Never mind what it means (or, at least, worry about it later). Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is nearly three hours long and only has two jokes, but somehow, you don’t mind. From close-ups of a tattooed eyeball, to an assassin’s hand covered in bees to vistas so vast that human vision isn’t enough, cinematographer Roger Deakins creates astonishing images. The most beautiful snow you’ve ever seen drifts from a tortured sky; cityscapes draped in a mordant fog are softly penetrated by flying cars that glisten like pearls and then morph into vultures. To describe Blade Runner 2049 as ‘atmospheric’ is like saying Beethoven was good at tunes. Speaking of which, Frank Sinatra returns from the dead, singing ‘One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)’ to a replicant fixing himself a drink, waited on by a shape-shifting hologram with a penchant for Nabokov. In the opening scene, a burly, bespectacled replicant snarls just before being ‘retired’ (and I don’t mean moving to Florida) that his murderer – the new blade runner ‘K’ played by Ryan Gosling – has ‘never seen a miracle’. We don’t know what, precisely, he’s getting at, but the sentence hovers like a promise of what we’re about to see. And it doesn’t fail.
Blade Runner 2049 recalls the grandeur of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and, in many ways, it shares its concerns: the plight of workers, love, and what it means to be human (hint: it’s not all about biology). But a dizzying range of sonic and visual references drift in and out of its gorgeous surfaces: it made me think of the artist John Martin’s 19th century apocalyptic landscapes and Matthew Barney’s wild human contortions, Andrei Tarkovsky’s heartbroken dystopias and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), when François Truffaut, playing a scientist, examines brand new, 40-year-old aeroplanes in a dust storm in the desert and realizes that time is not everything it’s cracked up to be. Ridley Scott’s first, great Blade Runner (1982) also makes constant, sly appearances, from origami to generic Asian food stalls and the sharp tailoring of a replicant’s dress. Questions hover as persistently as wasps at a picnic: who owns the past? What can we do to avert the apocalypse? Why are we killing the environment? How does gender define us? Can music help?
To answer the last question: it does, actually, a lot. From Elvis Presley and Sinatra to Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s lush soundtrack, a great song is solace in a world gone wrong, but orchestral strings can intimate doom like nothing else. But the use of music is, perhaps surprisingly, playful, too. Throughout the film we hear snatches of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936), which begs the question: who is the wolf here? Who is the boy? Who is impersonating whom? Signification swirls through these radioactive streets like a cyclone.
Another reference: Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 poem-within-a-novel Pale Fire. Like Blade Runner 2049, it, too, is about a man who has lost a daughter. But the writers of the film, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, go a step further: K’s sanity – or at least his ability to function as a robot killer – is tested by his being able to echo and quote Nabokov’s puzzling lines:
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked / Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct /
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
But, as is apt for the riddle within an enigma that is Blade Runner 2049, Pale Fire isn’t just the title of a novel; it’s also the title of Nabokov’s fictional protagonist’s poem, which in turn is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: ‘The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.’ So: if I understand correctly, it’s not just replicants who behave like humans: nature can steal, too. In other words, humans are everywhere and in everything. We are now in the epoch of the Anthropocene, a time defined by our rampant destruction of planet Earth. How can such devastation possibly be this gripping?
And devastating it is. Blade Runner 2049 depicts a world that is meant to be only 32 years away and things are not going well: the earth’s eco system has collapsed. Yet, against my better judgement, I have to say that an environmentally devastated world is one that can still look good. Actually, make that great. Food is another matter. Larvae are bred for protein and I doubt it would be easy to get your five a day in this rain-soaked apocalypse. But water doesn’t just fall from the sky, tears drift down cheeks, quite despite themselves. A replicant called Luv (played by Sylvia Hoeks) is the meanest one around, but even she can cry; being sad isn’t a human prerogative. That said, a melancholy human (or is she?) is the best memory maker around, because she’s been in isolation since she was 8 years old and so her longing for human contact, we surmise, needs an outlet (do we represent best what we really want? Discuss). As Rick Deckard – a part reprised by a grizzled Harrison Ford, his voice whisky-gruff – explains: ‘Sometimes, in order to love someone, you have to be a stranger.’ Speaking of which, K (references to Franz Kafka or Philip K. Dick?), later christened ‘Joe’, falls in love with the aforementioned beautiful female operating system Joi (played by Ana de Armas) – a hologram designed, apparently, to fulfil every straight man’s (or replicant’s) needs – not because of her cheekbones but because she is kind. She is also kitsch and in many ways very corny, but thank goodness she reads. She is the least interesting when she returns as a supposedly sexy giant public sculpture hologram. More is so often less. Go figure.
Female reproduction is, as ever, cause for male power-mongering. (In other words, everything has changed but nothing has changed.) Women’s bodies, be they human or replicant, are traded, abused, beaten up or adored. That said, the four main female characters (or five if you include the brief return of Rachel from the original film) are all very different individuals and I would hesitate to describe any of them as subservient, even the one that is controlled by a box that reminded me of the one that turns on my central heating. The women grapple with the same things the men do: memory, love, what is authentic and how to get by. It’s not easy for any of them. C’est la vie.
As with the first film, the question of what is authentic beats at the heart of Blade Runner 2049 and by the time the credits roll, it’s clear that in this dystopia feelings, not wombs, are the passports to personhood. Time and again it’s reiterated that non-humans can respond in way that expresses humanity, even as the very human cop Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright) declares that souls are overrated. But then why do we assume that humans have a monopoly on emotions? One of the most appealing characters in the movies is a mottly, whisky-guzzling dog. It goes without saying he has soul. (Who doesn’t, in this film? Even Lieutenant Joshi who is tough as boots is oddly moving.)
I have to admit that much of what happens in Blade Runner 2049 I don’t fully understand. But I don’t mind that. If you could say that this film has a point, it might be that people are very difficult to read and that not everything makes sense. But who cares, when mystery looks this good? Seeing one, or possibly two, replicants wrestle in the wreck of a Las Vegas-esque casino, only to be interrupted by a hologram of Elvis Presley singing ‘Love me Tender’, is to witness a world in which time drifts, melts and reappears like snow. Like beautiful snow.
If you had told me yesterday – before I saw Blade Runner 2049 – that a film in which a replicant has his world rocked when he finds a small carved wooden horse that he (the replicant) thought was a fake memory, but which, when he holds it in his hand, realizes might or might not lead him to his father, who might or might not be a human, is one that I wanted to watch, I might have been surprised. But I did. And I want to see it again. There’s a lot to figure out – and a lot to look at.
Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s ﬁrst podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.