It’s very easy to see how questions about artificial intelligence quickly dredge up fundamental insecurities about consciousness and reality. What makes something sentient? How do you know you’re real? How do you know anything’s real? How do you know you’re the real you? Does any of that matter? This nexus of philosophy and science fiction has been delved into recently by films like Her and Ex Machina and goes all the way back to Alan Turing’s Imitation Game. But it’s also the issue boiling under the surface of 1982’s Blade Runner, and the main focus of its sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
Set 30 years after the events of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 follows K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner, which is a detective who tracks down and “retires” (kills) replicants (lifelike androids) who are illegally on Earth. That’s the same job Deckard (Harrison Ford) had in the first movie, and it hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, except that it seems to have gotten a lot easier to identify replicants. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s still pretty damn hard to kill someone who is human in every aspect except for the circumstances of their birth.
On a larger level, the world has changed, somehow, for the worse. The Los Angeles of 2019 we saw in the first film was already pretty much a dystopia, but by 2049 it’s even worse. There have been numerous disasters and foot shortages, making life of Earth even more desperate. Tyrell Corp, having lost its leader, ended up getting swallowed up by another company run by a man named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). He is a ruthless man, in juxtaposition to Tyrell’s dispassionate, bemused leadership, Wallace is chasing power and cares little for the lives of little people. It is as if the whole world is holding it’s breath, knowing that it’s mere moments away from catastrophe.
The greatest strength of the original Blade Runner is its production quality. Ridley Scott created a cyberpunk world unmatched in its detail by anything that came before or after it. The score was powerful and unique, helping to make it one of the finest examples ever of how cinema can create a mood and atmosphere. The actual plot and performances were pretty weak (aside from Rutger Hauer), but the rest was so strong that it didn’t matter. So I think the biggest challenge for Blade Runner 2049 was trying to recapture that magic at a time when CGI lets filmmakers do anything – and therefore nothing is impressive.
What director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins accomplished then, is magic. I could not tell you what was a set and what was blue-screened in. The 2049 version of California isn’t just a recreation of what we saw in the first movie, we’re shown deserts and snow and even large bodies of water. None of it seems like our world today, and yet all of it seems to fit with the aesthetic of the first movie. Trust me, this is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen.
Where 2049 actually surpasses the original is in its story. For one, K is an actual detective, not merely a hunter in over his head, like Deckard was. K actually discovers a mystery and tries to unravel it. Moreover, the original’s themes about being a “real person” are significantly complicated by this story. Ostensibly “artificial” beings are treated with respect and empathy, with their concerns being folded into the broader questions about humanity. Also, since it’s this week, I’ll mention that while the first movie depicted a rape, 2049 only shows a mutual, respectful, unconventional romantic relationship.
But yeah, I have no way of knowing if the me that is typing this now is the same person I remember being yesterday. Maybe not, maybe those memories are implants or delusions. Maybe I was born when I woke up today and I’ll die when I fall asleep tonight. There’s really nothing I can do about it. Even if that is the case, does it matter? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Do androids dream? Do you?