I'll come clean up front.
I LOVED Blade Runner: 2049. The all caps on "loved" hopefully conveys the extent of my admiration for the film. In a way, I was programmed to love this film, most prominently due to my admiration of the film's director, Denis Villeneuve, whose string of films over the past few years are unparalleled in their mastery. There isn't a bad one in the bunch. He's gone from good and great films to three masterpieces, three years in a row: Sicario, Arrival (my pick for best picture last year) and now, Blade Runner: 2049.
I was also counter programmed, ready to NOT love it, most prominently because I'm NOT an adoring fan of the original Blade Runner. Don't misunderstand me; I don't dislike the original, but I don't LOVE it either. It has its place in our filmmaking pantheon and I absolutely understand the effect it has had on the Sci-Fi genre, from its ground breaking production design to Ridley Scott's out of the box take with its noir-ish, detective style when it easily could have been a pure '80s, Stallone/Schwarzenegger-style action flick.
The result is far more interesting.
Yet I've never loved the original. I find it dull. Very slow-moving. Some of the scenes are just plain weird. Some of the scenes, however, stand alone as prime examples of the transcendent nature of film, particularly the final scene on the rooftop between Deckard and Roy:
"All those moments will be lost in time...like tears in rain."
Blade Runner: 2049 was a totally different experience. It took the best parts of the original and expanded upon them, fleshed them out to glorious lengths and left you wondering and wandering with the implications. It was such an odd mix of mystery, cerebral science-fiction, a tome on love and life, all told against a massive back-drop of blockbuster proportions.
SERIOUSLY, STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS.
The central storyline is quite simple. It's a mystery. Ryan Gosling's K character, while dispatching a replicant on one of his routine missions, discovers the distinct possibility of a child born between a replicant and a possible replicant. Its a discovery akin to that scene in Jurassic Park where a group of hatched eggs are found in the forest. How could these lab-produced creatures reproduce if they were designed not to reproduce? The answer in Jurassic Park is somewhat vague, with the suggestion of evolution inside the statement, "life always finds a way," but 2049 never even bothers to provide an answer, even a simplistic one.
2049 isn't really interested in answering such questions; it's more an excuse to drive the story forward in order to examine more fundamental ideas of humanity. I've boiled it down to three specific facets running through the film that spoke to me strongest: Memories, Life Cycle, and the Meaning of Life.
The use of memory is perhaps the strongest concept playing throughout both Blade Runner films, but it's used particularly effectively in 2049. Memories and how these vague images of our past lives give us the sense of true humanity is possibly the central conceit of Blade Runner.
In the first, it's the very suggestion of certain memories, exposed through rigorous questioning used by the Blade Runners, that reveals a replicant in its true form.
In 2049, it's played through to its extreme implications, driving the K character onto the brink of madness with the idea that his fake memories, as he's aware of them, are possibly real. You see it in his character progression as the walls that guide his path and block him are torn away through the course of the film, and deep, flawed, human emotion seeps through the cracks.
On the whole, Gosling's performance is quite controlled, his emotion accessible within an incredibly subtle approach, which makes the intense emotions breaking loose at moments all the more palpable.
Most notably when he visits a young lady about the truth behind one, very specific, memory does he become completely unhinged for a few moments. He's face to face with a reality that he can't even comprehend. That memory, the one he'd thought was fake, becomes very real to him...until he discovers that it was fake after all.
I got to thinking about my own memories, my past experiences that are supposed to qualify me as human and I find myself grasping at smoke. Think on your earliest memories and it's an elusive thing. I can't remember anything specific prior to perhaps four or five years of age and even those memories are like snapshots, frozen in time.
I often have the distinct feeling that I've made up some of my own memories--I'll bet if you're honest, you have that same sense. There are memories that I can't decide whether I've actually lived or if I've somewhat invented it, sort of like the nanoseconds after waking from a dream.
One way to view the film is through the lifespan of Ryan Gosling's character, K, from his eye-opening "birth" when he initially wakes inside his vehicle at the start, through the wrestling of his identity, all the way to his sacrificial death at the end.
An entire life told under three hours.
Within K's life, there is also the birth/life/death of Joi, his significant other. Sure, she's just a hologram, but she is birthed upon K's gift in the new program that allows Joi the ability to move beyond the confines of the apartment, followed by the transcendent moment of her walking outside for the first time, "feeling" the rain, her life of discovery as K follows clues leading to the central mystery, all the way to her death when Luv crushes the computer that holds her "life," thus murdering her.
These allusions abound further with Jared Leto's Wallace character killing the newborn replicant just after her birth, his obsession with finding ways to naturally birth replicants, and of course, there is the central mystery surrounding the child born from one replicant and another possible replicant in the characters of Sean Young's Rachel and Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard.
Even the idea of new life against the backdrop of a future Los Angeles decaying before our eyes, the once beautiful city on the coast, covered by smog and acid rain and slowly decomposing into rot, is quite provocative.
I know, I know, just the suggestion of a discussion on "the meaning of life" opens a neverending can of worms and brings to mind somewhat vague notions of philosophy's greatest mystery. Yet I believe it's a subject coursing through Blade Runner: 2049.
There's a moment toward the end when Deckard has been captured by Wallace, K has had to face the truth of his existence and he has (essentially) three choices: do nothing, save Deckard, or kill Deckard. The decision he makes decides his life's meaning. He risks his life, and sacrifices it, for the greater good of his (replicant) kind. He devotes his life to the cause of a more unified world, even if it means blood and tears in the short term.
He, in effect, creates his own meaning through his personal decision.
And without any great declaration, don't we decide our own life's meaning by everyday decisions on how we spend our days and the way we tackle serious issues? That's to say that there is no ONE meaning, but each of us contain separate meanings within each of our lives, some with bigger implications for the world than others.
Beyond these three branches running through the central trunk of the storyline, I found so much more in every scene. Virtually each frame bursts at the seams with nods to how we live now and how we might progress into the future, with far reaching implications.
Take one scene, about midway through the film, when K is headed to an orphanage in search of the missing child. Every part of this sequence is spilling over with moral quandaries we're dealing with now, but taken to extreme, yet quite realistic, lengths. The San Diego of the future is a massive trash heap, the charred out buildings looking like something out of a nuclear fever dream with roving bands of "illegals," people living on the fringes of society, feasting on the burned-out carcass of a world that once was.
When one of these bandits takes down K's car and he's on the ropes, about to be taken hostage, killed, or worse, a missile suddenly strikes down on top of an assailant. BOOM. He's gone. Wiped from the earth. More missiles follow, taking out--in seconds--a small army of these bandit people.
Cut to a room, a hundred miles away, to the central antagonist, Luv, getting her nails painted and wearing an odd pair of sunglasses. She's not even looking at the person painting her nails, but rather INTO the glasses. It's immediately understood that she is the one commanding the missiles being fired. She is the one playing war games on people she'll never meet. In seconds, from miles away, while getting her nails painted, Luv has killed dozens upon dozens of people.
It's such a compelling idea because as a viewer, you're conflicted by the fact that K has just been saved yet it was accomplished without a judge, jury or trial.
Or take the erotic love scene with Joi inviting the prostitute over and compositing her digital body over the real woman's form. It was an incredible scene, quite moving, as K is able to touch his girlfriend for the first time, his skin on hers. But I started thinking about the way many people invite the digital world into their own home and how it can easily supersede the real people inside, how we all make digital imprints on facebook, twitter and elsewhere and how it takes over our very real life.
There are so many scenes like these, just waiting to be deconstructed, mined for their detail, thought on and argued about. Even if you didn't like the film, just like the first Blade Runner, it is teeming with ideas and thoughts on the world. Quite simply, there aren't enough films released, at this level, with this type of budget, that provoke this kind of meaning.
As is well-known, Blade Runner: 2049 did not fare well on the expectations in terms of box office. I hope that isn't the end of its story. I hope the legs on this one are long, to be played out over the next few decades, much like its predecessor, that it doesn't disappear like tears in the rain.