'Blade Runner 2049' is about learning that you're not the main character in your own story
Because my colleagues and I were strictly enjoined from telling you much about “Blade Runner 2049” in advance of the movie’s premiere, I ended up writing some fairly vague praise of the movie. But now that you’ve all had a chance to see it - though far too few of you actually have - I wanted to dive into my favorite aspect of it in slightly more detail.
There has been a lot of discussion of “Blade Runner 2049’s” female characters, and whether they’re overdeveloped or underdeveloped, whether they exist simply as fantasy decorative objects or plot devices. But though broadly I think some of these critiques have merit, these elements of “Blade Runner 2049” didn’t bother me very much, because these characters generally take up as much as spaces as they should on-screen.
For all its grand visual scope, “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t a story about the society it depicts, or even the replicant revolution brewing in the movie’s margins. Instead, “Blade Runner 2049” is a highly personal story about what it means to discover that you aren’t the main character in a narrative.
When we first meet K (Ryan Gosling), he’s an advanced-model replicant whose work is retiring - which of course means killing - earlier-model replicants who haven’t been perfectly programmed to obey. One of his assignments, to kill a replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, who amazingly enough has become an actor I affirmatively look forward to seeing in everything) who has been living a quiet, underground life as a protein farmer, leads K to a startling piece of information. Though they’re widely believed to be sterile, a replicant, now dead, gave birth to a living child.
For industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the news is an opportunity to make replicant production more efficient. And for K, the revelation opens up the possibility that some of the memories that he has always believed were implants designed to make him think and behave in a more realistic fashion are actually real, and that by extension, he might be the miracle that Sapper Morton spoke of before he died.
To its credit, “Blade Runner 2049” is concerned with K’s quest to discover whether his suspicion is actually true, rather than immediately confirming it and plunging him into the sort of story we’ve seen so many times before. I would have been much less interested in “Blade Runner 2049” if it had turned out to be another riff on “The Hunger Games,” “The Maze Runner” or any number of other stories in which a photogenic young person is plunged immediately into a revolution against a repressive regime that, depending on the work, may or may not be interestingly or well-defined. Among other things, to do that, “Blade Runner 2049” would have had to do more to develop its society than have Wallace skulk around in what appear to be a series of expensively appointed hotel lobbies.
Instead, the movie is concerned with the tremulous awakening of K’s hopes and curiosity about his memories. Because he’s functionally a detective, K pursues the question methodically and doggedly, never fully embracing the idea that he is the child who was so carefully spirited away. But though the answer to the question of his origins ultimately does matter in “Blade Runner 2049,” the very process of K’s investigation has the effect of making him a real boy - or at least a realer boy than he was when he mindlessly accepted assignments from Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright).
And when K learns that he is really a replicant and that his memories are not his own, he doesn’t rage against his fate, nor does he automatically accept an assignment from Freysa (Hiam Abbass), a replicant revolutionary disguising herself as a madam. Instead, he facilitates a reunion between Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his daughter, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) - the real child born of a replicant - who has used her memories of her time in hiding after Rick and his comrades faked her death to hide her in order to make the recollections that make K feel more human. Though “Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t absolutely confirm this, it’s possible that this is K’s dying act: He cedes the stage to the real main character in the struggle to come, rather than trying to remain at the center of the story.
This is a more low-key kind of goodness - specifically, it’s a more low-key way to be a good man - than to insist on being the person leading the charge or making a grand sacrifice. It’s doubly true in that K ultimately decides to act in service of Deckard’s connection to Ana rather than of the demands of a nascent political movement. He chooses domesticity rather than the public sphere, someone else’s destiny rather than the false idea of a blazing future for himself.
If “Blade Runner 2049” had been about either Ana’s discovery of her identity or her struggle to conceal it, it might still have been excellent, but it would have been a very different movie. Either way, “Blade Runner” is an elegant, melancholic argument that sometimes the problems of three little people are the most important thing in this crazy world.