artificially… Or as Harrison Ford plays Deckard, he is human in a world where authenticity is uncertain. He said in a 2001 interview with BBC One’s Hollywood Greats. “I thought the audience deserved one human being on the screen that they could establish an emotional relationship with. I thought I had won Ridley’s agreement to that, but in fact I think he had a little reservation about that. I think he really wanted to have it both ways.” Even by the end of 2049 where some assume he is but the character holds on to the belief that he is not… the replicant question is never truly put to bed. But I am happy to take Ford’s interpretation as the bellweather of both entries. Deckard believes that he is human, is flawed like a human, and therefore should be thought of as one.
We need to talk about Blade Runner’s two best performances.
Daryl Hannah as Pris is intriguing. Girlishly seductive of Sebastian yet exploring her darker side. Whereas you could posit that all the other replicants play to their firmware’s aggressive strengths, Pris seems to be exploring these new qualities, developing even. She essentially is a sex robot yet she seems to embrace violence and cunning more than even her built for destruction partners. Her incept date is on Valentine’s Day, she is limber and uses her guile to seduce. Yet she also is incredibly violent towards Deckard, coming the closest to besting him. Is she moving away from her programming with age / deterioration or is she trying to keep up with the company she keeps? It is implied Batty and her are lovers. Is her interpretation of being Batty’s ideal partner to be superior at stealth, infiltration and murder? Hannah is electric in the short but iconic role and her flailing, tantrum of a death is easily the most profoundly disturbing moment in the series.
Batty is a chilling and troubling antagonist. Essentially what the hero should be in any other film. The rebel, the leader, the slave fighting an oppressive system, the do-er who learns to value life. Rutger Hauer imbues him with an otherworldly, almost God like power. His memories “will be lost in time, like tears in rain”.
Yet Blade Runner gives in to a brilliant sequence of stalking terror in its final act. A thrilling set piece where a toying and superior Batty pursues Deckard around the crumbling apartment building. He taunts and threatens him, wild howling vengeance in his voice. But he does not kill him. Even saving him. It is an incredibly exciting prolonged action sequence. A gripping, visually stunning two hander. Sadly an entertainment high point which 2049 noticeably lacks.
“You’ve done a man’s job, sir.” Deckard utterly exhausted sees Gaff arrive. His gun is returned to him, (evidence the policeman has been watching his struggles with the superior replicant) and then shouts to Deckard about Rachael: “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” Deckard returns to his apartment and finds Rachael asleep in his bed. As they leave, Deckard notices an origami unicorn on the floor, a calling card that recalls for him Gaff’s earlier statement. Deckard and Rachael leave the apartment block. Cue Vangelis’ brilliantly ominous end credits theme. Wow!
Those incongruous lines from Gaff. That now infamous foil unicorn. More of Ridley’s breadcrumbs. A final confirmation that Gaff knows Deckard is a replicant, knows his dreams? Possibly. What I find daft about the whole Ridley Scott’s unwavering certainty that Deckard is a replicant is it feels retroactively latched on to. One of hundred ideas hinted at but not fully pursued in the Blade Runner released in 1982. Ridley should be praised for delivering such an intense, detailed vision of the future. A genius at cinematic world building and imbuing blockbuster entertainments with philosophy. But I do feel he equally is someone happy enough to “print the legend.” Someone happy to exploit his legacy to his own ends. You should all know my controversial opinions on Prometheus. But I feel the main reason a Prometheus annoys other people quite so much is Ridley highjacked the perfect experience of Alien to tell a story that could have been separate. Separate if it were not for the sake of funding, a green light and shared themes. Prometheus, his Chariots of the Gods / Lovecraftian epic, was unethusiastically lumped in and marketed as a prequel to his beloved 1979 original. As with Blade Runner… he has already eaten the whole cake but ungraciously wants seconds.
Paul M Sammon’s Future Noir book has many interviews and reactions to Blade Runner’s fraught post production and release but a fun, little farce emerges in the footnotes with regards to the unicorn in the film’s afterlife. As extended cuts, and work prints, and director’s cuts are initially discovered and screened and marketed and re-edited and rereleased… Ridley seems quite oblivious to it all. He slept through the screening of the extended work print he signed off on in the early 90s for festival exhibition, only mentioning as he exited that he enjoyed seeing the unicorn dream restored (it wasn’t in that cut!) Then when the same slept-through version was screened to the public, Ridley sent a telegraph to be read out at the end, mentioning again his pleasure with the unicorn dream finally being included and how exciting it was for the audience to see it (when they hadn’t). Oh, Ridders!
My point is the unicorn and its implication about Deckard is a fun little parlour game. But if it was really quite so important, then why the fuck cut it from the film originally? And if a less clear but richer version of Blade Runner was truly important to Ridley, why not stay awake during its screening? I get the feeling Scott was taken by surprise by the mass reevaluating of his flop in the 1990’s and when the Director’s Cut proved a success he wanted his own, hands-on shot at retrying with his legacy… for vanities sake. He only opportunistically wanted to recalibrate and redefine Blade Runner once he was shown there was a market for it, not out of any true artistic need. But what all this retinkering did was give us the foil unicorn as the visual shorthand for all of Blade Runner’s multitudinous mysteries. A visual shorthand mirrored in 2049’s wooden horse.
So we find ourselves 30 years into the future. And it is gorgeously sparse. In posters, sanctioned stills and key moments Villeneuve’s 2049 is defined by lone men, lost in the centre of bleak and hazy wastelands, surrounded by detail-less fogs of orange, black, white or pink. Ridley gave us background overload, a metropolis squirming with components. Villeneuve prefers desolation and desertion. In collaboration with expert cinematographer Roger Deakin’s he creates some indelible imagery. But equally the very few bustling city street moments glimpsed in the sequel feel flat and rote. Lacking the hectic energy of their predecessor, I understand we are three decades further into this world… but I missed all that chaotic nitty gritty bombarding you everywhere. For me, that is Blade Runner.
My own tastes aside, I guess that is where a lot of Villeneuve’s strengths lie. He is not as bothered with delivering a film for the fans as he is with delivering an experience that leaps away from the beloved original. There are elements retained; the detective story, the synthetic love affair, implanted memories, flying cars, a search for the self, shocking blips of violence and Harrison Ford but he pushes back from merely retracing 2019’s narrative. It is not unfaithful – the opening sequence, a tense fight between K and an ageing replicant, is itself a resurrected set of unrealised storyboards from the 1981 production. Yet you get the feeling if those storyboards were weak or unworthy though they wouldn’t have been looked at twice by the new team. There is no fan service for the sake of fan service.
Taken as a movie in its own right, 2049 works best as a Gosling vehicle. He plays another one of his beautiful retards. Here lost and forlorn in the most expensive and intricate toy box his icy blue eyes have ever held back the tears from. A true movie star who can imbue moments of silence with both dumb vacancy and manly soulfulness he is the perfect blend of Stan Laurel, Steve McQueen and Keanu. I really like him and this not quite human, not quite shell role plays to his strengths. Wheresas Ford the blockbuster action hero, always felt out of time with the original’s dithering arthouse concerns, no one expects laser shoot-outs or boulder outrunning from a Gosling flick.
Many of his none narrative essential scenes hint at “skinner prejudice”. Even though 2049 is set in a world where replicants are subservient and commonplace, characters we assume are human are openly “racist” about them, getting in Gosling’s innocent faced killer’s face about his replicantcy and graffitiing his flat door with slurs. Why do I say “characters we assume are human”? I’m not entirely sure it is made clear any character is actually defined as human. One desk clerk refers to having a mother, but we know all skinjobs have implanted memories, mommy could be installed fiction. Other choose to believe they are special. The prejudice might not be as simple as human / replicant. Perhaps deluded replicant / self aware replicant? Or newer models / dangerous, rebellious Nexus 8s? Those relics of the past that kill and eat their babies and gave all docile replicants a bad name. Or quite simply replicants / killer replicants? Of which Gosling’s put-upon K is openly one.
Let’s say pretty much everyone in 2049, with a possible but debatable few exceptions, is replicant. Let’s go back to that theory that 2019 saw an LA where it was nearly all replicants and robots, running through their programs obliviously for a master who has lone gone. No one to switch them off, no one to retire them. They just run their loops and it looks like a dystopian civilisation to our untrained eyes. And now we are 30 years further from that abandonment and these toys have produced more updates of themselves and created their beliefs and delusions and lifestyles. Both self-aware replicants K and Sylvia Hoek’s Luv indulge in personal obsessions and have consumerist patterns not “necessary” for operational reasons, so what fanciful shit does a replicant unaware of their origins choose to cocoon themselves within? The society of abandoned replicants has evolved and fractured. Some believing they are, some believing they aren’t… but all mimicking the human greeds, lusts and hatefulness, they remember?
I’m leaning pretty heavy towards a reading that this might be the case. I find it hard to believe that a director as creative and smart as Villeneuve wouldn’t want to imbed another depth into the experience like Ridley attempted with the original. A good example is that there are two brutal murders of police “humans” yet neither seem to have any real consequences. Have these deluded replicants merely been retired and the deluded population just carry on in their loops avoiding acknowledging the absence and violence as they do all deaths? My strongest piece of evidence though is the Blackout. Soon after the events in the original, something happened that all events were wiped from “the cloud”. Now, from a narrative point of view this helps the detective mystery arc. Not all data is accessible like in our own present, meaning K has to explore and interrogate in a world that we, even in our less sophisticated reality, could get answers from with an IPad and a warrant. But from an artier metaphorical point of view, Villeneuve alludes to a world without history.
Where maybe the replicants decided once all their human creators had left the planet there was no need to have records that proved they were not humans. Maybe the information wiping cataclysm was a Stalinist rewriting of the past so they all could live the lie that their implanted memories and consumerist lifestyles of manicures and hologram dating services were real? I’ll leave that question hanging.
One piece of evidence that spoils my theory slightly is the orphanage full of worker children. Hundreds of them work as slave labour in an industrial dump just outside the metropolis. Replicants can’t reproduce so they must be human, surely? Unless the replicants produced a line of replicant children only to discover that having non ageing reminders of the childhoods they never had were troubling to the lie they are all operating under. So the kiddie replicant line were shunned out to the outskirts of LA for a life of unseen indentured labour? I’m clutching at straws. But why so many young orphans when every able bodied human left for the Off-World colonies 3 decades ago. I don’t remember seeing any children, with their families or running feral, in 2049’s street scenes. And we have that memory installed in K, belonging to Dr. Ana Stelline, of other orphans chasing her around the lower levels of the former factory. Why did they chase her? Could it be the other replicant children were bullying the outsider? The natural born, visibly ageing, possibly half human outsider. A growing child whose very existence proved their beliefs of being special was a lie. I’m getting lost down this rabbit hole, Blade Runner style.
The memory adds more deeper unresolved mysteries to what proves eventually to be a series of relatively straightforward plot revelations. About the midway point we are led to believe that K’s childhood memory of hiding a wooden horse from bullies means he might actually be a real boy as the case unearths physical evidence of the horse’s existence. By the end what we actually discover is the memory is not originally his but belongs to memory creator Dr Ana Stelline. She is the child of Deckard and Rachael, while he is merely still a blade running replicant with a secondhand backstory given to him at inception date.
From a detective narrative point of view the wooden horse memory serves its purpose. It means that K can connect dots in a way that no one else possibly could. Big unlikely coincidence but fair enough. And it effectively misdirected us and him into thinking the big revelation will be that he is “special”. But once the plot cashes in all its chips, the shared memory between K and its real owner doesn’t properly balance. We are told transferring real memories into replicants is illegal. So how did it fortuitously get into K? The suggestion is Stelline did it from her own memory. But she seems emotionally disturbed to see it in K. Too disturbed to say it is hers and save us another hour of movie legwork.
Those tears. Is she affected by reliving the memory again? Is she wracked with guilt that the replicant in front of her has her own troubling past as his comforting backstory? Is she angry that someone has used a decisive trauma from her own childhood without her knowledge? Or repentant that she has unfairly given this automaton her childhood trauma rather than a solace giving fiction now she is confronted by the clearly confused bot? Or is she scared that if she and K share the same memory then it might not be real and they both might replicants? Is she questioning her own very authenticity when she tearfully but vaguely verifies that the memory happened? Is she terrified the blade runner will kill her if her learns the truth, that is after all his sanctioned mission?
More importantly the movie never clarifies two important questions. Why implant it? Who implanted it? My reading on watching was that she has. And possibly in the hope that by putting the memory out there, in replicants who can explore the outside world, one might find the horse and then (somehow) her absent parents. The wooden horse memory is a Trojan Horse program, hiding a secret quest into all replicants who have it. And while that is how it works out, isn’t that a real long shot? One of the least theoretically practical ways of finding her parents? Surely giving K and others memories of the people who originally put her in her bubble chamber would be more effective. They are more traceable than a toy horse that might not still exist with a date on it that might not be carved anywhere else. And of course that is assuming she did indeed lay those breadcrumbs. Someone with another agenda may have forced the investigation by giving K his illegal real memory. Jared Leto’s Tyrell 2.0? Robin Wright’s police chief? Deckard himself? I don’t know the who or how but Dr Ana Stelline’s shocked reaction to seeing her memory in a confused replicant blade runner doesn’t tally with the theory that she has been illicitly giving replicants her own memories. Still we have decades to unpack all this.
Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that we meet Dr. Ana Stelline and Deckard, both are existing in glass bubbles cut off from LA of 2049. Stelline lives in a distant corporate outpost building, apparently unguarded and unpopulated, within a glass cell to protect her from an environment that would aggravate a genetic disorder. Deckard lives in the glass penthouse of an abandoned casino in the ghost city ruins of Las Vegas. Now this could just be visual foreshadowing on Villeneuve’s part. Placing father and daughter in similar environments so that when they are revealed to be related the clues were all there well before the twisty confirmation. “Cells. Within Cells. Within Cells. INTERLINKED.” As K’s baseline test interrogation machine would have us chanting.
But considering these are the two characters most likely to be humans in this potentially completely replicant world is it not noteworthy that they have also been shunned away from the hustle bustle of everyday replicant LA. That they might not be able to exist for prolonged times in this environment where trees are a rarity, so therefore oxygen must also be. Deckard could merely be in hiding, choosing toxic Vegas for his hermit like wilderness. And Stelline might not be allergic to the outside world at all. She seems fine as a kid running around the industrial orphanage back in the day. And the replicant underground rebellion movement we glimpse take credit for hiding her away in her cell. Maybe her condition is a lie, to hide this messiah like creature born of replicant woman from prying eyes of the authorities. Maybe she is so obviously human, even to deluded replicants, that having her hiding in plain sight among them would make all of LA realise none of them are authentic? Hence her and Deckard’s separation from society. The LA we are presented with is either inhospitable to actual humans or no longer used to them.
Why, for example, does Deckard need to be taken Off World to be tortured? Leto’s CEO Niander Wallace can kill his product with impunity within or outwith his pyramid office complex. What is so special about Deckard that he can’t be seen to be interrogated on Earth… or last for prolonged periods out there? His humanity, maybe? Just ideas…
And here’s another aside as I pick apart a film I acknowledge is trying to self consciously remain vague and unresolved for longevity’s sake… Would having replicants who reproduce really speed up Niander Wallace’s production cycle? His nefarious scheme is to find the child of replicants so he can reverse engineer that code. But seriously, having to wait for replicant babies to gestate and grow and develop like humans can’t possibly be faster in the short to medium term. That can’t be quicker than the boil in the bag ready-made adult method we witness, can it? The TV series Westworld answers these questions more conclusively. Physically creating fake humans is an overnight job seemingly, but imbuing them to react realistically with their environment – walk, talk and shoot convincingly like men – takes years of muscle memory programming. So in Westworld’s reality, the pre-existing automatons have a recyclable value over starting from scratch each time one is shot down. The hardware is easy to create, the software is what takes the irreplaceable man hours. And while this is a different universe, one you could even argue where all but the pleasure models don’t even need to act all that convincingly human, it betrays a world that maybe has not been a logically and consistently thought out enough. Wallace’s motivations for also chasing Deckard and Rachael’s child are sloppy and reactive at best.
Coming back to Westworld, a series that explores many shared themes as Blade Runner 2049, albeit more openly and definitively, there is a strong emphasis of the “replicants” existing for disposable physical entertainment, especially sexual. Obviously we also meet replicant prostitutes in 2049 but more distracting is their interaction with K. They seem to have no qualms about picking up another replicant as a john, just are put off by the fact he is a blade runner. Basic pleasure models and regular replicants having sexual transactions it is to be assumed is now commonplace. 2049 is a world were even the self aware skinjobs have sex lives, preferences and desires. To me that is a key piece of evidence that there are few if any humans left on Earth. When the cat’s away, essentially…. There’s also a telling interaction between Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi and K. She visits him after hours to talk about the case. But she lingers and implies that something else could happen if she stayed for another drink. I read this as she, K’s superior and potentially a human, had used the non pleasure model blade runner for sex before. And who could blame her? Gosling is a dreamboat. 2049 hints at a world were meaningless sex with and between the soulless machines is a fact of life. A far cry from the romantic fumblings and playground romances of 2019’s 4 year old replicants.
How telling that K’s romantic relationship is with a hologram program rather than something more flesh and blood? His needs are emotional. He wants the stability of a fake domesticity rather than a temporary fumble. His desire is more innocent yet also more mature. The Joi program is “Everything that you want” but tellingly what he wants is a real relationship. Sure, one that is subservient and dated but not gratuitously sexual. He even craves the authenticity that his Joi has superseded her programming and actually loves him. A comforting lie destroyed in 2049’s later scene where a grieving K interacts with a skyscraper sized advert for his lost love. Joi and K’s relationship is Blade Runner 2049 richest and most rewarding thread, thanks in the main to a complex performance by Ana De Armas.
So almost three more hours of Blade Runner gifts us with even more unsolvable puzzles, a few iconic performances, some indelible big screen art. Ford is also well used. I had a real sense of impending dread that Gosling was going to join LaBeouf, Driver and Dano on the roster of later period Harrison’s estranged sons, a cliche that has run its course. Instead Ford puts in a fine turn as a paranoid, uncertain Deckard who at least knows the real thing when he sees it. He adds some old school humanity to an inhumane world. Sure, he looks a little lost in the action but then there is very little action to get lost in. And if I had one true criticism of Blade Runner 2049 it is the lack of grand set pieces. The finale is bereft of anything like that chilling chase that closed the original. And at almost three hours even the most committed of us needs some pudding. It would bore the tits off a 9 year old.
Here’s the great thing about the Blade Runner universe though. It only seems to get better with ages. No termination date. I didn’t know how long we’d have together. Who does?