Warning: The following entry contains spoilers for the original Blade Runner (1982) and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017). If you have not watched these films yet and are planning to, I advise you to click away and come back after you’ve done so. However, if you’ve watched both of these films or if spoilers don’t scare you, you plucky reader you, do feel free to stick around.
It was in the middle of Film Theory and Appreciation class. As usual, I was sitting in the front row of our small classroom, eagerly awaiting the film our lecturer Mr Khong was about to play. We were discussing about postmodernism in films, and of course, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) was an ideal specimen for us to scrutinise.
It didn’t take long before I realised that I had seen this film before, but growing up in a conservative family, the kids were not allowed to watch films with ‘adult’ themes. So I only remembered fragments of the beginning, namely the establishing shot of the city. I recalled feeling confused by the oversized digital billboards, entranced by the bright neon lights on buildings and umbrellas, and also the craving I get for instant ramen when Rick Deckard was ordering food at the roadside stall. I wasn’t allowed to watch the scenes after that back then, probably because of the violence and nudity that appeared later on. Right now, I’m still unsure of which version we had, so I’m just going to leave it at that. The one that I watched later on as a student in college was the 2007 Final Cut version, if any of you are wondering.
Moving along: I didn’t watch Blade Runner 2049 when it first came out in theatres, mainly because there were a lot of sequels that came out around the time and I have a series of bad memories when it comes to them, generally falling under the umbrella of “Why was this movie even made?” argument. Therefore, I only watched it recently one day when I was having a lunch break by myself and wanted to watch something on Netflix.
The verdict? I thought it was good. Okay, fine. It’s a great sequel! It’s worthy of the title. The characters, the plot, and the twist-ish ending were all done well, in my opinion. I haven’t felt emotionally invested while watching anything in the longest time, because foreshadowing can really be on the nose in some films. As a result of that, whenever I spot a character who’s waving one too many death flags, I just naturally brace myself to not get emotional when they die or when something terrible happens to them. Well, this is a better move than to not give me a pay-off after the foreshadowing, which is a pretty cheap excuse to put in a “twist ending”, or have the writers/director go “Hey, remember this plot device?” right in the audience’s faces.
I have to admit that I was surprised by how strongly I feel about this film. It may have to do with the aforementioned scepticism I have for sequels. Anyway, this film took advantage of an aspect of sequels that not a lot of films did, especially sequels that were not originally part of a series like Harry Potter or Star Wars.
First of all, Blade Runner 2049 saved time in terms of establishing the premise of the cinematic universe, because that was already done in the first film. Yes, it does have some form of exposition, but the most obvious one that we get is the text we see in the opening:
I’m going to segue back to the original Blade Runner film for a bit. The biggest theme of the film is the distinction between human and replicant, which is something that looks very much like a human being, only they were manufactured. So the issue is this: How can something that looks human and thinks like a human being not be human? Rachael, who is a replicant, was revealed to not be aware that she was a replicant in the beginning. She was given memories of a childhood when she had none, and she has shown emotions that were supposed to be naturally human.
Coming back to the sequel, we don’t need to be told about this again. However, we were given a brief refresher of this by Sapper. Amidst the brawl between Sapper and our protagonist K (reference to Kafka’s The Castle? Or am I reading into this too much?), the former remarked on how different the two of them are, despite them both being replicants. Then, he noted that they are different because K has not witnessed a miracle like he had. Sapper’s faith in something unexplainable by logic is, again, very human. And in contrast, the human characters, such as Lt. Joshi and Niander Wallace, were depicted as individuals who lacked empathy by how they treated these non-humans, despite their intended design.
Take Mr. Wallace for instance. For someone who manufactures replicants, he should be aware of how they looked like, despite being visually-impaired. If he wanted these replicants to not appear human and have human-like behaviour, he could have made the changes to make them appear less like a real person. A change in design could explain the lack of empathy shown by the humans to the replicants because, after all, they don’t even look like us. However, that’s not the case. Replicants, even the new ones, looked very much like humans and they expressed human emotions such as fear, anger, and love.
I wish I could say the same for Joi, but despite her appearing genuine in most scenes, the moment after she was ‘decommissioned’, we were shown another massive billboard scene as if to tell us that all the things she said about love and loneliness were most likely choreographed to an algorithm that matched what K wanted. Of course, this wasn’t the first time the audience is shown who, or rather what Joi really was. The film told us this already at the midpoint of the film, and that was before K headed out to Vegas to find Deckard.
Additionally, I would like to point out that this remark on the irony of humanity or non-humanity was not spelt out for the audience. The first film did a more subtle job than the sequel, but this is still good. Because when it was once again time for an exposition, the scene was delivered in a meaningful manner, and truth be told, I felt K’s shock and shame when he realised that he wasn’t so special after all.
Among the many scenes that foreshadow the ending is the Vegas scene when K arrived to find Deckard. Flashing lights from the stage against the darkness of the hall, the sporadic music that blared from the speakers, and also the selection of music in the hall were enough to make us feel uncomfortable and second-guess when the next interval of music is going to play again, and hence reflecting what the duo may be feeling upon this introduction to one another.
Science fiction, much like fantasy, is like a gateway to endless possibilities and themes that could be jarring and/or offensive when they are put in real-life scenarios. Which is why, unfortunately, there are a lot of newer films, books, video games, etc., in the speculative fiction genre that can get rather messy when they want to be inclusive or as the savvy kids call it, edgy and #woke. However, they end up spreading themselves too thin and while some people can appreciate having a lot of themes included within a single film or book, others might find it disorientating. Hence, this is why I find myself enjoying Blade Runner 2049. True, the themes are not as complex as, say Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell (Sorry, the 2017 live-action remake was fine, but the themes discussed weren’t as critical as Oshii’s first Ghost in the Shell film). However, the Blade Runner’s sequel knows where it’s going from the very beginning, and that already deserves a gold star.