Continuing the story of 1984’s original Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 sees officer ‘K’ — a new model of obedient ‘replicant’ — retire an old style military ‘replicant’ working at a protein farm. ‘K’ inadvertently stumbles across a mystery that sheds new light on the ‘replicants’ as a species.
The story deals with typically Philip K Dick themes around reality and simulation. Real memories versus implanted memories. The general idea being: if one experiences a fake memory as if it’s real, then is it not real for that person?
To highlight this paradox, Officer ‘K’ has a holographic girlfriend, a simulation of a woman based on AI created by the same company that manufacturers the ‘replicants’. She cooks him a visually alluring steak and chips, which he can’t eat because it’s a hologram. Instead it’s superimposed over his actual meal, a humdrum bowl of protein.
The question Officer ‘K’ faces is one of identity, of knowing who he is, deciphering the real ‘him’ from the implanted memories. ‘K’ lives an isolated existence, hated by human work colleagues, despised by the humans in his apartment block, and shunned by other ‘replicants’ because he kills his own. His holographic girlfriend provides a meagre escape from the harsh reality of his world. His implanted memories help him to rationalise the world, form his identity, and provide the stable base that underpins his compliant, work-orientated personality.
The story explores the idea that identity is not based on memories (real or implanted) but on the personal choice. We are what we do proactively, in our lives. Officer ‘K’ begins to follow in the path of the saviour type character like Neo from The Matrix, or Sonny in I, Robot. The story begins with ‘K’ unaware of his significance, but his greater purpose turns out to be a false assumption. This deviation from the journey of the archetypal saviour is both disappointing for him and the audience.
Storytellers choose what to put in and what to leave out. What to focus on and what to downplay. How the implanted memories work is a minefield that’s avoided, as is the manufacture of the ‘replicants’.
In the scene near the end where ‘K’ rests on the steps of a building with the snow coming down, the film poetically changes from one character and scene to another. In an edit, based around two characters watching snow fall on their hands, we move from the story we have experienced with ‘K’ to the promise of the story to come. The director takes us where he wants the focus to be. The problem here is that we have experienced ‘K’s’ story only to discover at the end that it’s not his story. The audience is left with two characters at the finale — they are what the film is really about — but we’ve spent little time with them, which feels unsatisfying.
Officer ‘K’ is built to obey, and yet he chooses to go against his ‘design’. The process is not fully explored but, his volition, peer pressure, and the mopped-up blood outside the interrogation test cells points to a wider issue with ‘replicants’ than the Wallace Corporation cares to admit. But the film glosses over this and we never have enough experience of the ‘replicants’ dissatisfaction to empathise with them. Without a display of dissatisfaction on-screen they feel like machines.
One might argue, the way the story is setup, to ensure the narrative’s flow, has precluded our ability to empathise fully with ‘K’. We should be rooting for ‘K’ and the ‘replicants’, but we never truly experience their injustice. We don’t get to feel their anger as we do in Westword (2016) or even I, Robot. The human characters are just as one dimensional; the non-entity of ‘K’s’ plastic manager who seems weirdly unmoved when her hand is crushed in glass, and Niander Wallace, the predictably weird-genius, half-fused with body implants, who’s pragmatic-realism never makes him truly good, or frightening enough. Perhaps there’s too much subtlety here, or in an effort to show that humans are similar to ‘replicants’, the personality has drained out of all the characters?
The stunning cinematography and landscapes conjure up both high-tech and eco-fail-scapes. They create atmosphere and distract the viewer from the thin plot-line and the lack of character development. For a story about big issues, like identity and humanity, low budget films like Automata say more. Blade Runner 2019 ultimately feels stylishly superficial, a story demanding more depth.