WARNING: This article contains spoilers, including discussion of the final scenes of the film. If you haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049, then hurry up and see it on the biggest screen with the best sound system you can find. Then come back and read this.
“You’ve never seen a miracle.”
The line, spoken by Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton early in Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), is apt not only in setting up the film’s narrative & thematic progression, but also in describing the film itself. That a sequel made thirty years after the original, peppered with occasional cameos from original cast members, could resist the modern blockbuster urge to go bigger, faster, louder and deliver a film that feels cut from the same cloth as the original is impressive. The fact that Blade Runner 2049, a major studio release, manages this in a way that does not feel a simple retread is, perhaps, miraculous.
Something tells me a great deal of ink will be spent picking apart the various links between Blade Runner and its sequel, and that is fine. Harrison Ford is back, along with a couple of other welcome faces, and in a post-Marvel world, we all love finding Easter eggs and connections that place films in direct continuity. But it also seems to me like the film’s invocation of that impulse is a deliberate red herring. As in the first film, Blade Runner 2049 uses the structure and semantics of the detective story/procedural (albeit with perhaps a bit less direct engagement with the original’s neo-noir style). Blade Runner K’s investigation into the mystery of Rachel’s child propels the protagonist (and by extension, the plot) all the way to its final moments. Ultimately, it is more or less irrelevant.
This is not to say that the story is not compelling. Its twists and turns draw us into the narrative, as procedurals and mysteries often do. But the most direct connective tissue between this film and its predecessor, the fate of Rick Deckard, is not something the film is particularly interested in exploring any more than it has to, and surprisingly little is done to further explicate or develop characters or events from the original Blade Runner.
This brings us to an otherwise unmemorable moment early in Blade Runner 2049. K (played by Ryan Gosling) has returned to his apartment after being debriefed on his “retirement” of Sapper Morton, and we are introduced to his relationship with the holographic Joi (Ana de Armas). Cycling through a list of activities to take his mind off work, Joi briefly suggests that K read to her. The novel she holds up, which K rejects because she “hates it,” is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This novel (my favorite by Nabokov, incidentally), is a fascinating piece of meta-narrative, ostensibly a poem titled “Pale Fire” by John Shade and annotations by Shade’s neighbor and colleague Charles Kinbote. However, the problem of the poem’s definitive status is questionable, as it is revealed multiple variants exist. The back matter is full of glosses and definitions that take the reader in circles without providing any real information. Also, Kinbote’s “annotations” rarely do much to illuminate the meaning of the poem, but instead digress into anecdotes about himself and his home country of Zembla; through these digressions it is further suggested that Kinbote might be the deposed and exiled king of Zembla. Or, perhaps, Kinbote is delusional and so identified with the story of the former king that he imagines himself to be that person. Some readings, including that of Nabokov (although here I must repeat to myself my mantra to always distrust authorial intent), suggest that Kinbote kills himself at the end of the story. Does any of this sound familiar?
I don’t mean to suggest that Blade Runner 2049 is a direct analogue to Nabokov’s novel – that would be silly and more than a little reductive. However, it’s clearly not an accident that K has this novel in his apartment, and I think understanding that relationship between narrative and metanarrative is useful in thinking about how Blade Runner 2049 relates to the original film. This is supported in part by the ways the film directly quotes the “poem” from Pale Fire – most obviously during K’s baseline sessions. But beyond those direct allusions, Blade Runner 2049 also draws from the novel in the way it seems uninterested in engaging directly with the themes and characters of the first film. The original Blade Runner is early cyberpunk. It is ultimately concerned, at least in part, with what it means to be human – particularly in a world of artificial life and technological enhancement. The part of the film still discussed and debated has less to do with the manhunt central to its plot, but rather the question of whether Deckard is a Replicant (still unresolved, by the way). Roy Batty gets at this in the moments before his death, and it is partly through Deckard’s confrontation with Batty (as well as his relationship with Rachel) that his own existence comes into question. In those final moments we see Batty is a disposable being made to die, and the things he has seen and experienced are as ephemeral as “tears in rain.”
By comparison Blade Runner 2049 has less to say about humanity. The bones of the original Blade Runner story are present, but even as 2049 gestures toward fleshing them out, it reveals its own divergent – or perhaps evolved – thematic interests. Those ideas from the original are still there in the background, but rather than further interrogating (or annotating) them, the film takes up themes better described as post-human and perhaps post-cyberpunk. The primary relationship of the film, the Replicant K and the holographic Joi, demonstrates just how thoroughly humanity has been removed from the equation. Yes, the film gives us the story of Deckard and his child, but almost out of obligation rather than narrative or thematic interest. The child must be protected we are told, but it doesn’t really matter who it is. Or, rather, it matters who it is not.
Unlike the ambiguous Rick Deckard, K is established as a Replicant from the beginning, although it is at times suggested (and he apparently wishes) that he is somehow special or unique. Is he, ultimately? Definitely not in the way he imagined. K is motivated initially by memories that suggest a strong familial connection to Deckard, but those memories are later revealed to be implants. The reunion of Deckard and his daughter is a necessary part of the conclusion, and the final moments of the film reveal a vulnerability in Harrison Ford that is distinct from his usual star persona. However, their reunion is not framed in a way that offers any real resolution. The girl’s holographic construction in that final scene, juxtaposed with K outside the building evokes a visual connection that helps to hammer home the conclusion K has already reached: K is not actually the child. He is an artificially created “chosen one” who effectively goes through the trials of his hero’s journey only to find that he is not the One. By subverting this trope the film not only puts a clever twist on what would otherwise have been a very predictable sequel, but it also displaces the fallout of the film’s climax from the personal to the global. K’s desire to write himself into Deckard’s story ultimately falls apart, just as Kinbote’s reflections in Pale Fire effectively break down identity and narrative rather than offering anything like illumination or elaboration. However, by bearing witness to the miracle alluded to by Morton in the opening scene he becomes part of a cause that is bigger than his individual Replicant existence. This is, thematically and emotionally, what the ending emphasizes. Replicants as a new evolving species have found strength in numbers and, through the symbol of the child, hope for their future not as humanity’s servants but as their successors. By the film’s final scene the rain has given way to snow, and in the snow tears don’t disappear – they freeze.