One Thing I Like About Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is better than Blade Runner at doing the things that Blade Runner does best.

It feels like a scandalous confession to say that I never really liked Blade Runner that much. Obviously, it’s an absolute masterpiece of production design, it’s forever changed our collective idea of the future, and it’s got some images — in particular, any scene with Joanna Cassidy or Daryl Hannah — that are unforgettable.

But as a movie, it’s always left me cold. It’s dour, literally humorless, and for having such a straightforward plot, still seemed to favor style over substance. Its ambiguity is its greatest strength; I think it implies a depth and complexity that’s not actually there. Or at least, a complexity that’s delivered entirely via Roy Batty’s final monologue — and in some versions, Deckard’s final voice-over — without being supported by the rest of the movie to that point.

So I was curious but not exactly eager to see Blade Runner 2049, which is why I’m only seeing it now, 4 years after its release. The high point is certainly the astounding cinematography, but it’s kind of repeating the obvious to say that Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in history. It’s also got great, understated performances from Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, and Dave Bautista, each giving a different take on the movie’s core idea of what it means to be human. Almost all of the CG1I hate those tiny flying probe devices in Wallace’s headquarters seems to have been used not to bypass practical effects, but for maximum impact: the scene in which Joi is trying to “sync” with a prostitute is especially fascinating.

And I think it’s better structured. It’s still dour, humorless, and far far too long, with way too many ponderous, drawn-out conversations, especially after Deckard shows up. But at least up until the final act, it’s plotted more like an actual mystery than the first film, which felt more like a series of mini-boss battles leading up to a final boss fight. Overall, it seems like a more focused, more conventional Hollywood movie that’s been over-inflated to twice as long as it needs to be. And I think most of the scenes at least supported its main idea, instead of simply feeling like tangential world-building.

So the best detail that I want to call out is how the character of Luv involuntarily cries when she kills someone.

Or is it involuntary? There’s an ambiguity there. It doesn’t seem like ambiguity is in short supply in either Blade Runner movies, with their lengthy silences, and characters staring off into the middle distance while talking across each other. But this is an ambiguity I don’t have a good answer for, and I actually care about the answer in terms of character development.

As opposed to, say, Is Deckard a replicant or what? which I still don’t think has been answered definitively, but which has no real impact on either movie’s story. In fact, I think K is a more interesting protagonist because it’s established from the start that he is a replicant. His entire personality — or because it’s a Blade Runner movie, lack of personality — is built around the acceptance that he doesn’t believe he has a soul, instead of being a somewhat generic sci-fi take on the grizzled, disillusioned film noir detective.

Luv, on the other hand, spends the bulk of the movie as a fairly two-dimensional villain, before shedding that extra dimension and going completely over the top by the movie’s final act. So why is she crying? She doesn’t cry when she kills other character, human or replicant. She shows a flinch of sympathy/discomfort during the (unnecessary) scene in which Wallace inspects a new replicant model, but otherwise, she’d seem to have all the depth and complexity of fellow evil henchmen like Odd Job or Jaws. Is she acting against her will? Is there something innate that her “programming” is betraying? Is she expressing guilt for her role in keeping replicants oppressed? It’s never made explicit.

The movie makes it explicit, multiple times, that the replicants are slaves, but also shows K, Luv, and Joi having different takes on being subservient. Especially with Joi, she sees her choice to make K happy as the thing that gives her agency, which brings her closer to being alive.

K is shown to be at some kind of peace — if not happiness — with the discrimination and his role as even more of a machine than a slave. He’s comfortably at “baseline” until he starts to suspect that he’s special, which throws him into tumult. There’s the suggestion that he didn’t see his existence as oppression, but as giving him a purpose in life.

And then there’s Luv’s final declaration, “I’m the best one!” It’s not just that she does whatever her boss/master commands; she takes pride in it, and she’s even made it a part of her identity. The question of “what does it mean to be alive?” is obviously at the core to these movies, but I think Blade Runner 2049 is better at illustrating why the question is relevant to us in the audience: it suggests that the things that make us alive aren’t assigned to us, but the ways we choose to find meaning.

Most of the movie makes these ideas explicit. There’s just the one scene that’s left ambiguous, and that’s where the intrigue is.