Blade Runner 2049 has arrived at an odd time. Back when the original was released, 2019 seemed eons away, and the ravaged, rain-soaked cyberpunk Los Angeles seemed entirely within reach. The Cold War was at its height, and the Three Mile Island incident had highlighted just how easy it would be for America to succumb to environmental devastation. And what’s more, Ronald Reagan, a goddamned actor, had stepped up as president. Absurdity and impending disaster made Blade Runner damn near plausible.
Which makes Blade Runner 2049 practically prophetic – state sanctioned psychopathy, environmental nightmares and human rights abuses are reaching fever pitch in America. Watching this film feels less like an if, and more like a when.
But you already figured that out, right? Blade Runner is, for my money, one of the best films ever made. It’s a detective story, true, but it’s also got a sense of place so distinct and tethered to reality that every sight, sound and smell in it feels utterly palpable. If you’ve not sat under an awning in the rain at night at a sushi stand and even for a brief moment been convinced you were Rick Deckard, you haven’t lived.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, the film is good. But what I want to run you through today is why I think it’s both the first true noir film we’ve had in decades, and a surprisingly warm and generous spin on an utterly hopeless world. The following section is for those of you who’ve already seen Blade Runner 2049. You have been warned.
Film noir was such a bracing, angry, visceral cinematic movement because it reeked of post-war hurt. Heroes went from white to grey, often completely fumbling any attempt at heroism, if they even got that far. It was like seeing the horrors of war damaged them, leading to films in which broken men and women careened off each other before quietly imploding in stark black and white.
Many of the detectives in these films were literally haunted ex-soldiers, who’d come back from the war and signed up with the force. In Blade Runner 2049, there’ve been wars, largely manned by replicant soldiers, and the entire world of the film reeks of post-war blues. There’s a sense of constant, and recent, conflict. In the midst of this, however – as with all good noir – there’s a mystery, and a very personal one at that.
After the events of the first film, Deckard and Rachel, hunted, run off together. They somehow have a baby, and realising the kid will be killed if anyone finds out who (and what) it is, they scatter – Deckard scrambles records to keep the kid safe. Rachel dies in childbirth. The Doctor and midwife go into hiding.
Blade Runner 2049 opens with K, a surprisingly relatable replicant tasked with hunting down other Nexus models. He is hated by most, if not all, of his colleagues. He lives a quiet life in which he and his holographically projected AI girlfriend attempt to have something akin to the human experience. He is tasked with hunting down the very same Doctor who delivered Rachel and Deckard’s child (though he doesn’t find this out until much later). Upon retiring said Doctor, he finds the remains of a body hidden under a tree.
The remains reveal a terrible secret: a replicant has given birth. The revelation that this manufactured slave populace are in fact capable of creating life prompts the K’s chief to order the evidence destroyed but K, drawn in by the implications of what this might mean, begins to dig – he is, after all, a detective, and this is a detective story. We begin to witness the dawning revelation that he has memories, very specific ones, of childhood, and as he continues to dig and chase down the clues, he finds out the following.
The body belongs to a replicant named Rachel, who was interviewed by Rick Deckard. Genetic material leads him to an orphanage outside of LA, where he finds the exact site of his childhood memories. He finds the horse he hid as a boy, complete with his inception date, etched on the bottom. Records of this year are torn from the orphanage archives.
He visits Ana, a young woman who creates memories for Wallace, and she verifies that his flashbacks are, in fact, real memories. K is now convinced he is this miracle child. Eventually he ends up finding Deckard, assuming he’s met his father. The two are torn apart by Wallace’s prodigal daughter, the replicant Luv. K (now mortally wounded) is rescued by the midwife Freysa, head of an army of ready-to-rebel replicants, and is told that the miracle child is a daughter, not a son. He finds out he isn’t Deckard’s kid, and is tasked with killing the man who, even if only briefly, he came to think of as his father.
The core of this story is deeply human, and when viewed through the prism of noir, miraculous. On the one hand, we have Rick Deckard. We still don’t know for sure whether he’s a replicant, or if Tyrell planned he and Rachel having a child together to usher in a new dawn of freedom for replicants, nor does this matter – the fulcrum of Blade Runner has always been that humanity is something you have to earn through your actions. Deckard rescued Rachel, ran away with her, and they fell in love. They made a miracle, and even if their lives together weren’t long for this world, they knew that was always on the cards. It’s just like Gaff said all those years ago: it’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does? Hell, maybe he knew she couldn’t survive childbirth.
Regardless, Deckard had a win, and lived out the intervening years with books, and booze, and Elvis, and his dog, away from the noise and nightmares of Los Angeles, far happier a life than most noir heroes end up with. And though he had to give up his child Ana to save her, he ensured that she survived. And in the end, he finally meets her. Whether he runs off with her or simply says hi and disappears back into the haze outside Los Angeles is unclear, but it’s still an unmitigated win for Deckard.
Then there’s K, a replicant detective who against all odds finds a chance to be human. He encounters a man who is, for all intents and purposes, his dad. He disobeys orders and eschews the wishes of a faction of rebels to do the right thing and save Deckard; even when he finds out he isn’t the child Rachel had, and that his memories aren’t real, even as his fatal wound refuses to close up, he selflessly resolves to reunite Deckard with his daughter. This machine decides to be as doggedly human as he can be, and does the most human thing of all: he follows the advice he was given – by Deckard – that loving someone sometimes means losing them. And then, his job done, his humanity earned, he lies back, basking in his accomplishments, enjoying the snow falling on his face, and dies. Go back and watch the expression K wears in the final scenes. He’s bucked against his programming, fought against his orders and subverted expectations on all sides, and he’s euphoric with his accomplishments. He gets it. He found his humanity. He found a dad, saved him, and then lays back to enjoy the weather.
We don’t just get a happy ending in Blade Runner 2049, we get two. The films two heroes could throw themselves into the fire and martyr themselves to start an uprising, but in the end they choose love over everything else. Because if you lose your humanity to make monumental changes to the world, what’s the point?
If noir films or novels ever had wins, they were small, scrappy ones. They were deeply personal. Rarely, though, are they achieved with such dignity and closure as they are in Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now.
Paul Verhoeven is host of Steam Punks on ABC ME and of the weekly gaming podcast, 28 Plays Later. His first novel, Loose Units, is out through Penguin Publishing in late 2018.