The Existential Legacy of Blade Runner

I watch Blade Runner 2049 every few months. Like getting together with an old friend, rewatching a film you love offers the chance to learn about the subject that you didn’t before. The more you watch a film, the closer you feel how the filmmakers do. Every line of dialogue, choice of lighting, camera angle, inflection from the actors develop a life of its own, telling a story that enriches your experience and appreciation of the film.

2049 is the closest thing to a masterpiece that I’ve seen this decade. From a technical front, director Denis Villeneuve’s masterful filmmaking coupled with Roger Deakins’ immaculate cinematography is an achievement of sight and sound. I can hardly think of another film with a better marriage of visual effects and practical work. Couple that with the time of the film’s release: 2017 was yet another lucrative year for sequels, reboots and remakes. Films like The Last Jedi, Guardians Vol. 2, Beauty and the Beast, and even Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have all become smash hits for their respective studios, reinforcing their insistence on pushing well known properties and betting less on original stories. Yes, 2017 was admittedly a fruitful year for originality, with Get Out, Baby Driver and Dunkirk all turning up a considerable profit on just name and filmmaker alone.

The success, or lack thereof, of the original Blade Runner is well documented. It failed to match the success of its sci fi contemporaries like Star Wars or E.T. It was also met with polarized reviews from audiences who likely expected something resembling those films, not an existential dream in a potentially realistic future. Harrison Ford wasn’t the quippy wise guy, instead playing a character who felt instead of reacting, seeing instead of watching. There is also the near comical number of versions the film has: the theatrical, the theatrical international, the director’s and the Final Cut. Sure, this finally gave Ridley Scott the chance to realize his vision, but probably left some viewers cold, especially those who loved the theatrical version as it was (ask David O’Russell).

Alas, the Final Cut is the definitive, most comprehensive version of Blade Runner. It’s use of symbolism, lack of narration and sudden yet fulfilling ending make for a hallmark of the science fiction genre.

Now, about that ending. Deckard and Rachel board the elevator, the screen cutting to black as it closes. Where do they go? Where can they go? The ambiguity of the ending is clearly intentional, as for once in his miserable existence, Rick Deckard made a decision for himself: not as a Blade Runner, or an errand boy, but as a free man. There was never a clear cut ending, those questions were never answered, just the fact those questions were being asked in the first place is the answer itself: he chose to run.

That’s why the idea of a sequel bothered me. The lack of true resolution was the point. To continue the Blade Runner story almost certainly meant the mystery was going to be solved, and any answer to those burning questions was never going to be good enough. How was revisiting Rick Deckard not going to wipe away the mystique of his decision to take his life into his own hands?

2049 answers some questions, yes, but, miraculously, retains the original’s ambiguity and even improves it at some points: focusing on Deckard, the revelation that his first meeting with Rachael was not only planned, but was purposely done to attract him to her, the first Replicant who can reproduce. That iconic moment in cinema, that fateful moment in Deckard’s life, once thought to be the prelude to his eventual liberation was actually another example of him being a pawn to an infinitely bigger game. Sure he was no longer a hired gun, but in place of a gun, it was love, love that would act as Tyrell’s next advancement in Replicant technology. He was never free, even with the person he loved most. It makes it all the more tragic when we finally do see Deckard. It’s lightyears away from Han Solo’s homecoming in The Force Awakens or the iconic silhouette of Ford’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull introduction. Here is a man who never wanted to be found, whose main claim to his supposed freedom was his absence, a refusal to be part of the bigger picture.

The subject of his humanity is sneakily brought up, with K asking if Deckard’s dog is real, with his follow-up being, “I don’t know, ask him”. It’s a quick exchange and viewers can easily miss its importance on first viewing when they’re expecting a grand build up to the biggest mystery of the Blade Runner mythos. Deckard’s dismissal of that question reveals more of his identity than “yes, he’s a Replicant” could ever do. It never mattered if he were human or replicant: the original showed the lust for life that were present in the rogue Replicants and were perpetually missing in the aimless humans of Los Angeles. They made more with their limited time than what humans could ever dream of. They were fully aware that they were on borrowed time, and in the search of prolonging their lives, they had more purpose and conviction than the lowly Blade Runner hired to retire them. The real question was never whether or not Deckard was a Replicant, it’s whether or not he actually lived at all.

In a way, Ryan Gosling’s K goes through a similar crisis in purpose. A Replicant Blade Runner made to retire all older models is the epitome of a lost identity. He justifies his killing because he sees the older models as runaways, criminals who purposely avoid punishment. His journey begins when Sapper Morton ridicules him and his life’s choices. “Because you’ve never seen a miracle”, he tells him, moments before meeting his end. That bit of dialogue sticks with K especially when the LAPD discovers the remains of an older model Replicant who had the ability to reproduce, a first in Replicant technology. He then recounts his childhood memories, acknowledging they’re not his own given his species. Assigned to find the identity of the Replicant child, his trip to an orphanage triggers those very memories, making him wonder if they were real. Once the memory is confirmed to be real by Replicant memory designer Ana Stelline, K is distraught, traumatized by the idea that he himself is the child.

Of course, it turns out to be false. He wasn’t Rachael’s or Deckard’s child. The idea of a “special” person has never been Blade Runner’s cup of tea. Deckard and K are protagonists, yes, but are vessels, biproducts of the world around them. It was only through virtual assistant Joi that K ever felt a sense of community. Achieving existential sobriety when he finally wises up that Joi said, did and was whatever he needed her to be. From Wallace Corporation’s view, he’s a satisfied customer. As a living being, only a delusion of grandeur gave him purpose. K rescues a kidnapped Deckard and stages his death, throwing off the scent of antagonist Niander Wallace as well as the Replicant Freedom Movement. He sacrifices himself so Deckard can finally and safely be a father to his daughter (earlier revealed to be Stelline). K genuinely achieves obtains the freedom of choice, while Deckard was given the chance to do more than choose, he can finally, truly, unconditionally love. They were never special, even when Deckard discovers the mere illusion of choice, and K confronting the possibility of his greater destiny. This exceptionalism just isn’t so.

 Perhaps that’s why 2049 was seemingly destined to commercially flop. For all the series’ fans and critics who deem either film as a masterpiece, it never adhered to the easy whims of nostalgia or fan service. It was never designed to be a gateway to more films in the series, a trend that is prevalent to this very day. Villeneuve committed the ultimate tight rope act in making a sequel to a film whose reputation and significance within cinema was arguably misguided. This was never going to have the same pomp and circumstance that a traditional sequelwould have. It was never going to be a walk down memory lane, because people hardly get nostalgic over their last existential crisis. When the opening text crawl fades and all that is left are the red letters of “Blade Runner”, it was never meant to be a sign of triumph or endearment: It was pity.