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The Problem With Replicants

Visually, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a worthy sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic. But underneath the neon and the grit, there’s something inhuman about its depiction of replicants.

Warner Bros.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 begins on the image of an eye: a knowing callback by director Denis Villeneuve, reminding us of the primacy of vision in this corner of Ridley Scott’s cinematic universe. Villeneuve gives us lots to look at, with more detail per square inch than any other comparably huge studio release this year. But to my eyes, it contains only one truly haunting image: a proverbial ghost in the machine in a movie that otherwise seems to have been made by (and for) melancholy robots.

Talking about 2049’s spookiest shot and the sequence containing it in any detail probably constitutes a “spoiler”—those unfortunate, inevitable byproducts of critical analysis that the Warner Bros. publicity department has been hunting down like wayward skin-jobs since 2049 started screening for junket press last month. So I should say: Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film (which, based on its anemic opening weekend box office, is probably more of you than the distributor predicted). Or, do, provided that it’s not going to blow your mind that a movie that features one star from the original Blade Runner (that’d be Harrison Ford) also features another member of its ensemble.

OK, no more warnings. Relatively deep into 2049’s stately, drawn-out, borderline-criminal 163-minute running time (which still feels shorter than Flatliners: 2017, but I digress) Ford’s Rick Deckard awakens in the lair of the film’s villain, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who needs Deckard’s expertise to track down one last replicant. A clear spiritual descendant of Blade Runner malevolent puppet master Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), sufferer of one of the gnarliest, nastiest deaths in movie history (and it’s actually gorier in the film’s little-seen international theatrical cut), Leto’s Wallace is a manufacturing whiz with a God complex and what my colleague K. Austin Collins has correctly called out as a weakness for “Villain 101 soliloquizing.”

Wallace’s big recruitment pitch, which Leto delivers with the attempted gravitas of an actor still guiltily trying to live down being an Oscar winner (see also: his method-acting madness in Suicide Squad), includes tempting the old blade runner with a gift—a perfect replica/replicant of his former lover Rachael, who materializes out of the darkness and starts to move toward Deckard as if in a trance. In a movie that mostly swaps its predecessor’s shadowy tech-noir style for gleaming CGI spotlessness, Rachael’s sleepwalking glide toward the camera stands out: It’s the one moment that comes with the dizzying touch of Vertigo.

Here, the ghost is the machine. No less so than the digitally manipulated meet-cute between Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer in the final episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return (itself a sequel made under the sign of Hitchcock), the reunion between Deckard and Rachael also manifests a brief encounter between two powerful forces: filmmaking technology and filmgoing nostalgia. The so-called ghosting technique that’s being used to add Rachael to the scene is the same one that allowed a simulacrum of the late Peter Cushing to show up and act in Rogue One; it’s also how Sir Laurence Olivier wound up being the bad guy in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow despite being long dead, and what led Arnold Schwarzenegger to tangle with his younger self in Terminator Genisys.

Rachael’s arrival in 2049 comes closer than any of these to vaulting over the uncanny valley, perhaps because the character is already defined by her artificiality. The scene’s impact comes from how skillfully Villeneuve and his ace cinematographer Roger Deakins draw out the contrast between Harrison Ford’s wizened, authentic flesh-and-blood presence and the eerie, time-capsule perfection of a circa-1982 Sean Young, before leveling a violent, devastating punch line. No sooner has Rachael been summoned by her maker than he deems her surplus to requirements; Villeneuve goes in on Deckard’s face while in the background his lover is felled by a single, well-placed headshot.

The question of whether Rachael would live to see another day has always hovered over the complex, exhausting history of Blade Runner’s multiple versions: No “classic” film exists in so many different incarnations, and this sense of incompleteness accounts for some of its cultlike fascination.

The studio-mandated epilogue stuck on the original theatrical cut shows Deckard and his sweetheart driving off toward a brighter future (actually leftover footage from The Shining), buoyed by the revelation that she would live longer than the other replicants in her cohort. This ending was always a mistake—a happily ever after for a film wary of fairytale sentimentality. In addition to excising Deckard’s hard-boiled voice-overs and inserting some new ambiguity about whether the detective was himself live or Memorex, Ridley Scott’s 1992 director’s cut came down harder, leaving off on LAPD officer Gaff’s (Edward James Olmos) bitter parting words to the happy couple: “It’s too bad she won’t live. … but then again, who does?”

If Blade Runner was worth taking seriously as a film of ideas and not just as a master class in production design, the idea that the replicants were driven to despair by a knowledge of their foreshortened lifespans (and in the case of Rutger Hauer’s incandescent bottle blonde Roy Batty, toward a murderous quest for transcendence) was the key to its central metaphor of humanity-as-mortality. Toys sit on the shelf forever: It’s only when Roy finally signs off with a resigned “time to die” that he becomes a real boy. Sparing Rachael, and making her into Deckard’s reward for a job well done, was not only a betrayal of the story’s grim, fatalistic source material, it was bad storytelling—an error that Scott, one of the all-time tinkerers, has tried his best to revise.

For some of us, Villeneuve has been well on the way to being the next Scott for a while now, which is to say that he’s an intuitive, even masterly technician who can elevate generic material without necessarily transcending it. Certainly, he has his own artistic obsessions, first and foremost the futility of revenge, which drives the Oscar-nominated Incendies as well as Prisoners and Sicario. And his Canadian films are witty, especially 2013’s brilliantly shot and edited identity-crisis thriller Enemy (maybe the most surreal film about Toronto ever made).

In 2049, though, he’s on assignment, doing maintenance on themes and visual motifs long since established. It’s brand extension rather than true invention. It’s telling that Rachael’s cameo is so powerful despite its brevity, since the image is literally cribbed from the first Blade Runner. It’s a loving homage that quite inadvertently plays up how forgettable the new characters are in comparison.

In Blade Runner, Rachael worked as a futuristic spin on an old genre template: the smoky femme fatale. It wasn’t a great role, but Young made it work—and the same went for Joanna Cassidy and Daryl Hannah as the more aggressive replicants who went toe-to-toe with Deckard in fight scenes more brutal and even-handed than the Hollywood norm.

Blade Runner 2049 is evidently trying to do something similarly provocative with its female characters, and yet the gambit doesn’t pay off. The film’s lineup of ice-queen authority figures, empathetic saints, sad-eyed hookers, and doomed martyrs who die so that the otherwise catatonic male protagonists have something to actually feel bad about doesn’t feel like progress. There’s something truly creepy about the correspondences between the character of Joi (Ana de Armas), the holographic girlfriend of Ryan Gosling’s K whose lot in life is to materialize at the push of a button, and Young’s disembodied quasi-cameo, which curiously contradicts the actress’s past comments about participating in the project.

In 2013, Young told Entertainment Weekly that Scott wasn’t calling her back, and confirmed in 2015 to IndieWire that she wouldn’t be involved in a Blade Runner sequel. And yet there she stands at a pivotal moment, in a movie that generates its most potent (and only?) emotional effect directly out of her presence. The character and the actress are both conjured up with technocratic effortlessness before being made expendable, and the outcome is disturbing in a way that I’m not sure was totally intended.