THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS!
As a long time fan of Blade Runner, I was terrified by the perspective of a sequel: Philip K. Dick‘s ideas seldomly stand even a minimal amount of rational analysis – let alone a development that goes further than the contingent story. By now everyone knows that Villeneuve got it right, that the sequel is not only decent, but very well executed, and many called it a masterpiece.
As a fan of Blade Runner, I was more than satisfied, too. As a writer, though, I have some complaints.
I wouldn’t want this article to be read as a rant against Blade Runner 2049. Even though I will point out everything I didn’t like about the film, I am also aware that most of its flaws depend on its very nature as a sequel, and were therefore inescapable. Whilst I do think that some other aspects of the plot could have been developed differently, I am also grateful to the scriptwriters for not having destroyed a pillar of my childhood. I liked Blade Runner 2049 – I just didn’t love it as much as the original movie. Some of the solutions devised simply didn’t work for me.
First of all, I didn’t particularly care about the characters. I did develop some sympathy for K, but that is setting the bar really low, considering he is the protagonist.
Little character development is offered for the other roles, in some cases none whatsoever. Joi’s desire to be human is already present at the beginning of the movie, and is not enhanced or dimished by the events; the fact that she is a hologram, and doesn’t have a personality but is merely programmed for pleasing her owner, ultimately makes her a tool for the audience to understand K, and not an actual character. Deckard is barely present, and the same can be said of K’s superior, Lt. Joshi. As for what concerns Niander Wallace and his minion, Luv, the lack of information seems to be somewhat instrumental for a third movie*, but it prevented me from understanding their profound motives and thus from empathising with them.
In one intense scene, Wallace kills a newborn Replicant and Luv, who is watching but not interfering, sheds some tears. No reference to what happened is made afterwards, and Luv’s crying is completely disregarded. Does she disapprove of Wallace’s methods and action? Is she experiencing inner conflict, being unable to disobey her creator? The film gives no clue as to how answer these questions.
The general problem Blade Runner 2049 has with its villains is the bland Manichean dualism with which they are represented: they are unequivocally bad, as the “good” characters are definitely positive. A moral rationale is always ready to clear up the circumstances, should the situation be ethically ambiguous: K hunts to kill, but it’s for the greater good.
Because we have no background information about Niander Wallace, the motives behind his actions are oversimplified: Rachael and Deckard’s child is a mean to further colonization, but we have no indication as to what really is at stake for Wallace. He wants more power, because yes. It’s nothing short of a Marvel movie.
In the original Blade Runner, ethics are at the very core of the story, and each character is morally questionable. Deckard relies only on his own competence to determine whether he’s killing a Replicant or a person; he is fully responsible for his own choices. Roy‘s violence is despicable, but it’s a desperate measure in face of a desperate situation, namely having an expiry date. All that the Replicants want is the right to live – and in Hollywood’s moral code, this is something well worth some collateral damage.
When Roy saves Deckard, he recognizes the same right to survive even to his tormentor, and thereby at last amends his sins; the scene is modeled on Christian iconography, with nails in Roy’s palms and a dove flying away towards the sky. As living in fear of dying is quintessential to human nature, Roy hardly fits the role of villain: he is the antagonist, because his ultimate objective mirrors and opposes the protagonist’s one – but taking sides is impossible.
The last fight in Blade Runner 2049 is aseptic: with the exception of Deckard passively trying to survive, none of the characters have anything at stake. Luv has no personality and thus nothing personal to risk; she fights because she has been ordered to. As for K, he already lost everything in the two previous scenes – namely the only person he has ever loved and the possibility to be anything more than what he knows to be. K’s decision to save Deckard is not surprising, and fails to revive a conflict that is already exhausted: empathy has no part in being defined as a human.
This is perhaps the most problematic and striking difference between the original Blade Runner and this sequel: in the Los Angeles of 2019, telling Replicants from humans means running on the edge of a thin blade – but thirty years later, the cut is clear and unamendable. The two protagonists participate of both worlds, and their stories mirror each other: whilst Deckard is instrumental to the sentencing process and then ends up bridging the differences, K’s narrative arc proves that it’s impossible to transition from one category to the other.
To write a second Deckard would have of course been unfeasible, and mostly illogical. In a world that experienced the wrath of the Nexus-6s, it is only common sense to devise an unmistakable way to identify the Replicants, and it would be silly to still have a human doing Deckard’s job. The shift in conflict was therefore necessary, and inevitable – but K questioning whether he is or isn’t the Chosen One is simply not enough to give sound structure to the whole film.
At its core, Blade Runner 2049‘s problem is an ontological one: the very ending of the first film negates the plausability of a sequel. Because the original story revolved around a question (can one distinguish between humans and Replicants?), it is natural for the sequel to provide an answer to this specific issue. Not only it is now possible to easily distinguish between the imitations and the real deal, but there is also no way to effectively challenge such distinction. K can play human as much as he wants, can choose to save Deckard, but he is and will remain a Replicant.
It is hard to draw more tearing, exciting narrative conflict out of such an unappealable conclusion. And although Blade Runner 2049 gets the atmosphere and the stunning visuals absolutely right, it predictably fails in providing interesting drama.