A Hellish City of Angels

Image: Warner Bros.

(Caution: This review of Blade Runner: 2049 contains spoilers.)

A single police aircraft hovers over miles of solar farms, grey synthetic crops, and ashen wasteland. There are no trees. None alive, anyway. It descends towards a humble farming operation, growing maggots for protein amid foul looking liquid. It’s a protein farm, necessary now that most animals have gone extinct. A single policeman exits the vehicle. He’s here to kill a synthetic human, or as their inventor calls them, an “angel”.

From the first moment that Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins’ camera slides over the alien landscape of California to the final shot, Blade Runner: 2049 launches the audience headlong into a the subtly horrifying future. That first wasteland of synthetic crops and solar collectors, and many other settings, wouldn’t look out of place in Star Wars locales many galaxies away from Earth. Yet just as in Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner, the film stays anchored in the nightmarish megalopolis of Los Angeles. The film is all the better for it. As the main character “K” travels throughout its many districts, an unwavering camera slowly reveals the city, how it builds out from miles of four story- apartment buildings all the way to gargantuan skyscrapers that would dwarf many modern cities on their own. This sense of overwhelming scale pervades the film, and it does a better job of portraying the unsettling nature of a crush of human life than any other film I’ve witnessed, science fiction or otherwise. This is a supremely enjoyable film, but also a highly relevant exploration of two defense issues at the top of mind for national security professionals: coastal megacities and human-machine teaming.

As with many of the 20th Century’s great films about Los Angeles, the city itself is a character — perhaps one of the most important ones in Blade Runner: 2049. The film renders the 21st Century megacity with relentlessly gritty, and grim, detail. This feat of imagination is especially relevant to those trying to understand military operations and governance of megacities, a subject whose importance is of late finally catching up with the advance of the world’s densest cities. As this dystopian LA dwarfs any existing city today, it offers ever more terrain to spotlight the present and future challenges inherent to such places. Consider San Diego, now a garbage dumping ground known as the “San Diego District.” K’s densely packed residential unit gives some sense of the sheer volume of human life in the city, life that would seem difficult if not impossible to operate around in a kinetic combat situation. The San Diego scene specifically shows how a governance vacuums can lead to illegal activity and violence centered around the basic and often forgotten services that, in peacetime, help keep chaos at bay.

For as long a shadow as is cast by the megalopolis of LA, the other performances of the characters are in no way lacking. Ryan Gosling (“K”) plays a police android with a limited lifespan designed to hunt down older models of androids — known as replicants or “skin jobs” —  that still have the capacity to disobey. He is excellent in the role, somehow mixing unobtrusiveness and bland obedience with flashes of extreme violence and powerful internal struggle as his world begins to fall apart. Every performance in this film is electric, from smaller characters like Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton or a file clerk played by Tomás Lemarquis, to the demented villain Niander Wallace, played by a somber Jared Leto. Of course, one would be amiss not to mention Harrison Ford, whose performance is predictably stellar in its uniquely grumpy way. Other standouts include Ana De Armas as Joi, K’s artificial girlfriend. More on her later.

The film’s deliberately-paced plot revolves around replicants: genetically engineered humanoids used for slave labor. While they seem to have the same emotional and intellectual breadth as their human masters, they are generally considered to lack souls, and are considered disposable. Without revealing too much, the film revolves around a discovery that blurs the line between these artificial humans and their creators, and multiple factions vie to secure this discovery, with Gosling’s K caught in the middle.

Despite drawing heavily from its roots in the original Blade Runner, this film manages to be quite novel, with bizarre images and situations grabbing attention each moment. It even outdoes the Voight Kampf test of the original (a subtle system for telling replicants from humans) with a bizarre and disturbing “Baseline Test” K must complete every time he returns from a job, to determine whether he is still fit for service.

While replicants and their existential daily struggle dominate the plot, it’s a side character played by Ana de Armas that seemed to inspire deeper philosophical thought, as well as genuine tragedy. While the replicants are altogether quite like humans, Joi is a relationship program, designed to be a loyal companion for Gosling’s character. She takes the form of a hologram with some tactile interfaces (clearly force fields made a debut sometime between the original film and the year 2049). She appears to understand her situation, and acts in every way like a self-aware being. While her relationship with K seems genuine, and at times incredibly charming, there is a disturbing fact at the bottom of it: K purchased her. She is designed to be perfect for him, has apparently no rights. In such a situation, how genuine, or meaningful, can their relationship truly be? While K appears concerned for her welfare and seems to harbor genuine feelings for her, It’s made abundantly clear that in the wider world her kind is treated like a regular piece of software, with all the possibilities of upgrades, obsolescence, and replacement that entails.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the commodification of flesh-and blood humans either. Whether it’s child labor or cold-blooded murder, the forces that shape this future LA have no issue using and discarding humans with much the same flippancy as they do their replicants. Shocking, visceral violence has its place in the film, but it never steals the spotlight entirely from the questions at its root. Notably, small UAVs are deployed throughout the film, with one especially terrifying version only visible as a dot of light in the smoggy sky… and a hail of high explosive rounds from above. Manned-unmanned teaming is utilized by both K and his enemies, with both sides using drones in perfect coordination with their human or replicant counterparts. It’s also made clear that replicants themselves were used to fight in several conflicts, and quite effectively at that. It’s somewhat ironic that the pinnacle of unmanned technology, at least in the Blade Runner universe, is essentially a human being, stripped of rights and given enhanced strength and a barcode.

While on the main the story was tight and propelling, there were some moments that seemed dubious, almost approaching plot-hole territory. As an example, Niander Wallace, creator of the modern replicants, refers to his creations as angels, his children, and even the future of humanity in multiple scenes, and yet treats them as interchangeable and disposable throughout the runtime of the film. Other moments stick out jarringly, but fail to even come close to derailing any central premises of the film.

What was perhaps most remarkable about this film is its ability to innovate. After all, the dystopian commodification of human life is nothing new. But Blade Runner: 2049 moves beyond the issue of forced work and slavery, and begins to question what happens when individual life becomes so thoroughly commodified through technology that it can be branded, updated, and mass produced, much like modern software products. While the original Blade Runner showed replicants fighting against familiar forces of authority for freedom, 2049 shows replicants fighting to keep others down, and AI’s choosing against their own interest to please a master that they are programmed to serve. This additional leap revitalizes Blade Runner’s 30-year-old philosophical question, and provides a sense of disturbing verisimilitude. The gap between algorithm based machines like Siri or Alexa and genuinely dynamic intelligences is still unfathomably massive, but it’s terrifying to imagine what the philosophical implications would be if we don’t update our morality at the same rate as our technology, and someday end up treating human or human-like life like we treat our iPhones.

Alec Medén is a writer-at-large for The Art of the Future Project. For his story “Willie Pete Has No Off Switch,” Alec Medén was a finalist in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. He is also a past winner of the project’s “Space” war-art challenge with “From A Remove,” judged by bestselling author David Brin, for a story that envisioned the future of space conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He can be found on Twitter @alecmeden.