Major spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn't just continue the story of Ridley Scott's 1982 classic; it changes the very meaning of the original Blade Runner.
2049 deserves to sit alongside the likes of The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back as worthy and great sequels to already revered movies; against all the odds, this belated entry expands the world and themes to provide something at once faithful and new. And, like how Godfather reveals Vito Corleone's origins or Empire a shocking truth about Luke Skywalker's past, Denis Villeneuve's follow-up shifts how you're going to watch the original.
The difference is that whereas in those classic examples the changes are narrative, for Blade Runner it's a bit more complex. Yes, we do find out what happened to Deckard and Rachael after the elevator doors closed (or, if you prefer the Theatrical Cut, once they'd driven off in the fields of green) but the fundamental mystery - is Deckard a replicant? - remains. However, 2049 changes something bigger. It changes, or rather realigns, the way you read Blade Runner. It changes its meaning.
What Was The First Movie About?
Before looking at what 2049 changes, we must first establish was the original was about. And that's no easy task. Part of what's made Blade Runner such a landmark is how its intoxicating style leads to a myriad of esoteric readings. But we'll give it our best shot.
At its core, Blade Runner is about identity and place in the world. Deckard embodies this by his emerging struggle with both his feelings for Rachael and the ethics of killing replicants; over the movie he tries to see her as a machine and to kill Roy Batty's gang emotionlessly, but struggles on all counts to live by his "Replicants are like any other machine. They're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem" mantra. This slowly gets reflected on himself, leading to the unanswerable question of if he really is a replicant.
This theme is mirrored in Batty, who over the course of the movie is forced to come to terms with his mortality in the face of immaculate conception. They're contrasted further by J.F. Sebastian, a methuselah syndrome sufferer (a condition that gives him accelerated aging) who can't go off-world, yet seems happy in himself despite not measuring up to societal standards.
But there's obviously more than that. The film is a sly commentary on the ills of technology reliance - in both the replicants themselves and the muted dystopia they inhabit - and more subtly how damaging changes become accepted. Alongside this is the specter of big business; future L.A. is plastered with adverts for major corporations and the entire artificial human enterprise is run by a single company. No matter how altruistic its namesake, Tyrell is our corporate future personified. Again, all this is contrasted by the matter-of-fact ignorance of its characters.
In concise, grandiose terms, Blade Runner is about what makes us human.
What Is The Second Movie About?
Blade Runner 2049 takes up a lot of those elements of the original and advances them. K's arc is most certainly about place of being, while the technology and business aspects loom larger (literally in the latter case) care of the Black Out and Wallace's grand dreams of species-wide rule and replicant enslavement. It's a more run-down dystopian vision, one that's barely surviving thanks to the path it started down a long time ago.
But, when you go deeper, the second movie shifts focus and channels these elements into something else. What 2049 really is about, fundamentally is love.
K's journey hinges on his relationship with Joi. A good portion of the first half is spent on their two-way relationship - him gifting her freedom of body, her gifting him a chance to be with her physically - and seeing what is ostensibly a relationship between two man-made constructs become a delicate ballet of emotions. She's made to service him - just as he is made to service the LAPD - but she appears to operate autonomously and against self-preservation, willingly putting her consciousness in a small drive and in her final moments professing love. Joi is a microcosm of the film's exploration of what existence means, and it's in that final proclamation where K finds the belief and purpose to take his heroic stand.
Blade Runner always had empathy as a core facet of the human question, but it being the powering reason for K saving Deckard to reunite with his daughter - another move of love - pushes it to the foreground. And, as K's realization is framed as a resolution to the original movie, giving Deckard closure, it retroactively shifts how we view that film.
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