SPOLIER ALERT: This post will contain full spoilers for the film Blade Runner 2049. If you are interested enough to have opened this blog post, and haven’t seen the film, please do yourself a favor and exit out of here and go see it right now.
As Blade Runner 2049 comes to an end, Ryan Gosling’s K/Joe collapses on the steps, feeling the snow falling upon him. It’s a familiar callback to the original. Although he doesn’t give an eloquent speech, we know that Joe’s life has become “like tears in the rain.” And like Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, Joe is a replicant slowly dying, finding some measure of peace in the fact that although his life, as manufactured by Wallace Industries, was not intended to have any meaning, he made it for himself.
Our average Joe is a wooden toy who has realized that, in cold hard terms, he is not a real boy. Geppetto is not his father. He is not the miracle birth. He is not the one who was wished for. His most treasured memory isn’t his. Even the wooden horse he has retrieved from the furnace, and has held onto even as he has lost everything else, belongs to another.
Remember that false ending to AI, the one that critics accused Spielberg of ruining, the one Spielberg claimed Kubrick had always intended to brighten, where David, the boy robot, slowly deactivated in that ship in the water, hopelessly and eternally reaching out to a statue of a blue fairy so he could transform from a robot into a flesh and blood human child? Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
And, yet, 2049 is nowhere near that bleak. It doesn’t even have to give us deus ex machina robot aliens in order to give us all something to hold onto as the credits roll.
Joe dies to make the reunion between Deckard and Deckard’s daughter possible. Deckard leaves him out there in the snow, but not before asking him one final question, “What do I mean to you?” Joe has journeyed through the desert of the second act, and through waters of biblical proportions, to get Deckard there. Joe deflects Deckard’s question and simply replies, “Go meet your daughter.”
The answer to Deckard’s question is too embarrassing for Joe to admit and too difficult for him to explain.
How did we get here?
2049 tricked us into thinking it was a film about the long-awaited reunion between an estranged father and son. A slow-burn enhanced by the nuances in what was said and unsaid between Joe and Deckard. Our emotional cue is both a red herring and warning, “Only Fools Rush In.”
Joe didn’t want to think he was anything else but a normal next gen replicant. Handsome. Strong. Smart. Compliant. Duty-bound. More romantically interested in a hologram AI named Joi than in other replicants or in humans. In his most private moments, his most human of impulses was to indulge in the mostly artificial comforts of bygone eras.
The journey towards Joe’s existential transformation dawned with a thought: what if a replicant could give birth to a child? Would that child have a soul? And, what would that mean of that child’s parents? What would it mean for every other replicant?
Joe is comfortable in his life throughout the first act of the film, however. He denies sexual advances from his captain and from other replicants that would pull him in directions away from his duty and programmed purpose. He is a detective and a killer. He takes pride in his work.
Gosling’s performance restrains his famous wit and charm, only letting it out for a few select moments. Instead, he brings his quiet intensity, mixed with the hyper-violence he also became known for in roles in films like Drive and Only God Forgives. Yet, this time Gosling also brings a vulnerable and questioning side to his performance in his portrayal of Joe.
Gosling’s not the carpenter turned actor that Harrison Ford is. And he very clearly doesn’t look like him either. As the film slowly moves through establishing the red herring that we’ve already begun to guess is the second act reveal, we may find ourselves asking, “How did Joe end up having blue eyes from both of those brown-eyed parents, Rachel and Deckard? Are we just supposed to accept that Ford and Gosling are playing father and son because they’re both famous actors? What is it that Gosling is bringing to this role that another actor, one who looks more like Ford or Sean Young, couldn’t?”
Either an intentional casting move by Villenueve, or as a happy accident, Gosling doesn’t have the round features of either Ford or Young. His features are sharp. Pointy ears, cheekbones, eyebrows, and nose. At times, his face almost looks like it’s been carved from a block of wood. Gosling’s look and his past screen personas feed into his character's Pinocchio-like journey from creation to human.
And, “hey Joe, what do you know?” Gosling’s Joe shares a name as well as many similarities with that name-twin played by Jude Law in Spielberg’s AI. In AI, the running gag of Law’s character is that he is a robot gigolo. Many expect the same from Gosling’s Joe in 2049, although that isn’t in his programming. Joe’s name, as given to him by Joi, ultimately comes from the same source: the “John” or “Joe” involved in prostitution. Both Joes are robots who eventually decide they want to determine their own destinies.
Joe, is of course, also “average,” and it is easily a name like Neo’s “Thomas A. Anderson” in The Matrix that clearly points to the idea of the “everyman.” He is meant to be every replicant at once. As the music comes pounding in to signal the climactic battle/rescue, we do not see the underground army of replicants take arms. Villanueve clearly means for Joe to represent them all as he boards his hover car.
Is it time to discuss how problematic Blade Runner 2049 is? Yup, I’ve definitely gushed long enough about the film’s emotional and philosophical brilliance without mentioning a single political or social issue, of which there are many. The idea that the straight-white male can represent a rebellion made up of replicants of different skin colors, genders, and abilities, is problematic. All of the Asian cultural appropriation, from kimonos, to dresses, to written characters, to languages, all, mostly surrounding white characters, with no Asian leads in the film, is problematic. The casual misogyny present everywhere from giant naked statues of women, to the bodies of women cut open, to the holographic girlfriend character Joi, and in many ways, what her character ultimately amounts to, is problematic. The way that the film consistently posits that the mostly white replicants are “slaves” or “like slaves” is problematic.
Perhaps most troubling, was the unnecessary addition of the film’s only substantial black character, played by The Walking Dead’s Lennie James, a slaver of sorts; of mostly white children, at least half of which have shaved heads. Would the replicant rebellion be a rebellion of skinheads? It was at that point in the film that I began to question if 2049 was less about the metaphysical questions of what separates life from artifice, humanity from machine, and more a reflection of the fear of white America has that they are losing control of the US to people of color and being oppressed. This would all parallel nicely with the xenophobia that clearly shaped the Japanese-dominated aesthetic of the original Blade Runner’s depiction of Los Angeles; an esthetic continued, to a lesser degree, in 2049’s Los Angeles. All serves as a reminder that many of author Phillip K. Dick’s stories, from “The Man in the High Castle,” to “We Can Remember It for You, Wholesale,” often contained similar xenophobic and racist characters and themes.
Were all of these problems enough to completely derail my enjoyment of Blade Runner 2049 and undercut the merit I found within it? No, these issues definitely worried me about what the film might ultimately be saying, and let me know that I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend the film to everyone, but minor turns such as adding in a rainbow coalition of replicants and to maintain Gosling’s character’s name as “Joe,” and not “K,” at the end of the film (suggesting that Joe’s anger hadn’t been directed towards women in general, but in society’s commodification of women), was enough to suggest that the film was trying to course correct into more enlightened territory.
Is 2049 too slow? Absolutely. By at least half an hour. Some long scenes are necessary misdirects: cluing us into the false reveal of Joe as miracle child and Deckard's son, all the while also setting up the true reveal, but other scenes, are completely pointless and could easily be trimmed if not cut out entirely.
Does 2049 suffer from sequel indulgence? In the tradition of films such as Aliens, following Alien, 2049, as a sequel to Blade Runner, continues the story, expands the world, and redefines the mythology of the original, all the while adding in more special effects and action. However, 2049 doesn’t get wrapped up in spectacle, or in plot-twists simply for the sake of shocking the audience. Each is used sparingly, and come at appropriate times in the film. 2049 is every bit as philosophical as the first film, perhaps even more so, all the while finding various ways to tell a larger story in a way that might connect to more of the general audience.
Is 2049 a re-quel? There are so many parallels between 2049 and the original that one might consider if the film is more of re-quel than a sequel. It’s definitely close. I’m sure there will be many articles showing the many ways, from character motivations, to initial plot, to the ending, to the villains, and the pastiches found in shot compositions, and more, that 2049 is definitely a very similar film to Blade Runner. It is re-quel-esque. However, what would separate 2049 from a film such as The Force Awakens, is that the overall plot of 2049 was fresh and that most elements of pastiche from Blade Runner were justified within the context of the film, and often subverted by the introduction of new elements.
Is 2049 a mish-mash of other sci fi films inspired by Blade Runner? The film definitely borrows elements from films such as AI, Minority Report, Her, The Matrix, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, District 9, Elysium, and more. However, it is clear from the very first frame that Villanueve is not simply interested in telling a sci fi tale, he is interested in using his full range of talents as an auteur in everything from the performances, to the editing, to the production design, to the cinematography, and, of course, the music. To say that Blade Runner 2049 is "the most expensive art house film ever made" is not an overstatement.
2049 is a film about the nature of reality, about restrained and unrestrained desire, about parents and children, about manipulation, about memory and illusion, about control, about love, about finding surrogate parents, and, most of all, about assembling a meaning for one’s life from whatever you have and being ready to die for what you believe in.
Yes, it is fucking sad that Joe is not Deckard’s son. It is sad that in Joe's final moments, he cannot bring himself to tell Deckard that he had hoped that he was his father.
Regardless, Joe shows us that you can find meaning in a cruel and nihilistic world; even one in which everything you had hoped for goes to shit. There's always something to live for. Always something to die for.
Blade Runner 2049 is a new sci fi classic that teaches us that you don’t have to be a robot to be a killer, and you don’t have to be a human to love.