Watching ‘Blade Runner 2049’ again, it seems to me that the accusations of a too-slim narrative are misguided: every scene is full of theme and the revelation of plot details that texture and drive the narrative. But, yes, the visuals are so immersive that the superficial reaction is that they are dominant; the tone is a little abstract and underplayed so that it is perhaps easy to miss the details of narrative being disclosed through hints and dialogue.
For example, the human-free showdown that opens the film sets up a replicant-killing-replicant backdrop: Ryan Gosling’s slightly regretful but unquestioning execution of his programming; Dave Bautista is living a solitary existence hiding away on a farm until Gosling tracks him down; these are artificial humans that debate briefly how to resolve the situation before Bautista calls out K/Joe/Gosling’s motivation, saying how it’s because he hasn’t seen a miracle. This sets up the key theme of artificial humans always trying to be human. Later, it will be suggested that Bautista let himself be killed to protect the secret of the human-replicant birth, retrospectively giving this moment an extra theme of self-sacrifice as well as playing into the philosophy that to die for a cause is the ultimate human behaviour. This leads to Gosling discovering the bones of a body that triggers the story of the replicant-human baby that drives the plot. There seems to me here plenty to chew on during the set-up, providing not only crowd-pleasing visuals and a fight, but setting up motivation and themes that thread and are coloured in throughout the film.
And then there is the thorny issue of gender politics, but it seems obvious that almost every male character is confused or/and weakened or/and deluded whereas all the female characters are mostly certain and clear and direct. It is the women that are the true power in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, no matter how much the culture’s veneer of misogyny insists otherwise. Even with Joi, Gosling’s stay-at-home fantasy “wife”, she seems to enact her programmed devotion to Joe with individualist determination and invention. She is not passive although she may be deferential. It seems Joe’s fantasy is to have a loyal woman who takes charge and reassures him as much as she serves holograms of better food. This surely indicates his insecure nature… but that surely can’t be his programme? Even with the replicant prostitute we see hints of individualism if not independence (but movie prostitutes are typically feisty, it’s true). Later, he will see Joi advertised through sexual promise, coded in vibrant pink, but it is not so clear if this shatters his illusion of her or simply reinforces her differences to him. This is the most tender and humane relationship in the film and it’s the interplay between false humans. There is nothing we can read as un-human or unusual in their communication as we might the conflict of Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) crying as she kills. Where the rise of technology tries to make everything as human and interactive as possible through means of nostalgia, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ offers a decent vision of a future resulting from this conflict. It’s a future where artificial humans develop identity crisis and seek solace in holograms. Technology so far gone it has to reassure itself. It barely needs humans at all. It’s a future that arguably insists on the misogynistic culture that guided Ridley’s original – itself derived from film noir – even as the evidence of the real world negates it.
And then there's the symbolism of rebirth in the waves although the more obviously religious is commendably avoided.
These are just a couple of ruminations of many inspired by a second watch of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and there are sure to be more with repeat viewings. Each scene is vibrant with these themes and questions into identity and motivation. Like the original, it’s an experience that rewards and becomes more textured on repeat viewings. And again, it is surely an achievement that it gives answers whilst still maintaining much ambiguity. If nothing else, there is the glorious cinematography of Roger Deakins and the thunder and the synth tsunami of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to overwhelm the senses. But there is depth beneath these pleasures.