This column does not discuss the plot of “Blade Runner 2049,” at least not really, because I’m not allowed to talk about any relevant details yet.
As I noted yesterday, despite the fact that “Blade Runner 2049” is one of my favorite new movies of the year, there’s very little I’m supposed to say about it in advance of the movie’s release. That makes writing a conventional review of the movie nearly impossible; even if I slapped a hefty note at the top warning ye who enter here what’s about to go down in my discussion of the plot, I’d be inviting the wrath of the director, Denis Villeneuve, his studio, and the (generally lovely) folks who run publicity screenings here in Washington. But because I did respond so deeply to “Blade Runner 2049,” I wanted to talk about the movie in some general terms as a way to set up a more substantive discussion about it for next week.
There are a lot of obvious political ideas floating around in “Blade Runner 2049,” some more fully developed than others. When the action begins, we learn that the Tyrell Corporation’s replicants from the first movie were outlawed and that after a sketchy worldwide disaster, the innovator Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) saved humanity through his mastery of agricultural techniques, then bought the remains of the company and started manufacturing a new, and more seamlessly controlled, replicant product line. Filaments of big questions about the planet’s ecological carrying capacity, why the cops have the right to kill an entire class of people, and the line between humanity and its creations float in the foul air, captured in gorgeous fashion by cinematographer Roger Deakins.
But none of these threads are the movie’s true subject, and though I suspect they’ll prompt a litany of columns, it strikes me that to chase these dust motes is to miss the movie’s real political inquiry, which operates at the level of philosophy, not policy details.
The things that lingered with me most about “Blade Runner 2049” are its melancholy and loneliness. This is a movie where the most important businessman in the world appears to live and do business mostly alone in what looks like the world’s most austere and expensive hotel lobby, and chooses to see the world not for himself, but with little flying cameras as his intermediaries. K (Ryan Gosling), the detective who is our reentry point into this universe, keeps an austere little apartment and eats at hawker centers; among his closest connections is his boss, police Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, liberated from the tomb that is “House of Cards”). In fact, all the characters in “Blade Runner 2049” appear to live alone in for what most of them amounts to a bachelor solitude that ranges from grubby to opulent, from protein-rich grubs bubbling in a cast-iron pot to the grandeur of a world-class bourbon collection.
That’s fitting for a movie that’s most curious about the relationship between connection and humanity. Is the most human thing to do to withdraw into monastic solitude if it means keeping someone else’s secrets — and thus keeping alive a pledge of loyalty? Do we find our truest purpose in serving others, or in thinking for ourselves? Are movements more important than individual relationships? And is the dream of being a chosen one an expression of solidarity for the people you hope to save, or an act of vanity that separates you from the people you secretly hope that you’re superior to?
“Blade Runner 2049” doesn’t offer definitive answers to these questions, which makes sense: The answer is different for different characters, as it is for different people in the real world. And though I found the movie purely transporting on its own terms, I also found myself grateful that the accidental synchronicity of the film’s release date meant that director Denis Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green were posing these questions at this particular moment.
It’s true that right now, we’re engaged in bitter debates about specific policy issues, from health care to gun control to environmental protection. And certainly “Blade Runner 2049” arrives at a moment of intense discussion about developments in robotics and artificial intelligence and the implications these breakthroughs have for our economy and our collective morality.
But I liked and maybe even loved “Blade Runner 2049” not because it tried to arbitrate these policy issues, but because it spoke to the deeper sense of dislocation I think many of us feel right now, and the serious questions that many of us face. Are things ever going back to normal, or will the new normal we’ve been promised ever actually arrive? Is the appropriate response to this moment of profound change in American civic life and America’s standing in the world to dive into politics, or to build a sustainable, ethical life in the small space we can plausibly understand and control?
I suppose some of this sounds like stoner’s talk, like the kind of hypothetical musing that has often gotten science fiction and fantasy accused of escapism rather than engagement. The political power of fiction, though, isn’t that it neatly maps onto existing debates and plays by the rules of our current partisan politics. It’s that it forces us to take a step back at the moments when we badly need to see everything anew.