The year was 1982 and Hollywood was teeming with some of the best science-fiction films that would later become classics in film history. Spielberg’s E.T : The Extraterrestrial and Steven Lisberg’s Tron were captivating audiences in their respective thematic presentations but it was apparent that both were ensconced in the pubescent technology that existed during that time. Despite having some of the most original writing, sci-fi films of that time struggled with execution. This in turn meant that the writing had to be changed to accommodate their limitations, which often resulted in stories that were more focussed on unidimensional characters who would use science fictions tropes as tools to create a story. Writers would establish clear boundaries between their protagonists and the world they lived in, portraying them as ‘outsiders’ who didn’t belong there and would have to fight everything just to survive, with advanced technology of course.
This is where Ridley Scott stood out from his peers. Making a statement with his 1979 cult classic Alien, Scott brought home the idea that no matter how vivacious and authentic you make your sci-fi films look, it should always remain about the characters. The protagonist(s) should be so tightly coupled with his/her surroundings that it should be hard for the audience to dissimilate the two. Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford in the lead, is a standing thesis on how worlds are created. His vision of a steampunk dystopia in Alien is a strong thematic presence in Blade-Runner as well. The dark grey silhouetted cityscape of 2019 Los Angeles with its tightly inter-meshed grid of buildings, with looming towers intermittently spewing fire, immediately established the mood for the film – this was a world without emotion, this was a factory where everything was manufactured and artificial. As an audience, you immediately feel apathy for this world which seems like earth but really isn’t. Scott’s central character Deckard, played by Ford, is also the exact embodiment of this feeling. He, too, is detached and aloof. He has been a hunter all his life, chasing sentient humanoid robots called Replicants who have rebelled against the very corporation that made them – the all-powerful Tyrell Corp. Despite the grandiose sets with touches of tastefully done CGI, the film remains primarily a character-study. Here’s a man who’s on a singular mission is to find and eliminate all Replicants. But with time, he also realizes that they are not so different and are fighting for equal rights. This puts Deckard in a moral dilemma that he had not anticipated as a job hazard.
Villeneuve carries forward this duality established by Scott some 35 years ago to Blade Runner 2049. This world is not so different from Deckard’s world, after all its only been a few decades. The neon-lit streets and its banal inhabitants still look the same. But things have changed. The Replicants who had been banned all those years back because of the rebellion, have now been modified by the new Replicant manufacturer Wallace Corp. headed by Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto. These new Replicants have been made so as to obey Humans and under no circumstance develop self-awareness/emotions. One of these newer models code-named KD9-3.7 or “K”, played by Ryan Gosling, is now deployed in the LAPD and tasked to hunt down the older rebel Replicant models. On one of his hunts he takes down an older model named Sapper Morton (played by Dave Batista) after a bloody scuffle. While scanning the scene, he finds a box which contains bones. In their police lab, a careful examination reveals that the female whose bones they had found had died in child-birth. As K looks closely at the X-ray scans he stumbles upon a ridge between two bone fragments where a code no. has been etched as would have been found within a Replicant’s body. K’s black and white world is blown apart by this revelation. He remembers the dying words of Sapper Morton – “…you haven’t seen a miracle”, and his life’s purpose stands before him as a question – Who was he really fighting against ? His boss whom he calls Madam, played by Robin Wright, orders him to find this impossible child and eliminate it with all traces around it. As K delves deeper into the child’s past, tracking him/her through clues left at the Morton scene, his own past starts to unravel. Memories that he knew to be programmed visions to make his kind stable, soon started to feel more and more real as if they had really happened.
Villeneuve crafts K to become an embodiment of the very moral dilemma that underlies the story. Even though he is a machine and his dying or getting hurt should really not evoke empathy from us, it does. We want him to live and find the truth about his past.
Even before these strange circumstances, K is shown to display very humanlike emotions. Instead of being a stone-cold hunter replicant, he feels loneliness. At home in his decrepit neighborhood, he talks to a holographic program, played by the beautiful Ana de Armas, as if she were his girl-friend. He became his true self only before this program who loved him and cared for him. Every time he would take the Voight-Kampff test which is a negative Turing Test (i.e., a Replicant has to fail it to pass) designed to distinguish Replicants from Humans, it would seem as if he were holding back his true identity and trying to pass that test. Villeneuve crafts K to become an embodiment of the very moral dilemma that underlies the story. Even though he is a machine and his dying or getting hurt should really not evoke empathy from us, it does. We want him to live and find the truth about his past.
On the other end of the spectrum is Leto’s character, Wallace who is this technological evangelist creating sentient yet obedient replicants. He sees himself as the father of all of his “children”. But he also wants to go a step further. Despite being able to create a millions of Replicants, he is tired of the monotony. He hears about the bones of the replicant who had died in childbirth and is fascinated by it. He doesn’t want them to be born artificially, dropping down from an incubator as a full-grown specimen. He wants them to breed like humans would do. Grow up from a child with real memories. But his motives are complex too. He does not want them to lead lives as humans. They should still remain slaves, eternally working for humans but they should be perfect creations. Thinking about it from a philosophical angle, Villeneuve’s idea seems to point a finger at the whole concept of religion where humans are bound to do good just so that a greater god can be appeased. No matter how well the civilization does, however much we advance with technology, we should always remain slaves to the idea of an imaginary being who we should see as our sole creator and our father. It might seem like a far-fetched analogy to some of you, but you only have to look at Wallace’s uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ to find yourself thinking again. Moreover, a quick search into the meaning of ‘Neander’ (from the word Neanderthals) shows that it greek for “New Man” which is essentially what Niander Wallace is trying to make.
Blade Runner 2049’s stunning visual tapestry adds another layer of elements to the narrative. Besides the cityscapes and the vast badlands surrounding it, Villeneuve uses light to complement character-development. In the initial sequences with K, you can see patterns of shadows interrupting the light around him. This is the time when we hardly know anything about K’s past and are still figuring out the same through his eyes. As we get to know more and more about his memories and his childhood, the colours take a more solid shape. The shadow-patterns disappear, replaced by a stark lighting that feels naked. Similarly, the ambience around Wallace’s character is always shown with fleeting watery fractals. Every scene in his office has them. In his room, even his chair is in the middle of a concrete island surrounded by water. There are stone steps that lead upto the island and in a dark lighting, it almost feels as if he were “walking on water”. The background score also complements this duality of light through a neutral electronic music which later gives way to a jarring organ introduction as we watch K showing more and more of emotion, especially after the scene where he loses his temper for the very first time in the film with a deeply anguished – “Goddamn it!”, at a Memory-maker Anna Stelline who had made his memories too.
Villeneuve’s work is poetry-in-motion. Even with his earlier films like Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and the more recent Arrival, you can see that he tells stories differently. There is hardly any exposition and the characters are warm and emotionally vulnerable. With Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve has firmly established himself as a master director. Thirty years from today, we would regard him in the same manner as we regard Scorcese and Copolla. We are witnessing a nebula, the birthing of a legend as we speak.
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