This post contains major spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
As a lifelong fan of science fiction books and movies, an independent editor of science fiction, and a sci-fi geek in general, I quietly carried a badge of shame for decades: I’d never seen Blade Runner.
I grew up watching other sci-fi classics of the 80s. I’m an above-average Star Wars fanatic. I can quote Dune and Aliens and Predator and Total Recall and Wrath of Khan even with years between watchings, mostly because that was the Netflix binging of the 80s: watching VHS movies over and over and over again.
But I somehow never saw Blade Runner. In college, I had the opportunity to remedy this when I took an English course that examined story arcs in classic films, and one of the movies we had to rent and watch was Blade Runner. And yet the only thing I really learned from that class was that the quickest way to kill my motivation to watch a movie was to make it homework. I never watched it, I fell asleep during the analysis (they turned off the lights, OKAY?), and I’m pretty sure I got a C for the class.
For whatever reason, over the next fifteen or so years, I continued to resist watching it. The story didn’t sound interesting, and I knew that what was groundbreaking in 1982 was no longer groundbreaking. However, with Blade Runner 2049 out this past weekend, I had to do it. Out of excuses, I rented the Ultra HD version of Final Cut on Google Play and watched it over the course of two days.
Not surprising, but I found the movie to be strange (seriously, where the heck did Roy get that white bird?) and not all that appealing. I blame this on watching a 1980s movie for the first time thirty-five years after it was made, and I know I’ll probably elicit a few screams for saying that, but that’s how I felt. The score grated on my ears, the storytelling and/or editing was extremely confusing (so confusing that I had to go pull up the Wikipedia synopsis halfway through), and I thought Harrison Ford’s acting was bizarre.
Most of all, though, I was struck by the scene between Deckard and Rachael in his apartment, when she tries to leave and he stops her, then slams her into a wall, then makes her ask him to kiss her and say that she wants him. This scene made me extremely uncomfortable, and I found myself asking why Blade Runner hasn’t been lambasted for the last three decades for turning what looked like sexual harassment/sexual intimidation into “passion” and “romance.” I went looking for a few discussions, and those were the words I saw used to describe the scene, and it just shocked the heck out of me. Oh, Deckard was just showing her how to be human. Deckard was just forcing her to feel human emotions. Deckard was turning her on and awakening what was already inside.
What I saw was a lonely man taking advantage of a vulnerable replicant woman. Take out the good old sexy saxophone foreplay music, and one could look at this scene completely differently. She’s crying in this scene. That said, in the interest of storytelling and the world of Blade Runner in general, I don’t think what Deckard did was out of character, and I can accept it so long as you don’t gloss it over. I don’t like it, but I can understand it in context. To me it’s only a problem if you view Deckard as some romanticized good-guy detective who was only doing what he did for a woman he’d fallen in love with, which is what Blade Runner 2049 seemed to be saying, and that was my primary objection to the sequel and discussions about the scene.
Recognize that Deckard is flawed in this way and that what he does is simply part of who he is, not who people want him to be, and that helps to explain the man K finds. And let’s be honest here, the act of “retirement” is meant to shock us, and that’s Deckard’s line of work. He’s a cold-blooded killer. Humanity’s executioner. I’m not saying he can’t soften his viewpoint on life, but he’s no saint. I’d argue that his redemption arc doesn’t really begin until the very end of the film, something that is brought on by the fact that Roy Batty’s just saved his life.
Note the above video is called “Romantic Scene from Blade Runner.” I guess it must be love, then? If love is telling a woman what to say to get consent, anyway.
But yes, I did not care for the original. It took me three separate sessions to finish watching it.
Then there’s Blade Runner 2049, which despite a whopping 2-hour-44-minute runtime, managed to skillfully weave an achingly sad story arc for K into a larger but still unexplored storyline, giving him a small role to play in changing the world. Ryan Gosling was amazing, and the movie was beautiful in ways that I don’t even think I can describe appropriately without a degree in film.
The film, through its clear parallels between Deckard and K—their quiet demeanors, lonely existences at home, apparent lack of empathy, and uncomfortable thousand-yard-stare, plus the simple fact that K states why he, as a replicant, is the perfect person to hunt his own kind—seems to be one (really) long confirmation of Deckard’s biological existence. The child and Freysa are proof that replicants can age just like humans do, thus making it entirely possible that Deckard is a replicant. K is every bit the killer that Deckard was, and we are shown this right off the bat.
And yet I loved K way more than Deckard. He moved me. I’m still thinking about him today, and I think part of the reason I’m so much more accepting of someone who is also a cold-blooded killer is simply that he’s aware of what he is. He is burdened with the knowledge that no matter what objections he may have, he must obey, because that’s what Wallace built him to do. Couple that with his “marriage” to an AI program, and you have someone much easier to sympathize with.
Going back to the original, one of the few problems I had with 2049‘s story of Deckard and Rachael was that I saw zero chemistry between them in the original. When Wallace is playing the audio for Deckard and seemingly confirming that Deckard is, in fact, secretly a replicant, he implied that Tyrell lobby scene is where they fell in love. I mean, did I see a different movie? Deckard didn’t seem to have any interest in her romantically, and right after, Tyrell appears and has Deckard give her the test. Then later they’re in love and running away together. A lot of people hate the instalove concept, and while I’m not really one of those haters, it didn’t add up for me. I think Rachael was just out of options and had no choice.
Sure, I get that he doesn’t turn her in and he’s later attracted to her, but that doesn’t mean you can just wave off what he did to her as romance or “teaching” a woman how to love. What if that was how Deckard saw his relationship with Rachael, and her own view was completely different? Perhaps that’s why his “role” in the plan to protect their child was to leave. Did Freysa learn from Rachael that she wasn’t truly in love with him but instead was intimidated into thinking she was? Was this not only a way to protect their child from Tyrell but to split Rachael from Deckard as well? Had Rachael survived, would she have stayed with her child but left Deckard anyway? I think 2049 would have been even better had it not tried to make an argument for romance and instead addressed this as an uncomfortable alternate reality—that Deckard and Rachael are simply together out of necessity, and that his viewpoint may be heavily skewed by the delusion that “she wanted it.”
This problem aside, I think Blade Runner 2049 cleverly showed us a lot of things. The main thing being that replicants, particularly blade-runner replicants such as K—and presumably Deckard—lead agonizingly depressing lives, and this can lead to them doing unsavory or uncomfortable things. That’s fine. That fits with their story arc. In fact, isn’t that the entire point of the premise? That we’re supposed to sympathize with their right to desire more life while also feeling conflicted about the violent acts they commit? K’s story was beautifully tragic, and I think it serves to show us why, in hindsight, we should look at Deckard’s actions against Rachael as terrible but somewhat understandable. That is, if he’s a replicant.
That said, I think the movie still left that big question open for debate, and actually, if Deckard is human, that pushes him farther into the dark side of the character spectrum. It also opens the story up to the fact that a replicant and a human can have a child, which I think has larger implications than replicants being able to reproduce amongst themselves.
In closing, while I did not enjoy the original very much, I found 2049 to be gorgeous, tragic, and touching, and I think the two films complement each other well. I’d even argue that 2049 made Blade Runner better in hindsight.
I highly recommend going to see it in IMAX. Due to cost, I don’t see movies in theaters much more than once every couple of months, and I only splurge on IMAX for a select few of those—this movie was worth it and then some. And since Denis Villeneuve made me feel a multitude of things after Arrival as well, I’m pretty sure I’ll see anything this man directs going forward.