Blade Runner 2049 ★★★★★

I was tired. Too tired to start a film at 9:15 that I knew wouldn't let out until midnight. I was too tired, I thought. Then the hazy, brooding dystopia of Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 began to wash over me, and I spent the next 160 minutes eyes and mouth open, wide awake. It's a hypnotic dream of vast spaces, squelching, oppressive sound design, and a dreary tech-future.

Is it real?
I don't know, why don't you ask him?

Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner features a character arc in which its protagonist, Deckard (Harrison Ford), comes to value the humanity of the androids he is supposed to be hunting down and killing. It's impossible to come away from that film without feeling like the answer to "are replicants human?" is yes. Despite the film's focus on Deckard, it is really Roy Batty, the sad android mortally wounded by his design, who is the hero. It is his famous musings on memory and death that flatten the difference between humans and replicants by suggesting that the longing to survive and be free is the most human impulse of all.

The will to survive is at the heart of 2049, in a world where the spectre of war, climate change, and any number of devastations have rendered the world barely inhabitable. Large swaths of the American west are wastelands, rendered in a beautiful, jaw-dropping horror by cinematographer Roger Deakins and an extraordinary vfx and production design crew. Las Vegas is an irradiated ruin, a crumbling altar to artifice. An unspecified 'blackout' has destroyed the world's digital archives, not only making police work a real challenge, but putting humanity in a position of starting over. And you know what they say about those who don't remember history.

The Tyrell Corporation is dead, and its replicants are illegal. Wallace Corp, the organization that rose in its place with the promise of progress and a better tomorrow, feels like a nefarious extension of an amoral tech startup. Replicants were a mistake, but Wallace (Jared Leto) aspires to greater things: more replicants who obey more and feel less. Slaves without the moral scruples of slavery, essentially. But Wallace has few scruples. Leto's performance is the one weak link an an otherwise immersive world. He's working against the film in the way he so often seems to be. But he only has two scenes and there is enough else going on during at least the second one to avoid bringing the film down completely.

The fundamental question of what is 'real' runs through 2049 as it did the original Blade Runner. The replicant detective, K (Ryan Gosling), comes home to food from a package, digital music from an analog age, and the closest relationship in his life with a humanoid version of Siri. He questions his own reality even as he begins from the assumption that his memories are implanted. And it's not just memories, but desires, feelings, impulses. Is anyone, human or not, ever more than their programming? That's the thing about free will, though, isn't it? You can't really know if the choices you or anyone else is making are truly free.

To give one's life in service of another is the trait that truly defines us, the film suggests. But then, we also need one another. No man is an island, as much as we might try to be. Humanity, at least a functioning one, is a web of interconnected beings. A stunning vision of a bee colony shows up at one point in the film, reminding us both of the effects of cooperation, of "cells interlocked," and the indistinguishable efforts of the 'drones' who built it.

Roy Batty's mournful eulogy for his own inner life is one we all share. It's not our memories that we pass on, it's our actions and their effects. Any choice made, whether truly agentic or not, leaves a mark on the world. Much of 2049 is focused on the degree to which its characters, especially K, will follow orders or go their own way. Similarly, the AI companion Joi seems to make choices out of a desire both to please K and to be closer to him. It's an interesting blurred line the extent to which any of this is true agency. But when any of us does something purely to benefit someone else, do we not gain something from that too? A feeling of intimacy or accomplishment? We are, all of us, longing not just to live, but to be loved—not just to survive but to be remembered, to have purpose. To be real.

Real life, what does it feel like?
I ask you tonight, I ask you tonight
What does it feel like, I ask you tonight
To live a real life

—Kanye West, "Pinocchio Story"