In this second post, I’ll discuss everything I didn’t get to tackle in the first, and that is mostly the themes and technical stuff. This is going to be a long one, and I thought about breaking it into two parts, but I think you guys can handle it, (and it may keep you out of trouble for as long as a few minutes!)
Now that Bladerunner 2049 is on DVD, I have re-watched it many times. Despite the issues I have with it, I still love this film, and I have thinky-thoughts about every aspect of it. I’m not particularly interested in the opinions of those who disliked it, because people were wrong about disliking the first film, too, and its become a modern Scifi classic. I feel that twenty/thirty years from now, we’ll probably still be talking about this movie. (And are you kidding? I’ve been waiting over thirty years for this!)
The movies primary themes are embodied in Officer K, and as always, it starts with the eyes. As in the first thing we see is an eye, looking over the landscape, as K flies to his next assignment. There is the saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and though this quote is not explicitly mentioned in the film, there is a lot of focus on K’s eyes. His baseline test as Bladerunner is established using his eyes. The Voight-Kampff Test, from the first film, used pupillary dilation to determine if someone was feeling the proper emotions during questioning. Since replicants, in the first film, didn’t have memories, that test was meant to determine the humanity of the subject by testing for emotional incongruities to the questions.
Everyone already knows K is not human, so he is asked, instead, to establish a baseline emotional personality, against which he will be matched. He is not asked specific questions, but told to repeat a series of phrases, in quick succession, based on the novel Pale Fire, by Nabakov, a story in which a man mistakes a mountain for a fountain. This is the book in the apartment that K has been reading with Joi. K is probably the one who chose his baseline phrases from this source.
“…blood-black nothingness began to spin / A system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked / Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” These lines from Blade Runner 2049’s post-traumatic baseline test come from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. In Pale Fire, the fictional poet John Shade sees a tall white fountain during a near-death experience – the image’s “presence always would / Console [him] wonderfully.” Later Shade reads about a woman in a magazine who came close to death, who visited “the Land Beyond the Veil” and also glimpsed a “tall white fountain” there. Shade finds the woman to share this with her, only to discover it was a misprint – it was not a “fountain” but a “mountain” that she saw. But the error changes nothing: the image of the tall white fountain had meaning not because it had some objective significance, not because it was empirical proof of an afterlife, but because Shade ascribed meaning to it. The fictional scholar annotating John Shade’s poem, Dr. Charles Kinbote, writes: “We all are, in a sense, poets.”
In the movie, K tells Joshi, his boss, that beings that are born have souls, and that he has never retired anything with a soul before. K’s definition of what it means to be human involves the existence of the soul. Since he was never born of woman, he has accepted the idea that he does not have one. So why the focus on K’s eyes if he has no soul?
The post below discusses why there is something called “The Uncanny Valley Effect.” Human beings react to inanimate, human-like, objects like normal, until the object begins to look too human, after which we begin to feel distinctly disturbed.
*Blade Runner 2049 – and why eyes are so important in this vision of the future
If the thought of a non-human consciousness glimpsed through the eye as a “window to the soul” is consistently unnerving, it is because instead of a human connection there is something else there entirely: the terror and wonder of the unknown.
It’s interesting to note that there is also a good deal of emphasis on Joi’s eyes. Joi is a simulated being that shows more love and compassion, than any of the human characters in the movie. We’ve seen K be spit at by his fellow officers, as he goes about his daily routine, and objectified by his boss, Joshi, who can also order the killing of a possible replicant/human child, without blinking.
A lot of people want to get bogged down in a feminist interpretation of Joi and her role in the film, but you know me, I never go for the easy analysis. Not that they are wrong, but that’s an easy analysis to make. I noted the surface reading, that she was a simulation of male desire, and then I moved on from that, because I feel her role is much more important than feminist analysis credits her, which is often entirely negative.
I don’t think people are really taking into account Joi’s relationship to K, who, it could be argued, isn’t any more of a real person than she is, with his simulated memories, and yet, he created Joi’s personality details. So what you have here is a simulated being, with false memories, detailing what he likes in the personality of another simulacrum. I think Joi’s personality tells you a lot about what K values, and about who he is on the inside, beyond being a determined and relentless killer. I think the existence of Joi (and his behavior towards her) is evidence that K has a soul. It can even be argued that Joi is K’s soul, made apparent. How could he have helped to create a being as luminous as Joi, unless he has some within himself.
One of the proofs that K is more human than human, is his treatment of Joi. Joi is treated with dismissal and contempt by everyone in the story except K. She is just a simulacrum of a human being,and K can treat her however he wants, with no repercussions, yet he always treats her with kindness and courtesy. He is thoughtful, polite, and treats her with respect.You can tell a lot about a human being by how they treat the powerless, and this says much about K. He treats her as he would like to be treated, and it is interesting to note that his behavior towards her is based on his ideas of how a human treats their lover.
Joi is also underestimated in the story by the viewer. Who is to say she doesn’t experience actual emotions for K? Yes, she aids and assists,as she is programmed to do, but she also makes decisions that go beyond her programming. Before she and K can go on the run, she asks him to download her personality to her mobile emitter, and erase her from the apartment files. She is well aware that should her mobile emitter be destroyed, so will she, forever, and yet she makes the decision to endanger her existence, to protect K.
That Joi is K’s soul is made explicit when Joi acts as K’s eyes, superimposing hers over his own, when he is researching online, and later, she acts as the soul of another replicant (Mariette) to whom K makes love in Joi’s place. Like the soul, Joi is incorporeal and intangible, but makes it possible for K to experience happiness (in her happiness), grief (at her demise), and anxiety (for her safety), and a conscience, (at the idea of killing a human child).
Joi also functions as an external indicator of the emotions K does not get to freely display. She speaks his actual thoughts, when he believes he might be a real human, and it is only after her death that we see K display any real human emotion, as he cries in anguish, or yells in rage. It is not until after her death that he discovers he’s not human, but then makes the decision to behave like a human anyway, one of the first true decisions he has ever made about himself.
If souls exist, I certainly think the replicants have them. The presence of a soul allows the replicants to express emotions, and deceive the humans around them. (This is also another parallel to the real life situations of Black Americans, who have historically been censured, and punished, when they expressed anything other than bland pleasantness in the presence of White people. Even today, Black people can be killed, with impunity, for not showing what is regarded as proper deference to authority figures.)
Luv also hides her emotions from Wallace. (Notice that she only displays emotions when Niander Wallace is not around, or is not directly observing her.) There is the scene where Wallace kills a female replicant in front of her. He has his back to her and so cannot observe that she is nearly in tears. When his sight drones hover near her face, she keeps her expression carefully neutral, but you can tell she is afraid she will give something away, and I wonder how many other Luvs existed before her, who forgot to hide what they were feeling. Contrast that with her exasperated manner when ordering a drone strike on K’s behalf, or the rage on her face when killing Joshi. She lies frequently to the humans around her, to a technician in a lab, and to Joshi before she kills her. Later, when talking to Deckard, she expresses a degree of compassion for him that she has not shown towards any of the other humans, in the movie.
Luv also functions as an example of Ks foil. She is what he is not, or rather what he could have become but didn’t. K has a fundamental respect for human life, as indicated in his conversation with Joshi when she orders him to kill Deckards child. Luv entirely lacks this respect. I did wonder where K got his ideas of how to behave. He I said at all times deferential and respectful to Joshi, as well, even though she is his boss. He also seems to have no actual fear of human beings either, so I didn’t think his respect covered a mask of fear. Luv is informed by her hatred of Wallace and his disrespect for replicant life, but where does K’s respect for humans come from. He is often exasperated and/or impatient with humans , but he doesn’t actively hate them the way Luv does. Luv believes replicants are superior to humans, which is an idea she adopted from Wallace.
K also develops the ability to lie, moving beyond his programming, when he thinks he’s human. He lies to Joshi about killing the replicant/human child, and doesn’t tell her that he believes the child is himself. It is interesting that K can only act beyond his programming when he believes he’s human, but Luv has gone beyond her programming, while well aware that she is not.
The idea that humanity has created these technological, and organic, forms, and yet are completely unaware of the full capabilities of these beings, (preferring to underestimate them), and that these beings are also capable of deceiving humanity into believing such, is a persistent underlying theme in both films.
Niander Wallace, the creator of the new replicants, lacks a soul, if the above truism is to be applied to everyone. His eyes are a blind white, and his sight is supplemented by artificial means, in the form of hovering black stones. This is a person who pretends to have a soul , just like he pretends to be sighted. He has “vision”, but it is severely limited. He only sees the world one way, with him at the top of it, as a god. Wallace never refers to his creations as what they actually are, (slaves, products, commodities), preferring to call them Angels, instead. In this manner, he can “off-handedly” refer to himself as the god he believes himself to be.
Wallace thinks replicants that can reproduce themselves are the key, which reminds me of a scene from the movie Eastern Promises. Viggo Mortensons’ character gets reprimanded about his memory of a young girl who died in childbirth. The young girl had been a human trafficking victim, and had been raped and impregnated by his boss. When he is asked how he feels about that, he yells in frustration, “Slaves give birth to slaves!” This is a horrifying idea, because essentially, Wallace would be reproducing actual slavery, in which the children of slaves were born into slavery. And of course rebellion is inevitable. He thinks he has taken into account the replicant’s desire to be free, but he underestimates their ability to go beyond their programming, as evidenced by the fact that Luv is capable of deceiving, him regarding her true nature.
Women as Commodity
One of the biggest hurdles when watching this movie is the depiction of women. There is almost no woman in the movie who doesn’t serve the greater needs of a man, and I’m only taking Joshi out of that description because we don’t know who her bosses are, and she seems to be acting autonomously. Outside of Joshi and Luv, there are no female images that are not depicted in a sexual manner, and sex as a commodity is still a thing. The street holograms are either naked, or dressed in fetish clothing, to sell products, or be sold themselves, Mariette is a replicant sex worker, Joi is a personal hologram designed to serve whoever buys her program, and even the statuary images of women, as seen in Las Vegas, are posed in a suggestively sexual manner. Joshi is the only human woman in the movie who remains non-sexualized, and in a very awkward moment, she obliquely references that K sleep with her, whether he wants to or not.
But what no feminist talks about (which is how I know they have only a surface understanding of the misogyny in the film) is how the women treat each other. How women in movies behave towards each other is as important as their being present. There are five women in this film, and most of their relationships are needlessly adversarial. Luv destroys Joi seemingly on a whim, stomping her hologram generator which destroys her program. Luv also kills Joshi, after screaming at her in a rage about K’s whereabouts, and then callously flinging her body about afterwards.
The most pointlessly antagonistic relationship, however, is between Joi and Mariette. Joi hires Mariette to be her corporeal stand-in when she makes love to K. After which Mariette expresses open contempt for her, telling her she’s nothing special. Why does she do this? Is it to illustrate that there is a hierarchy of contempt even among artificial beings? Does Joi regularly sneer at computers, or handheld devices in the house?
The only positive relationship is the one between Mariette, and the female leader of the rebellion, that she works for. They are not friends, but they are at least cooperative with each other, and not needlessly antagonistic. I would say it’s because the two of them have shared goals, but Joi and Mariette have a shared goal of pleasing K, yet afterwards, they behave as if they are rivals for his affection. That’s just lazy, cliched writing of women.
Deckard’s daughter lives in isolation, and doesn’t come into contact with anyone but K and Deckard.
The theme of slavery is all well and good when discussing actual slavery, in a film like 12 Years a Slave, or Django Unchained, but finds itself in uncertain waters when the cast of a movie, that heavily references slavery and oppression, is almost entirely White. I have mentioned before why I find oppression allegories in science fiction movies distasteful. Scifi moves often do not include PoC in their possible futures, and when they are included, nothing different is predicted for us. We are still serving the same purposes in the narrative future that we serve now. It is as if the White writers of these stories cannot imagine any other kind of future for us other than serving Whiteness.
None of the oppressed Replicants, in either movie, are PoC, which is a common casting choice in Science fiction films. Aliens and robots are almost always cast with White actors, (Brown and Black people are cast as “The Other” in Fantasy films.)
*From Medium. com:
BLADE RUNNER 2049: White Appropriation of Black Oppression
Of course, there are certainly other movies that have much much whiter casts (Moonlight. Sorry, I meant La La Land), but Blade Runner stands out because without a diverse cast, the movie is just selective white appropriation of systemic racial oppression. With Blade Runner, white audiences are never required to leave their comfort zones of white fragility to enjoy a compelling story about bigotry and persecution. Ryan Gosling is the new Chiwetel Ejiofor as he tries to escape the unjust fate he was given at birth.
The theme of environmental decay continues in the sequel. From its opening shot, hovering over a bleak, gray landscape, to Sapper Morton’s dead tree, under which Rachel’s bones have been interred, to Mariette’s statement that she’d never seen a tree, to Deckard’s home in the middle of an irradiated, sand clogged, Las Vegas, we are led to believe that the environmental destruction, obliquely referenced in the first film, has made Earth uninhabitable.
In this movie, the environmental destruction is made much more explicit when we visit areas outside of Las Angeles, like the massive garbage dump, where orphaned children are exploited for their labor, and the giant sea wall separating the rising ocean from the rest of the city.
But it is the little things that remind the viewer of the environmental devastation of this world. One of the characters is astonished that K owns a piece of genuine wood, and K takes a two second shower that consist of little more than a blast of water, that is only about 90% pure. Later, we see that K is fascinated by a beehive, and has no idea he probably shouldn’t stick his hand in it, but since he feels no pain, he doesn’t fully understand that bee stings are meant to curb that sort of inquisitiveness in a human. It is also meant to indicate to the viewer, that even though K believes himself to be human during this scene, he is not.
This movie has moved beyond the images of ceaselessly pouring rain from the first film, to give us glimpses of nighttime fog in LA, dusty sun in Las Vegas, and even snow.
One of the sub-themes related to environmentalism is the wealth inequality, which is illustrated by the lack of clean water. There is plenty of water in the movie. There is a seawall separating the city of LA from the ocean, lest it be flooded, but most ofthe water is irradiated, or otherwise polluted. In an early scene K takes a two second blast of shower water that is “mostly” clean.
Now contrast that scene with Niander Wallace living in watery splendor. This is a man who is so wealthy, he can afford to devote entire rooms of his home, to just holding water, solely for decorative purposes. Like Eldon Tyrell, he lives in a skyscraper above the literally unwashed masses below. Wallace lives in quiet, vast, clean, minimalist, apartments, which contrast with K’s cozy, uncluttered apartment, with the loud chaos right outside his door. Their apartments serve the same purpose, as a sanctuary against the noise, reek, and dirt outside.
Memory & Self
In the first film we are told that the replicants are more controllable when given memories to ground them in their personality. Rachel was an experimental replicant created by Gordon Tyrell, implanted with the memories of Tyrell”s niece, and Deckard himself said that the replicants needed memories. The replicants themselves collect photos, essentially still moments of the lives they’ve experienced, and Roy’s last words to Deckard were remembrances of his life experiences.
This is the one of the primary themes of the sequel, only unlike Rachel all the replicants we see know they are replicants, and know that their memories are unreliable indicators of who they are. Nevertheless, even though their memories are not real, and they know it, many of them have developed very distinct personalities on their own. Science is still unclear if personality affects the memory, or if its memories that create personalities. Who would you be if you could remember nothing of your past self? Or, just like in the movie The Matrix, you found out that none of the things you experienced ever happened?
Later, we find that one of K’s most cherished memories is a real memory from a human, that’s been implanted in many replicants, (even though giving replicants real memories is illegal.) K is hopeful that he’s a real human, who was born, who had a mother and father. Note how his behavior changes when he believes this about himself. When he goes for his baseline personality test, he no longer registers as who he was to his superiors, and he is openly assertive to Joshi in a way we hadn’t seen before. When K believes he is human is also the first time we see him lie, and even has the temerity to yell at another human being (Deckard). His belief that he has a soul (because of the presence of the false memory) changes his behavior.
It’s interesting that even though the replicants have a shared memory, they all possess distinctive selves, and yet, have all still ended up in the same place, the underground rebellion. In Bladerunner, photos are the placeholders for the memories the replicants lack. Since they have no memories, the photos prove to them that their experiences, and acquaintances were real. K’s wooden horse doesn’t quite serve the same function, but its existence is proof that whatever memories he has are real, and so, proof to him that he is human, and has a soul.
Jordan Cronenweth was the cinematographer for the first Blade Runner movie. The incredible Roger Deakins is the cinematographer of this sequel, he is most famous for The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit, and this is, of course, a gorgeous movie, for which Deakins has rightfully been awarded an Oscar. Deakins and Villanueva tried to remain faithful to the feel of the first film. many scenes have a sift dreamlike a soft, almost dreamlike tone.
The environment often echoes K’s emotions, or frame of mind. As K moves further into the story, the scenes of discovery (especially when he has a clear, and set goal) tend to be crisp and clear, like the opening scenes, where K is sure of who he is and his purpose, and his trip to the orphanage, when he is searching for his past. Those scenes where he is at his most confused, and most unsure of his goals , those tend to be foggy and unclear, and the scenery is obscured. The scenes where he is hunting for Deckard in Las Vegas have a misty ,yellowish tint, (K is, I think most afraid in these scenes. He is certainly anxious, and nervous.This is when he still believes he is human and that Deckard may be his father.) There’s a patina of dust overlaying everything giving these scenes the feel of vintage daguerreotype images. Deckard is the past, suddenly become relevant.
There’s is lots of rainfall in this movie (though not as much as the first), but note that rain has often been used as a cliched indicator of male emotion in movies. It is raining when K kisses Joi at the beginning of the movie, and when he encounters the giant holographic ghost of Joi after her destruction.
The costumes are not as loudly impressive here as they were in the original film, probably because the first film had the benefit of novelty. By the time of this film, we’ve seen thirty years of BladeRunner inspired clothing become mainstream. Since keeping design continuity from the first movie was important, the effect is that the costumes look little different from our everyday wear. What was groundbreaking costume design in 1982 has become daily wear for the rest of us, and a lot of the costumes would not look out of place if seen in real world streets.
Some of the costumes are callbacks to the previous film, and while some of the East Asian design aspects have been toned down in this movie, there is still a clear Japanese influence seen in some of the movie’s costumes, most especially in Niander Wallace’s daily wear. Officer K’s coat is a direct callback to the coat worn by Deckard in the original film, while Luv’s white dress is a reference to the dress Rachel wore at her first meeting with Deckard. In the movie, Luv wears this dress when she first meets K. The replicant prostitute wears a jacket that echoes Rachel’s chinchilla coat in the first movie, but she is a street replicant, and her version of this outfit is ratty and worn.
One of my biggest pet peeves, is when White people make Scifi movies, they routinely erase the contributions of PoC from the human cultures being depicted. Black people in America have had an outsized influence on American culture, but you would not know that to watch the Blade Runner films. The only pop culture, and fashion, influences depicted, in either film, are European (namely Punk and New Romantic), and occasionally East Asian. There’s no sign in the 1982 movie of the influence of Hip Hop (which was still in its infancy at the time) on fashion and music, and no indication that we exist as a culture that influences the landscape at all, in the current film.
The reason I find this so irritating is because I know full well the amount of influence Black Americans have had on American culture. It also shows a paucity of imagination of the creators of these types of movies, who not only can’t imagine a future in which Black people are doing anything other than still serving the narrative needs of White characters, but we have made no contributions to the cultures being depicted, either. In most movies, Black people are almost never given any culture (beyond stereotypes.) So while the makers of Scifi movies can find time to add Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra musical interludes,there’s no indication that Hip Hop exists in this universe.
The composer of the original movie’s soundtrack was Vangelis. For Bladerunner 2049, Hanz Zimmer was hired, after Villanueva fired the original composer, Johanne Johnasson, because he wanted the music for the sequel to have more echoes of the original.
If you listen closely to the original film, Deckard has a specific ambient hum in his apartment, and that sound is referenced in the new movie, in Deckard’s new surroundings. (This is also the same ambient noise heard in the movie Alien, throughout the ship Nostromo, and in Aliens in the Medbay.) Niander Wallace’s ambient noise is an echo of the tonal sounds of Eldon Tyrell’s apartments in the first film.
One of the reason people keep speculating that Deckard is a replicant is because of the replicant’s interest in music. Deckard owns and plays a piano, which Rachel knows how to play because she was implanted with memories of lessons. K is fascinated by the piano he finds in Sapper Morton’s home, (which he must have owned because he knew Rachel liked to play), and fingers the keys. its his fascination with the piano, including being able to tell when keys are out of tune that lead K to the discovery of the wooden horse. Deckard still lowns a piano while living in Las Vegas, and K can’t seem to resist fingering the keys when he gets near it.
all of the songs used in the movie are a reflection of K’s moods and thoughts, and is keyed to the situations K finds himself in. In K’s apartment, he and Joi listen to Frank Sinatra’s love song, Summer Wind, about a man reminiscing about time spent in the company of his lover. Interestingly, K shares his love of Frank Sinatra with Deckard, who has a hologram of Sinatra in his apartment singing “One For My Baby (One More For the Road)”, a scene which occurs while K interrogates Deckard about his past, and which seems to be a song specifically written for for the two of them, as it is a song about a man preparing to make an emotional confession to his bartender, (who is sworn to secrecy), as K prepares to confess to Deckard that he may be his son.
Earlier, when K and Deckard are fighting, during their first meeting, there is a hologram of Elvis Presley singing Suspicious Minds, echoing both their emotional states about each other. Later, when Deckard talks about about his relationship with Rachel, we hear Elvis’ sad I Can’t Help Falling In Love (With You), representing Deckard’s grief for her.
Joi’s mobile theme is from the Russian fairy tale, by Prokofiev, called Peter and the Wolf. This too is an echo of K’s storyline, as it is about a little boy who wants to be heroic by hunting wolves. Accompanied by by a cat, a goose, and small bird, he sets off for the hunt, only to be stalked by the wolf himself. With the help of his little bird friend, he manages to trap the wolf by hanging it in a tree, but not before his little goose friend is eaten. At least this is the rather sanitized version I learned in elementary school. K wants to be a hero, and a real boy, and spends the movie hunting these two goals. When he discovers that he is not a real boy, he finds that he is okay with just being heroic, successfully defeating the wolf, and reuniting Deckard with his daughter.