So K walks home in the snow, approaches his apartment building- we see holographic advertisements for Sony and Off World up in the sky (I must admit, I still rather miss the blimp) and the camera pulls down as K crosses the street to his building. Within the building he is forced to climb the stairs which are crowded with people in shots reminiscent of Soylent Green (a great callback to a 1970s classic, if deliberate, and who is to say it isn’t? In some ways, 1970s dystopian films such as Soylent Green are as much predecessors of BR2049 as the original Blade Runner movie is).
Presumably, these are homeless people sheltering from the cold outside, hinting that overcrowding in this city is still a problem, or at least that, as the outside world has gone to ruin, a toxic wilderness or city outskirts with no power or sanitation, there is less space for those left who are unable to leave for Off World.
There is also the suggestion of everything breaking down- the elevator isn’t working (the screenplay states he climbs eighty stories!). A woman launches a tirade against K that is subtitled – is she using Cityspeak, another nod to the first film? It seems nobody likes Replicants- earlier when we saw K entering the police headquarters a cop threatened him (“fuck off, skinjob”) which, like this encounter here, doesn’t seem to overly bother K. He’s no doubt used to it, inured to it by constant harassment. He reaches his apartment and steps through the crowd to his door, unlocks it and steps inside. When he closes it behind him we can see the legend ‘Fuck Off Skinner‘ scrawled across the door. Really, even in a world graced by Wallace Corp, Replicants guaranteed to obey, humans still don’t like them- or at least, that part of humanity left on Earth that does not benefit from them.
We see an exterior shot of K’s apartment, looking in through the window as he moves around inside. Shafts of light move across what seem to be supporting girders around the window, some lovely sound effects play over the soundtrack and falling snow is caught in the shifting light. Its one of my favourite shots in the movie- its quite unnecessary I suppose, its just a few seconds but it offers a real sense of place and atmosphere and mood. The fact that they choose to just throw shots like that in a film can only make you love it more, you know?
Detailing is exquisite. In a reverse shot a little later, we can see out of the window across to the building opposite, and in some of the lighted windows across there, figures can be seen, moving. Again, strictly speaking, stuff like this is superfluous, unnecessary, but I think all together they sort of accumulate into a hyper-reality, just as everything seemed to in the first film.
K glues his cut arm, cleans up: takes a shower which a voice announces is a burst of “99.9% detoxified water.” For some reason the woman’s voice recalls that of the woman who voiced the prologue narration of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Again, the shot of the shower, the detail about the detoxified water… it all charts the environment, the proscenium, as Ridley was fond of describing it (at least I remember he did, I tried to find the quote, but failed. Must keep looking). But these are all hints, things for attentive viewers to discern and process- if God is in the details, then the genius of this film is in those same details, if you want to work at seeing and processing them.
(Imagine, for a moment, an alternate ‘Idiots version of BR2049‘: complete with a voice-over narration like the original theatrical version of Blade Runner. I suppose it would be able to explain everything we are seeing, from those disused solar fields or the weather or the baseline test or the crowded stairs. I think I might write one someday, it would probably be incredibly funny, listening to K describe everything in laconic Film Noir/bored Harrison Ford-like voiceover.)
We see K preparing some food in his kitchen, another wonderful nod back to the production design of the first film. So many incidental details, so much fascinating production design to feast the eyes upon. And yet, none of this really seems to draw attention to itself for its own sake. There is a restraint throughout this film, as spectacular as it is at times, more about the visuals informing the story than simply wowing us as spectators. Clearly at odds with the traditional Hollywood blockbuster as such films exist today.
During this sequence, we have heard a woman’s voice, having a conversation with K. When we finally see her, it is obvious that she isn’t ‘real’: she is Joi, a computer AI/Hologram, or some technology off-shoot from holograms, ‘Hard-light’ or something? I must admit I was initially troubled by her- I always overthink things, like ‘where is her voice being broadcast from?’, ‘how can ‘she’ where everything is around her?’, ‘where is the circuitry for her AI?’ I guess we really need to recall the old quote by Arthur C Clarke that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic‘; and just go with it- its 2049, an alternate 2049 at that, and while they are still using CRT screens they are way ahead in other things. In any case, she is a digital companion, and clearly very important to K.
One more point to make here regards Joi- she is a remarkable combination of performance by Ana de Armas and the artistry of the visual effects team at Double Negative in Vancouver; a wonderfully subtle visual effect that doesn’t call for our attention but is simply there, throughout, in one form or another. Either when she glitches slightly or whenever a strong light sits behind her and is cast through her, some of it is hardly there, but it always is there. Its one of the very best visual effects that I can recall seeing in years, such a subtle manipulation of image that you could be forgiven, as a viewer, for not even realizing the fakery at work here (part of this, I’m sure, is the performance by Ana de Armas which is, like so many of the performances in the film, simply on another level). Its seems a relatively simple visual effect but I suspect it is far more complex than it appears.
K has used his bonus from hunting down Sapper Morton to buy Joi an Emanator. This is a device which will enable her to leave his apartment, having being ‘locked-down’ to a projector arm in his apartment ceiling (“I’m getting cabin fever” Joi joked to him a few minutes earlier). Holographic text appears around Joi- a reminder that she is a program, a product, an extension of the Google assistants etc on our mobile devices of today. Another observation- no mobile phones or internet in this Blade Runner universe (I really want to live there).
K takes Joi up to the roof. This is so beautifully shot, this sequence, with truly remarkable sound design that is woven so delicately though it. Its possibly my favourite sequence in the entire movie. The sound of the falling rain, rattling on metal, splashing in puddles, the sound of a distant spinner flying, the hum of machinery, a distant rumble of thunder, the soundtrack synths playing though it, the searchlights piercing through the night and the misty, damp air, the characters figures reduced to silhouettes. The production design, the surrounding cityscape, the nearby advertisement featuring an Asian woman’s face. Its so timeless, like stepping back into that 2019 so imitated over the years and yet feeling so authentic here. So Blade Runner, so Pure Cinema! Every time I see this sequence I never want it to end.
“I’m so happy when I’m with you!” Joi gushes. “You don’t have to say that,” K corrects her, fully aware that she is just following her programming. She is a companion, an AI construct designed to befriend, cheer, comfort its owner. A digital alternative to Replicant pleasure models. K seems quite aware of Joi’s limitations, even if Joi herself isn’t. Which does raise a pertinent question- is this Joi just like any other Joi sold to the public, or is she actually something more? In just the same way as, presumably, most Replicants simply exist, function and obey, and then one like K comes around which starts to (apparently) think for itself and push against its boundaries, is Joi doing the same? In just the same way as ‘life finds a way’, is it true that AI finds a way too, that it finds a way to achieve a sense of unique self, and soul? How much is freewill, how much is code, for any of the characters in this world? Both Joi and K are AI. Or are they real? How does one even measure ‘real’ in cases such as this? Does ‘I think, therefore I am’ even cut it in this world?
Joi almost looks a ghost- here on the roof, and yet not here. Light seeps through her fragile-looking form. Her graphics software seems to adapt to the rain that falls through her body and simulates how it would splash and soak a real body instead. Artifice continues to try to become real. Joi and K attempt an awkward and impossible embrace that will press a later solution from a (frustrated?) Joi. But now Joi suddenly freezes. A message from Joshi overrides Joi’s programming; Joshi wants K back at the station.
X-ray images of a footlocker, and bones within it. Wonderful sounds of clunky, noisy machinery (the sound design really is quite remarkable in this film).
We are in the morgue. We are told that the footlocker belonged to Sapper Morton from his military days, and that soil samples indicate that it has been buried some thirty years. The bones belonged to a woman.
Personal observation here- it immediately occurred to me when first watching the film last October, that the bones are whats left of Rachel. Its inevitable really, just do the math- 2049 minus 30 years. I remember feeling a lead weight in my chest, a feeling of genuine loss. There is an interesting meta-reality at work here- I remember ‘seeing’ Rachel, as Sean Young looked in 1980/81, an image frozen in celluloid, videotape and disc for all the decades of revisiting Blade Runner so many times: Sean Young/Rachel frozen in time. Now she was just bones, the long years since 1982 as real as those between 2019 and 2049.
The film caught up with my suspicions almost immediately- K examines sensory data and microscopic imaging and discovers that the bones are those of a Replicant, and the soundtrack plays the same music as played over the prologue text at the beginning of the film. The score for this film seems to serve a different function to that of the original film’s score by Vangelis, and yet still sounds very ‘Blade Runner‘. I will always wonder, though, as to what composer Johann Johannsson’s score sounded like before it was replaced. I suspect some of Johannsson’s score filtered through- the moody atmospherics of the Wallace sequences sound suspiciously like his music. The music reprising from the films beginning would seem to indicate a recurring theme, of the nature of Replicants and the central mystery of this film.
The revelation that this female Replicant had given birth to a child will have repercussions throughout the remainder of the movie, and is indeed the core of the film.
Cut to Joshi’s office. Again we see an exterior shot, looking through a window into her office, in just the same way as we earlier had an exterior shot looking into K’s apartment. This time though we also have a closer exterior view, allowing us to see the pouring rain distort Joshi’s face as she raises the ramifications of what a Replicant giving birth means. Is this distortion of her face representing the disruption/anarchy she fears will ensue as the present order of things collapses?
So we now cut to the interior proper, and see the outside world through her window as real as it looked outside of K’s apartment. This is no green-screen/CGI shot; through miniatures/forced perspective, atmospheric haze and physical weather effects the film continues its subtle definition of reality, which is a beautiful subtext when one considers what the films subject is.
Joshi is sending K on a special mission, off the books, one assumes- to track down the Replicant child and destroy all trace. K, like the dutiful Replicant that he is, obeys, but noticeably hesitates, a concern for Joshi and perhaps an early indication his next baseline test won’t be as simple as the one we saw earlier: “I never retired anything that was born, I guess,” he states. “To be born is to have a soul.”
“Are you telling me no?” Joshi presses, stepping towards him. A little threatening, perhaps a little worried.
“I wasn’t aware that was an option, madam,” K replies.
“Attaboy,” Joshi breathes, relaxing. “Hey,” she calls over to him as K leaves. “You’ve been getting by fine without one.”
“What is that, madam?” K asks.
“A soul,” she states, already at her desk, working at some paperwork, dismissing him.
Here we have the central thesis of he film laid bare. The film allows us to consider this, by lingering over a shot of K leaving the office and closing the door behind him, and through a window in the door watch him walking away. Its a subtle thing, but so few films would actually take a moment to pause like this- usually it would simply cut to K flying over to the Wallace building and the next section of the film. Instead, then, it allows a moment for the audience to dwell on what has just been said. Already the film has shown us K’s digital AI companion, Joi, and postulated that she may be more ‘real’ than initially intended as a product, or the possibility that Joi and K are having some kind of relationship beyond one as simply owner/product. Now, the film has thrown up the nature of ‘being’, of what is real, the supposition that having a soul is what makes us real. Its throwing all these ideas up in the air, and we will see where they land and develop as the film progresses, but already the film is letting us chew over them.
While we ourselves consider the possibilities, its interesting that the film now cuts to an exterior shot of the police station roof, and K’s spinner in the falling rain. K is sitting in the car deep in thought- perhaps, like us, reflecting on what has just been said in Joshi’s office, what it means. Or is K ruminating himself, as a Replicant, of what it means that a Replicant child has been born? His first doubts, his first glimmerings of moral uncertainty, of individual thought? That black and white world of absolutes and certainties that he lived in at the start of the film already falling away?
We cut now to perhaps the single best effects shot in the entire film- one that takes my breath away every time, in the grandest tradition of the 1982 film. We are looking upwards at Peugeot and Coca Cola advertisements on buildings above us before the camera swings away and down, almost impossibly, to a vertigo-inducing concrete canyon looking on streets far below- a canyon ablaze in light from an Atari advertisement/logo, and K’s spinner racing through it.
Another reminder that we are in an alternate reality, with Atari yet still a major corporation in this world, and yes, a little more fan service from the first film. Its a beautiful moment, a lovely effects shot and yes, another fine reminder of the original film.
K is on his way to Wallace Corp headquarters, in order to investigate the identity of the Replicant whose bones were stored in Norton’s footlocker. He passes over the two Tyrell pyramids from the first film, now darkened and no doubt falling into ruin- its almost a pity that the Replicant records weren’t still stored there, it would have been an interesting place to revisit, with all the ghosts hanging around within its halls. The Wallace headquarters loom over both pyramids and city- a gigantic structure dark and mysterious, and yet, as we will soon see, incongruously full of light within, as if Wallace has control of sunlight itself. The exterior of the Wallace Headquarters is pure overkill, perhaps an indication of Wallace’s own ego- the size of this building almost appears an affront against the city below. There is a nice touch of the Pan-Am logo in a corner of the screen as we see the Wallace headquarters exterior, another reference to the first film and the alternate universe we are in- raising thoughts of the Pan-Am orbital clippers that we saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey, too.
As K asks a Wallace filing clerk in the records library for details about the Replicant reference number he holds, and hands a piece of hair from the footlocker as corroborating DNA evidence, an alarm sounds in the earpiece belonging to Luv, somewhere else within the giant building. She has perhaps been waiting long years for this notification to alert her- a warning that someone has found a trace of Rachel. “Another prodigal serial number returns. A 30 year old open case finally closed is a curiosity and relief,” she will soon tell K, but she’s lying when she does- the open case is hardly closed, and its not a relief either. Rather, its more an opportunity for monstrous possibilities.
End of part two.