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Last year, director Denis Villenueve brought audiences one of the most pro-life films of recent years with the brilliant PG-13 sci-fi film Arrival. His latest—a sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner—maintains its predecessor’s bleak tone and R-rated language and imagery … yet sharpens its themes about the value of human life.
In 2049, 30 years after the events of the first movie, LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling) is, like Harrison Ford’s Deckard before him, a blade runner. He’s tasked with hunting down and retiring old-model replicants—bioengineered androids who, unlike the newer models, have the capacity to disobey their creators.
In the pursuit of a case, K uncovers evidence of a miracle, a child born from the union of a human father and a replicant mother. His human commanding officer orders him to find this new creation and destroy it, along with all evidence that it ever existed.
For the first time in his career, K has moral qualms about his mission. Because if a person is born, not made, he reasons in an obvious allusion to the Nicene Creed, he must have a soul. And you cannot rationalize away murdering a soul with a clinical euphemism like “retiring it.”
Still, as a new-model replicant himself, K believes he has no free will and no choice but to follow orders. He’s thwarted in his mission by industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the tech giant who took over manufacturing replicants after the Tyrell Corp. from the last film went under.
Complementing all this weighty philosophy, Blade Runner 2049 is saturated with Biblical Easter eggs. Christian cinephiles will no doubt spend years trying to parse out something called “the Galatians syndrome” and what Wallace’s reference to Rachel’s prayer in Genesis means to the plot. Wallace himself may be the story’s biggest Scriptural call-out. He not only fancies himself a god, he embodies what those unfamiliar with the Bible often imagine the Old Testament God to be—capricious, demanding, and violent.
The difficulty, however, at least from a single viewing of this sprawling, surreal, and nearly three-hour opus is that Wallace’s motives, as written, are often inscrutable. And Leto’s prancing performance does nothing to suggest any that aren’t written. The visual detail and imagination in nearly every individual scene are breathtaking, yet taken together, this world is almost unrelentingly despairing. Yet, you could argue (and I want to see the movie at least twice more before doing it) that despair is the point. If ours is a volatile, fallible deity (even a deity called science), we have nothing to hope for beyond void and despair, something Villenueve seems to underline with graven images of Babylonian proportions.
I won’t say he couldn’t have found creative ways to achieve his aims without nudity, but this is one of those rare cases where it’s at least put to thematic purpose. We see two kinds of naked bodies in Blade Runner 2049. The first are those of the replicants—stockpiled like meat and dispatched mercilessly whenever their creators deem it necessary. The second are skyscraper-sized holograms advertising sexual services. Later, we see similar non-explicit glimpses of towering female statues outside an abandoned Las Vegas. The implication seems clear—these are today’s private idols unmasked and writ as large as they truly loom in our collective subconscious. They both demand worship in lurid 40-foot Technicolor and betray their barrenness as they crumble in the dust.
It’s telling that all we see of the only actual love scene in the film is a kiss. The sad exchange between a replicant and a hologram—who was originally designed for pornographic purposes but longs for real intimacy—is mostly shielded from our eyes.
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is often difficult to enjoy as traditional entertainment yet impossible not to marvel at. And its merit will no doubt be debated for years to come. However, for those who would rather not expose themselves to some of its images but would still like to see a superior film with similar themes, I’d recommend the quieter and far more accessible Arrival.