Robots: Humanoid, autonomous cars, small unmanned aerial vehicles.
What it gets right about robots: While the humanoid robots are implausible, the supporting autonomous cars and unmanned aerial vehicles are.
Recommendation: Rewatch Blade Runner before watching Blade Runner 2049 and finish up by reading Rod Brooks’ The Seven Deadly Sins of Predicting the Future of AI. Then reward yourself by reading The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi’s playful nod to Philip K. Dick’s source novella for the movies Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The original Blade Runner was a game changer in science fiction, returning robots to the biological constructs of R.U.R., Karel Capek’s play that created the idea of robots, all the while providing a striking visualization of multiple themes about robots and societal decline that had been floating around in the ether for decades. It spawned the noir atmosphere that permeates later sci-fi, such as Ghost in the Shell, Minority Report, and The Matrix. Blade Runner 2049 breaks no new ground but is a captivating “once more with feeling” feature well worth seeing.
The premise of Blade Runner was the enduring theme that we will create autonomous robots that will kill us. In the original, individual replicants or small groups make a run for freedom so often that a special police job category – nicknamed the Blade Runner- exists. The plot centered on a few replicants who have banded together and returned to Earth in order to have their life extended, or, barring that, kill their creator in revenge for his cruelty of a short life. In 2049, individual rebellion is impossible, and Blade Runners exist to find the remaining missing individual replicants from the era of the original movie.
A provocative, but minor, thread in the original Blade Runner was the idea that memories anchor us, but that in the future they can be manipulated and leaving us unsure of how we can we know who or what we are. That we aren’t who we think we are is a major theme in many of Philip K. Dick’s works, with the short story about a robot in The Electric Ant, as the epitome of the surprise and horror of discovery of memory tampering. The “we are our memories” thread and its corollary threads of “how do we know who we are if our memories are suspect?” and “if I were a robot, would I know it?” have now been promoted to the main theme of Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 2049 takes a “bigger is better” attitude (and a “longer is better” attitude too, as the move clocks in at close to 3 hours). LA is now even larger and more ecologically devastated. The videography and special effects are bigger, more noir, and more slyly self-aware. The villains are scarier. The villain in Blade Runner was the corporate, older, robot creator Tyrell, played by Joe Turkel in thick glasses with an engineer’s standard issue lack of empathy. Tyrell was the visual embodiment of the industrial-military complex. Blade Runner 2049 has replaced the Tyrell villain with a Silicon Valley, younger, touchy-feely type Wallace, played with messianic and narcissistic motivations by Jared Leto. Wallace doesn’t need thick glasses to proclaim his allegiance to scientific progress; he has exchanged his eyes for the ability to simultaneously see through multiple robotics devices. He is literally the embodiment of the Information Age and is far scarier than anything President Eisenhower in his warning on the Industrial-Military complex could have predicted.
The “bug” in Tyrell’s androids that led them to want to lead their own life has, in theory, been eliminated in Wallace’s androids. We the viewers, of course, know better; we know that this fix is only in theory and scrutinize Ryan Gosling’s every world-weary glance for the refutation of theory by practice. Wallace’s androids are still physically better than humans, but they no longer burn with the lust for life evinced by Rutger Hauer’s if–only-you-could–see-what-I’ve-seen Roy Batty. The new replicants are as world-weary and as trapped in their roles as the humans left behind on Earth. Indeed, individual loneliness and depression are the shared trait of both species and members of both species fight off this loneliness with their individual instances of a highly popular customizable virtual reality girlfriend, Joi.
So how does Blade Runner 2049 rate in terms of real robots? Somewhat better, as the movie now incorporates more realistic robots missing in the original. K, the blade runner played by Ryan Gosling, is able to safely nap as his flying car drives him around, through with the downside of no longer having the inscrutable Edward James Olmos play chauffeur while speaking his intriguing patois of Spanish, Korean, and Chinese and churning out origami figures that served as a Greek chorus. Police cars are outfitted with a UAV, a nice nod to Canada where UAVs are required to be used to film crime scenes. The UAVs are slightly more sophisticated than the ones we have now, as the 2049 ones understand verbal and gestural communication. Wallace is surrounded with a swarm of UAVs that look like minnows sculpted from black lava as they drift indoors, summoning a visual impression that they might double as hot stones for a massage. Factory robot arms zip over bodies in the morgue in an apparent nod to the opening sequence in the HBO Westworld series.
Blade Runner 2049 also gets kudos for at least mentioning the economics of robotics. The cost of making replicants seems very high and labor intensive, at least based on the number of designers killed or roughed up in both movies. Wallace himself is worried that he can’t produce enough replicants fast enough. It’s enough to wonder why good old-fashioned breeding or genetic modification seen in Gattaca and the under-rated movie Solider isn’t considered a more viable option. (Speaking of Soldier, it was written by one of the Blade Runner screenplay writers who set it in the same universe and uses some of the props, see https://filmschoolrejects.com/5-science-fiction-films-inspired-by-blade-runner/. Who knew?)
Of course, trying to find a teachable moment about robots in Blade Runner or Blade Runner 2049 is a bit futile because the point of both movies was never about robots but about being human in a de-humanizing world.
On a more positive note, being human in a literally dehumanizing world has never been more fun than in The Android’s Dream. Scalzi has created a ROFL mash up of AI, genetic engineering, first contact, and something so suspiciously similar to Scientology that one wonders if he should go into hiding. The plot is sprinkled liberally with a Keith Laumer Retief At Large diplomatic sensibility. It is astounding how something can simultaneously be so different and so similar to the original Philip K. Dick novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I recommend seeing the original Blade Runner before Blade Runner 2049 in order to savor the continuity between the movies. Blade Runner came out in 1982 and it is interesting to ponder over drinks as to what has changed in the real world since 1982. Certainly, robotics has made epic progress since 1982, but the human heart, and human folly, remain the same.