[Alvaro Zinos-Amaro] Matt, thanks for joining me for this conversation. I’m excited to talk about Blade Runner 2049! I’d like to begin by asking you what the significance of the original Blade Runner is to you?
[Matthew Kressel] It’s one of those things that has been with me most of my life, so every time I return to it, it reminds me of the thousand previous times I watched it and whatever mental or emotional state I was in at that time. I feel that Blade Runner for me, and maybe for a lot of people, is like a Rorschach. We watch it and in a lot of ways it reflects back to us what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking. I think that’s why the film is so rewarding on a rewatch. It’s so layered. It’s an incredibly dark film, and yet the—I hesitate to call it the message—the culmination, the ending of the movie is such a powerful moment of hope, of humanity, that I think it really appeals to me as a science fiction writer, as a person. It’s also just a really cool science fiction film. It handles a lot of really serious issues in a deft way. Whenever I rewatch it I’m always picking up new things that I didn’t see before, that I hadn’t considered.
[AZA] Clearly the movie has cult appeal. It certainly sounds like it’s a personal favorite for you. How many times have you seen it?
[MK] I’ve lost count. Probably over a hundred times. I used to do this thing, it was like my New Year’s Eve party trick. My friends would say, “Do the Blade Runner trick!” They would put on one of the versions, usually the Director’s Cut or the Final Cut, and they would skip to a random scene, I would look at it for a second for a cue, and I would turn around and recite the dialogue. They had the volume muted and the subtitles on. I would pretty much nail it. One or two words here or there might be off, like a preposition or something. But I could probably recite the movie from beginning to end. I haven’t done that in the past year or so. I think last year we watched it and I didn’t recite it, mainly because I feel like I’ve become the clown and I don’t want to do that anymore. The film has a very powerful appeal to me. I think it’s the perfect science fiction film.
[AZA] How old were you when it came out, and how did you first see it?
[MK] I would have been eight when it came out. I’m almost certain I didn’t see it in the theater. My earliest memories of it were seeing it on HBO in my parents’ den. I very vividly remember two things. I remember the scene where Deckard gives Rachael the Voight-Kampff test. There was something really haunting and memorable about that scene that stuck with me for years. And the other thing I remember was Deckard with his gun going through the Bradbury building. My friend and I, when we were kids and playing with our toy guns and soldiers, would say, “Oh, this is Deckard’s gun,” and we would go around pretending we were blade runners. It wasn’t until years later that I started rewatching it with my cousin and we would just notice things like, “I didn’t see that in the background before,” or “Hey wait, that origami means something,” or “What they just said was a double entendre,” or “Look at how the characters have a weird glow in their eyes.” I started to see more as I got older and it just became an obsession. I think the credit should be given to Ridley Scott for putting in so many layers that thirty five years later I can still pick up on things that I missed.
[AZA] On the visual level alone, it’s such an immersive and hypnotic movie. I also think it would be difficult to overpraise how polished the screenplay is, and how finely it allows the viewer to come up with different interpretations, particularly if you adhere to the Final Cut.
[MK] Have you read Future Noir by Paul M. Sammon?
[AZA] I have not.
[MK] It’s essentially the Blade Runner bible. It’s this doorstopper of a book outlining pretty much everything from the initial option of Philip K. Dick’s novel forward, and they just rereleased it with new stuff from Blade Runner 2049. In the book he talks about how many times they revised the script, how they brought various people in. First it was Hampton Fancher, then David Peoples came in, Ridley had some stuff in there, some of the actors suggested things, and so on. I don’t know how many drafts it had but it had to be dozens.
[AZA] I was three when it came out, and living in Spain. My first contact with the movie was through VHS. It was a Spanish-dubbed version that I believe didn’t have the voiceover. The first time I saw it I was an early teen. I had recently discovered Star Wars. The difference between Star Wars and Blade Runner was so vast, in terms of what the latter showed me that movies were capable of, that I was fascinated. When you were talking before about memorable scenes, it made me think that I’ve seen Ridley Scott calling the Voight-Kampff test with Rachael as his favorite scene, and I have to say that was my favorite scene when I first watched it as well. I’ll also readily admit that there was a lot that went over my head during the first couple of viewings. Then many years passed and I didn’t watch it again. It became this sort of mythical movie in my mind. I knew that one day I’d return to it and look into the symbolism and deeper references and all that stuff, but that moment didn’t come until recently, when I learned that a sequel was in the works. I’ve probably seen it five or six times, putting me a mere ninety-five viewings behind you.
[MK] You have some catching up to do.
[AZA] Because the film had this sort of mythical significance for me, when it came time to name my review column for this magazine, it seemed like Blade Runner offered the perfect quote: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” Unfortunately in some cases it turns out to be a derogatory comment about horror movies that I’m reviewing. I think I didn’t go back to Blade Runner until recently because I didn’t want to deconstruct it—I enjoyed being aware that it had moved me but not being conscious of the details.
[MK] Blade Runner feeds into my obsession to pick everything apart.
[AZA] I think for me 2001: A Space Odyssey occupies a place similar to Blade Runner for you.
[MK] I was going to ask you, do you count it in your top ten films, or your top science fiction films?
[AZA] I’ve never compiled a list, but Blade Runner would definitely be on it. Going by the number of times watched, 2001 would take top billing. It sounds like it would be top ten material for you.
[MK] Blade Runner is number one. I would say that somewhere in the top five would be 2001, Close Encounters, the first Star Wars and possibly The Empire Strikes Back. Afterwards it gets a little fuzzy and there would be a bunch of films I’d have to sit down and parse through. I don’t necessarily think it’s always a good idea to rate things that way
[AZA] One of mine would be Alien as well.
[MK] I loved Alien. And I loved Aliens. An incredibly well-paced movie. As an action flick, the second one is actually better. The “science” is there too. A lot of times these action flicks hand-wave away the science, but if you watch it carefully, they’ve really thought it through.
[AZA] I just rewatched all the Alien movies when I was preparing to review Alien: Covenant. I was pretty familiar with the first one, but the second one, again, I’d seen it only once—I think I was nineteen—it blew me away and I’d never gone back to it. I was concerned that if I re-examined it now it might lose some of that mystique or nostalgic appeal. I was so pleasantly surprised. It amplifies the themes of the first film while, to your point, ratcheting up the action in a really exemplary fashion. There are few sequels I can think of that accomplish what Aliens does. Maybe Blade Runner 2049 is one of those sequels?
[MK] Yeah. I’ve heard it compared to The Godfather II and Aliens as a sequel that is as good as, if not better, than the original.
[AZA] These sequels enhance the themes of the first movies in their series by going deeper, adding new concerns, new interpretations and tangents, and that in turn helps to enrich the reading of the original movies.
[MK] Absolutely. One of my fears with this new film was that they were going to retcon the original and change how I interpreted things. I’m not going to say I’m not rethinking the original, but it didn’t negatively affect my enjoyment of the original at all. They kept the magic alive.
[AZA] Now let’s posit the opposite. Someone goes into Blade Runner 2049 never having seen the original, a younger person or someone who for whatever reason has never been exposed to it: does the new film work entirely as a standalone?
[MK] It’s very hard for me to say because I know the first one so well. I think that there would be parts where that person might have questions, but I have questions too! There aren’t a lot of easy answers to the deeper questions. Anyone who loves film, anyone who’s looking for something deeper than an action flick, something with more emotional resonance, will really enjoy Blade Runner 2049. You may come out of there saying, “Why was Deckard hiding out there?” Or questions about other characters. But I think the clues are there. It would be beneficial to see the original, I think. It’s a good question. I would be curious to ask someone who only saw the second one if they felt like they followed everything. I think they would.
[AZA] My sense is that you can enjoy the movie on its own but you’ll have an enhanced experience with the added context of the first one. I do think they’ve very cleverly arranged all of the elements of the story so that you can jump in. They offer quite a bit of exposition on the opening card, explaining what blade runners and replicants are, filling in what happened between the original and this one, implicitly summarizing the first one. When you sit down to watch Blade Runner 2049, within the first fifteen minutes you have been given the set of protocols by the film to understand how you’re going to need to decode it. The pacing and shots are very deliberate, the editing is slow, you get the striking set design and ambiance, the minimalist style of the dialogue. All of that comes across. The tone is very consistent throughout. If you understand what kind of experience you’re going to be in for, it helps deduce what you need to know about the first film. You’ve seen the sequel twice, right?
[MK] Yes. I went in with an open mind. I had heard from people that it was getting rave reviews, and I avoided the reviews because I didn’t want to be spoiled. A few weeks before I was reading fan theories and I thought, “Oh no, this could be a spoiler.” So I basically went in as blind as I could. And I loved it. When the last scene cuts to black, the whole theater was quiet. It was almost like everyone wasn’t sure what to do next. I thought, “That’s the sign of a powerful film.” I wasn’t left on this supremely high note, I wasn’t left on a supremely low note, I was left with this overwhelming sense of visual and emotional impressions. I thought, “My God, that was astounding. I need to see it all over again.” I saw it at a late show, 10:45 pm, didn’t get home until 3 am, and I went to bed that night and couldn’t sleep because I kept running over the plot in my mind. A brilliant film, in many ways. I was really worried they would do fan-service stuff, winks and nods to the first film. But they didn’t go in that direction. They didn’t just continue the original story—they added to it. And made it something unique. They could have simply copied the visual style of the original, the crowded streets and smoky interiors, and called it a day. But they didn’t. They asked, “If this is thirty years later, how would have this world changed?” And they ran with that. That was such an amazing directorial choice. The cinematography, the use of colors, and so on: I can’t wait to get it on DVD and just pause it to admire the beauty of specific shots. And when I say beauty, it’s a horrible beauty. 〈laughs〉 This is not a world I would want to live in. I think one of the reasons the original Blade Runner was copied so much was that even though dystopian Los Angeles looked like a really hard place to live there was a sexiness about it. There was a kind of beauty in its ugliness. I think subconsciously we all recognized this, and it was copied time and time again. In this new Blade Runner, there’s nothing about the world I’d want to experience, no place in that world where I think, “Hey, it would be cool to live there.” No. This is a true dystopia, from the snowy cold streets to the cramped apartments to the oppressive police station to the dumps of San Diego.... The only place that you might want to live is where Deckard is staying, but we know this really wasn’t such a good place for reasons I won’t spoil. I thought that was a great choice. In many ways our visions of the future affect what we perceive is possible, and I think that part of the beauty of Blade Runner, as well as one of its negative impacts, is how much it’s influenced our vision. One of our first ideas of what the future looks like is Blade Runner. I actually think that’s a bad thing. The new film says, “No. This future is not a future anyone would want to live in.”
[AZA] Thinking back to why the original Blade Runner made such an impression on me, I have to believe it’s not necessarily because of the science-fictional elements—by the time I saw it I’d read some pretty far-out New Wave books—but the fact that I’d never seen a noir film. I’d never seen a movie with the noir aesthetic, and to have that combined with imaginative elements made the experience really memorable. I was lucky enough to see the Final Cut on the big screen two days before the new one, and as I watched it, without meaning to, I kind of developed a high-level wish list for the sequel. Probably a bad way to approach the new movie, but nevertheless that’s what happened. One of the things on my wish list was this: “I hope the new Blade Runner doesn’t conclusively answer or resolve the question of Rick Deckard’s nature.” I really didn’t want it to come down on either side. Another item on the wish-list: “I hope the aesthetic is not simply noir with a science fiction background.” Because Blade Runner is already the ultimate example of that. The new film would need to do something different. You know what? I was fully satisfied with both of those items. My wishes were granted. The film not only respects the Deckard conundrum but adds further clues that can be interpreted both ways—very clever. And to me it doesn’t feel like a noir science fiction movie, it feels more like a science fiction movie, first and foremost, with an almost avant-garde, art-house aesthetic.
[MK] You could call it a $150 million art film. I agree with you that while the new film has certain noir-ish elements, like the detective and possibly the femme fatale, it didn’t have the visuals or tone of noir. I was thinking a lot about this recently: how would I classify this film?
[AZA] Not everyone has had only good things to say about Blade Runner 2049. I’ve seen people describe it as pretentious, overlong and self-important, self-inflated. Do you agree with any of those criticisms?
[MK] How would it be pretentious—maybe in the sense that it’s trying too hard to achieve something? I enjoy a spectacular failure over well-made pablum, and with that I’m not saying I think this is a failure by any means.
[AZA] I’m with you. I prefer an interesting failure to well-executed mediocrity.
[MK] Blade Runner 2049 aims really, really high. I believe it succeeds, in ways I haven’t seen recent science fiction films succeed, except perhaps Arrival. But I think a lot of the problems people are having, the ones who are using some of the words you mentioned, stem from how Hollywood has trained us to expect films to have certain beats. If we don’t have an action scene every 5 to 7 minutes, if we don’t have the plot move from A to B to C with all the plot dominos falling in a certain order, we’re not satisfied. Blade Runner 2049 does have the dominos falling, but they do so more slowly, and the action is spaced out, which forces you to think. A lot of people don’t expect to have to think in a film. That’s fine. There’s an audience for action films, and I enjoy them too, but that’s not what this is. That’s not what it was trying to do. I give the director credit for just trying to make a sequel.
[AZA] I agree that in some cases when people express these concerns they may be acknowledging that the film makes a lot of demands from the audience, and not everyone is willing to meet those demands. You enter into a kind of contract with a film-maker when you sit down to watch a movie: you make yourself receptive, submissive in a way, to their experience, the experience they’ve used their craft to fashion. Sometimes it may feel like too much submission. There are some science fiction art-house movies, such as Under the Skin, that are greatly committed to a particular aesthetic and have minimal dialogue. Under the Skin is uncompromising and when I watched it I remember people walking out of the theater. For example, in Blade Runner 2049 in certain scenes you get echoes of prior conversations that help some of those plot dominos fall into place. That was a bit of a concession to the idea that the audience may not be retentive enough to keep everything in their head and needs refreshers at critical moments.
[MK] I thought that was actually one of the few missteps.
[AZA] Yes. On the whole I do think Blade Runner 2049 is admirable in that it pushes up against the limit of what most people will put up with but doesn’t cavalierly rip through it like Under the Skin does. Of course there was a huge financial investment in the former that the latter didn’t have to deal with, and no sequel-engendered expectations. Those little echoes in Blade Runner 2049 become a distraction and I feel like they take away from what is otherwise a very confidently made movie. Speaking of confidence, about thirty minutes in, my girlfriend turned to me and said, “Oh no, I hope it doesn’t turn out to be X,” referring to something involving the nature of the new protagonist. She thought she’d figured this thing out, and I was right there with her. I remember saying, “I think the film is smart enough that this is misdirection, and we’ll turn out to be wrong.” She was skeptical, but about an hour and a half later we both experienced relief.
[MK] I know what you’re talking about and I think that was handled really well.
[AZA] I recently went back to the original 1982 Siskel and Ebert review of Blade Runner because I wanted to better understand how people were reacting to it. I know it was a critical and commercial failure initially but I didn’t know what the critical objections were. The review boils down to Siskel thinking that the plot is predictable and not much is happening: Deckard needs to find these replicants and retire them, that’s what he does, end of movie, who cares. Ebert praises the special effects work by Douglas Trumbull but also is lukewarm about the characters and plot. In Blade Runner 2049, the narrative structure is much more complicated. While there’s a general investigative framework, there are so many side-trips and unpredictable events that upset that, and events don’t build towards a general sense of resolution that coincides with the resolution of the original mystery or case. There may be even more questions at the end than there were at the beginning, with more than a passing suggestion that the whole world of the movie could be transformed by these events. To me that made it more interesting as well: more of a labyrinthine plot.
[MK] You’re right. It you take apart the plot of the first one, it’s almost a police procedural.
[MK] It’s interesting that you use the word labyrinth because I found the new film used the theme of walls in a big way. Remember when Robin Wright’s character, Lieutenant Joshi, says that there are walls that separate kind? Also, the moment that K decides to investigate on his own a little bit, shortly after he’s lost his badge, Joi asks him if he wants to find out if he’s a real boy or not and he asks her if she wants to go for a ride. Then we get this amazing shot of the sea wall and at that moment the gates open and the water floods out. I thought that was symbolic of the walls coming down, the moment he made a choice that wasn’t something his boss told him to do. And then the other thing was with Dr. Ana Stelline. Her barrier is transparent. So it’s a wall, but maybe it’s not really there in the same sense as the others. Or we learn that not all barriers are ones we’re consciously aware of. When Luv goes into the old data center, she has to shove open the wall. When the bald receptionist is taking K to the records, it’s wall after wall. Even in San Diego when they’re flying over these dumps, there are people tearing down walls, that’s what they do, they deconstruct these buildings. So I thought the film definitely played with the metaphor of walls and I really liked it.
[AZA] There are a few other details that tie into this. You have one of the most climactic events, a struggle for survival, happening on that same sea wall you were talking about. That works metaphorically and also turns some of the other images into foreshadowing. You also have the scene where Deckard realizes that there are craft on the way, that his location has been found out and it’s K’s fault. He closes the door and starts to make his escape. K runs right through the wall to join him.
[MK] Oh my god, you’re right. The breaking down of walls.
[AZA] While Deckard has been essentially static, K is now going to take a greater risk regarding his own personhood. He’s going to push through no matter where it leads him, which in the end turns out to be sacrifice. Also—and I admit this may be pushing it too far—you have on the one hand Freysa, leading an underground group, who makes an impassioned speech about finding the child because it will help elevate the replicant cause. In the middle you have K. And counter to Freysa you have another powerful figure who, for his own reasons, wants the child found. So two factions are vying for a similar outcome but for different reasons, with Niander firmly believing in differences between kinds. Freysa argues that the replicants are entitled to the same as humans if they can give birth. Niander argues they will always be subservient, because they’ve been programmed to obey orders. One of the three short films makes this explicit. He orders a replicant to commit suicide during a meeting. Niander’s name is Wall-ace. It’s built into the fabric of his name.
[MK] Exactly. I think that was intentional, for sure.
[AZA] The film is also full of allusions. When I used the word “labyrinth,” that may have been sparked by the Kafka references—the protagonist of The Trial is Joseph K., similar to Joe/K, and the protagonist of The Castle is K as well. There’s probably some Milton going on here, with a Paradise Lost sort of backdrop, which we can get into. Nabokov was very explicitly referenced with K’s baseline testing, which quotes lines from Pale Fire. I haven’t read it, have you?
[MK] I haven’t, and I’m very curious to read it now. I’ve heard it has a lot of resonance to the themes of Blade Runner.
[AZA] It looks like “Pale Fire” is the name of an autobiographical 999-line poem that gives the reader insight into the life of a character named John Shade. On top of that you have a bunch of footnotes penned by another character, Charles Kinbote, who is nominally commenting and explaining the poem. I’ve seen the suggestion that John Shade’s dealing with loss and his personal journey may not be unlike Joe’s. Aesthetically there certainly seems to be this aura of mourning to Blade Runner 2049. Part of that is the sense of loss intrinsic to the dystopia, but part of it is also the tone it establishes right in that first sequence, with Sapper Morton’s character. A solitary Nexus 8, about to be terminated, who’s hidden away the remains of a female replicant in a box. You get this sense of a long and lonely life, and lines about K not having seen a miracle. I also feel like there may be a structural connection. You can read the main poetic narrative of Pale Fire all the way through and leave the footnotes to the end, or you could approach the footnotes and Kinbote’s insight as of central importance—the poem just a substrate from which they spring—or you can flip back and forth between them, giving them equal weight. I like the idea that something similar could apply to Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Also, if we consider Kinbote as someone who’s trying to steal the spotlight, there may be a Wallace parallel there. While Wallace is clearly important, in that he’s engineered the protein humans need to survive in this dystopia, and he’s helped create the advanced replicants that continue to labor at the off-world colonies, he talks about himself in theological terms: he’s God, the replicants are angels, etc.
[MK] There’s the idea that the link is meta-fictional. In Pale Fire you have one fictional character commenting on another character and knowing that this second character is fictional; in Blade Runner 2049 you have the question of whether K is real—does he have a soul, is he a real boy—and the entity asking him this question is Joi, an A.I. Is she real? I found it interesting that she doesn’t like Pale Fire. She says she hates it. The 3D posters around the city advertise Joi as everything you want to see and hear, like a perfect mirror, so I thought it was really interesting that she dislikes something K loves.
[AZA] I’m really glad you brought this up, because I’d forgotten it. I wonder if the film is suggesting that the thing that will really please you, the psychology or personality of the A.I. that would be a perfect match for you, would be one that is not a mirror of you, that doesn’t simply echo your likes and dislikes but has marked differences. The tension and chemistry arises from these differences, and it informs whatever relationship, romantic or erotic, you would have with the A.I., making if feel more real.
[MK] I think you’re meant to question that. I think the film portrays their relationship effectively when it shows Joi glitching, when they have this tender moment in the rain and she freezes when he gets a voicemail.
[AZA] I laughed at that.
[MK] But then there’s the scene when he crashes his vehicle and she’s trying to break him out, and there’s this desperation to her glitching, in her voice. Even if it’s not “real,” you’re feeling it. Huge spoiler—when Luv steps on her emanator and her line of dialogue is cut off, I really felt for Joi as a character. I thought it was interesting that the A.I. was probably the only character in the film that showed genuine warmth. Except for maybe Ana. We’re two years away from 2019, and most scientists at this point are saying that within the next 20 to 100 years we’ll have some form of general artificial intelligence that is equivalent to a human intelligence. So I don’t think you could do a film set in 2049 and not really talk about A.I. The replicants are physical, genetically-engineered biological organisms, they’re not computers. But Joi is a computer. I thought that was a great juxtaposition. A possibly-sentient A.I. is telling the genetically-engineered replicant that he should go and see if he’s real! What an amazing idea to link those up. If it feels real, does it matter if it isn’t?
[AZA] You’re on to something that summarizes why I think this is a good science fiction movie, aside from the actual craft of the film-making. In the original Blade Runner you essentially have one dichotomy: human vs. replicant. There are intriguing questions about whether the separation between these two is as clear-cut as we’re initially led to believe, and the answer is probably not. This new movie features a variety of posthuman flavors, multiple posthuman species, interacting with one another, carrying forward huge parts of the plot, in some cases possibly without humans involved at all. I love the scene you just referenced. There’s been a physical confrontation between Deckard, K and Luv. Luv realizes K has transported Joi to the portable emitter and that by stepping on this one device Luv can snuff out Joi’s consciousness. Who is human in this scene? K is either a replicant or a clone. Deckard is possibly a replicant, heavily implied by the Final Cut and Ridley Scott’s own interpretation. Luv is another replicant. And Joi is an A.I. So in one interpretation of this scene, there are no humans whatsoever, just competing posthuman intelligences. 〈laughs〉 To me this was intense and interesting.
[MK] I like that theory 〈laughs〉. I want to ask you something that has to do with a cyclical theme. There’s a scene with bees. Nothing in this film is there without purpose. When K is thermally scanning the area he sees something. He asks Joi, “What’s that?” and she says, “Life.” Up close he discovers they’re bees. So Deckard must be farming bees. And he says at one point to K, “Not much to do around here at night.” What is he doing during the day? At the very beginning of the movie, K discovers a small buttercup flower on Rachael’s grave. I’m thinking, “Bees need flowers to live.” Does that mean Deckard was visiting the grave? That says to me that there was a connection between him and the other replicants. He wasn’t just living out there on his own. Deckard is a woodworker. He carves animals out of wood. He carves the horse and he indicates Rachael’s death and his daughter’s birth on the bottom of the horse. But he says to K, “I left before she was born. Sometimes to love someone you have to be a stranger.” How did he know then on what day his daughter was born and how did Ana get the horse? In K’s memory, sourced from Ana’s memory, she has a horse in the orphanage. So there had to be a chain from Deckard to Ana. What did you make of all this?
[AZA] I’m not sure it was two-way communication between Deckard and the replicants. I think he may have been monitoring the situation remotely. I can’t account for how the horse physically got from Deckard to Ana—maybe he had it taken to the orphanage by drone.
[MK] Freysa raised the child, and there’s a shot of her under that tree. Presumably Deckard had contact with Freysa? That’s the way I see it. And I think he visited Rachael's grave.
[AZA] I hadn’t made the connection between the flower and the bees. There’s been studies showing the complex, not-easily-understood ways in which bees can be endangered by climate change. When I saw the scene with the bees, what it conveyed to me was that we’ve entered a little pocket within the broader dystopian world where someone is at work trying to reverse the damage, the collapse of the climate system. He’s successful in a small way, maybe a symbolic gesture. Things might be reversed in the future because he’s able to harvest bees. Even though we know, as you hinted at before, that this area is contaminated because of its proximity to where a bomb went off. And with the flower, I thought something similar, just a little hint of nature and growth and possibility in a crumbling world.
[MK] When K goes into the old incinerator to find the horse, he sticks his hand into the incinerator very slowly, and later he also sticks his hand very slowly into the bee hive. I thought that was a great mix of opposites: the incinerator contains ashes and dust, represents the end, while the bees are about life and renewal. They’re connected by the horse.
[AZA] When K reaches into the beehive, the fact that he’s so slow and deliberate about it, but completely unafraid, was one of the many excellent moments that for me reinforced his non-human nature. It’s not quite inhuman but it’s a bit uncanny. Reaching into the dark for the horse is him reaching into his memories for an answer, now literalized, about what he’s experienced, about what’s real. He has to proceed slowly, because the answer could be very upsetting. As a matter of fact, it turns out to be extremely upsetting, given his outburst shortly after finding it. With the bees he just pulls his hand out and he’s unharmed. It’s a nice moment of calm before the violent interaction with Deckard.
[MK] I like that. I think it’s amazing how the scene shows his hand covered with bees and then it just cuts. It was more effective than lingering on it and making it into a big deal.
[AZA] You’ve uncovered why it gave me that sense of his not-quite-humanness. It was so unremarkable for him, it becomes unremarkable for us seeing it from his perspective. K isn’t afraid when he sticks his hand in the bee-hive, just curious, so we don’t need to experience dramatic emotions either or dwell on it.
[MK] That’s interesting, because then they’re focusing on his not-quite-humanness just before he meets maybe-not-human Deckard.
[AZA] The baseline test was fascinating. He has to function within certain strict parameters, otherwise he’s not only at risk of losing his job but also his life. I find that a really neat riff on the original. The Voight-Kampff test is designed to catch out replicants pretending to be human—they represent a discrepancy from the human baseline. This baseline test is designed to catch out replicants deviating from their own replicant baseline. Do you interpret that K is a replicant, or do you think he’s a clone of the girl, implanted with memories as part of the cover-up?
[MK] I think he’s a Nexus 8 or 9, a pure replicant. Though the replicants are engineered to be superhuman, you can’t remove the emotional component. K is extremely calm during moments of tension, like when his spinner gets hit by lightning and he starts spiraling out of control. He’s not panicking, he’s bracing for impact. He has superhuman levels of emotional containment. When he does have an outburst that’s why it’s so powerful. He doesn’t lose control when he might die—he loses control when he thinks he might be real and that he’s been lied to his whole life. Police officers feel an enormous amount of stress, and they’re off baseline all the time. But the moment K is upset, he loses his job, and if he fails the test again, he’s going to be retired, which means killed. That’s crazy! It’s a matter of the power structures wanting to make these replicants 100% under control. The moment they generate unpredictable emotions they have to be put down like a dog. We see this in several references. Lieutenant Joshi treats K like her pet, like a little dog. And then we have Deckard’s actual dog, who doesn’t bark and does whatever he’s told. The second time through, by the way, I listened carefully and whenever they refer to Rachael’s child they don’t specify the gender. They keep saying, “the child.” The cover-up is that it looks like there was a boy who went off to the orphanage, and a fake female copy of his DNA was planted into the records. This is why when K starts looking at the clues he thinks he's the orphan boy. But the truth is that the orphaned child was actually a girl, and the boy DNA was the falsified record. The reason this is so effective for me emotionally is that K realizes he’s not special. He has the memories of someone who is special but he himself is not—and he’s still willing to sacrifice himself anyway to make sure Ana gets to see her father. Making him more human or different somehow would diminish his character.
[AZA] Personally, I love the open-ended nature of it. We don’t need to know for sure. There’s a continuum of posthuman life, and we’re just not sure where K fits on the spectrum. If you take a Nexus 8, implant it with the memories of Ana Stelline, and Ana in turn is this super-anomalous biological offspring of a Nexus 6 giving birth, what do you have?
[MK] Exactly. There’s hybridization at multiple stages. I think it’s mind-blowing how well the film handles the spectrum you’re talking about.
[AZA] I forgot, when we were talking about the references, that Deckard seems to be quoting Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson when K first finds him, the lines about cheese. He’s not seen much action in the last decades. The film ends just as he’s about to meet Ana. What do you think happens next? Is she really stuck behind that barrier because of her immune system?
[MK] A long time ago someone said to me that whenever you finish a story, you should have an idea of where it would go next. I don’t know if that works for everything, but in this case I was thinking that Deckard will have been followed. They know K went to visit him. Is there a tracker on K's vehicle? Or did he fly to the lab using one of the rebel spinners, and was therefore untraceable? There must be cameras or some kind of surveillance at the lab. Wallace owns the lab—surely he knows what’s happening there? There’s also the notion of rebellion, the replicant uprising. I don’t feel the need to see all that. We’ve seen it before in other films.
[AZA] In the scene where Freysa makes her speech, I had a sinking feeling that the movie’s long running time was going to be due to it devolving into a Matrix-sequel-style uprising. I was really glad they didn’t go that route.
[AZA] The film makes it clear that everyone involved has huge fears and expectations related to the finding of this child because that will have massive repercussions. It’s not the job of this story to explore all those repercussions. I had fun thinking about Wallace’s involvement. At some point he’s going to realize that Luv is not responding to his queries, she’s gone. He’s going to be seriously interested in what happened to her, and I think he’s going to find Ana, maybe Ana and Deckard. What happens after that is probably more subtle than the uprising they didn’t show. Wallace could have an agenda, a master-plan, that’s even different from what he told K or Luv. I wouldn’t put anything past him.
[MK] There are so many dystopian stories that do the rebellion uprising thing, like The Hunger Games. I think Blade Runner is about more personal stories within a larger world. Deckard might go to Ana and tell her she has no real immune deficiency, that was something done to protect her: “Come with me and we’ll go into hiding.” I can’t imagine them waiting around to be picked up by Wallace. I did wonder, when Mariette put the tracker on K who else might be tracked. If she could so easily do that, why didn’t the police do it? That’s a small thing.
[AZA] The tracker felt old-fashioned to me in the context of the rest of the technology. When we get to the end with Deckard and Ana, and when I started to ponder where they’d go, it made me think of Children of Men.
[MK] A great film.
[AZA] Fertility problems were behind that particular dystopia, and the future of the species literally rested on the fate of that one child. Here the child may represent different futures to different factions vying for power, but it does represent the beginning of something new. We’ve been lavishing a lot of praise on the movie, and I think we should address some of the concerns that have been expressed online. One of them is the representation of women. I’ve seen the criticism that Blade Runner 2049 fails the Bechdel test and portrays women in a negative way, maybe even a way that alienates female audiences. The theater audience has skewed heavily towards male. Is there a cause and effect here? Do you think the film is sexist?
[MK] It’s important to think about these things. At the same time, I don’t know if you saw an article by Sara Lynn Michener that I shared on social media, “Science Fiction Often Wins the Bechdel Test By Breaking It ”. Her argument is that you would never say The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t feminist just because you’re dealing with a dystopia. The same can be said about Blade Runner. The society of the film is a dystopian patriarchy, ruled by a God-like man. Of course women are going to be represented in a demeaning way. But that’s a simplistic way of looking at it. The real issue is whether the women in the story are real characters, have a well-developed internal voice, and aren’t just cardboard cutouts for the men to play against. In the articles I’ve read criticizing the film on this point they neglect Freysa. She’s the leader of the rebellion and she’s cut out her own eye, and basically sacrificed her whole life, to protect this one child. I understand that she’s not a big character in this film, but in this world she’s enormous. And there is that moment with Lieutenant Joshi, K’s boss. She comes over to his house and flirts with him. She says, “What happens if I finish this bottle?” She could order him to do whatever she wants, including sleep with her, but she doesn’t: she wants him to make that choice. It shows that she’s human. She’s a rounded character. The same can be said of Joi. The director wants us to think of Joi as sentient. There’s one scene, maybe two, in which K is looking at the billboard of her, and the letter “i” flashes brighter than the others. “i” as in self-awareness. Even Luv, who like K has to follow the orders of her master, shows complexity. When Wallace stabs the un-named replicant and that replicant dies, Luv cries. When Luv kills Joshi, she cries again. She mirrors her master with the kiss of death when she fights K, which is an interesting touch. There’s an interiority to her. I do see that these women can be perceived as negative, but I think that’s part of the point. I don’t think we’re supposed to go into this expecting the story to champion feminist values. We know this world is filthy and crazy and horrible. That being said, my wife said she was uncomfortable in some of those scenes, and one of my friends shared that she was uncomfortable with the depiction of women. I accept their feelings. Me, I felt uncomfortable generally. What did you think?
[AZA] There’s a lot to unpack here. The moments where Luv cries were certainly indicative of that inner life you’re talking about. I think part of the reason the film works well is that even characters with little screen time are well-written and have suggestions of depth to them. Similar to how you were saying Freysa plays a key role with the replicants, I believe that there was a line stating that Dr. Ana Stelline was the best maker of memories in the world. She’s a brilliant scientist and criticisms of the film tend to neglect her as well. I want to spend a moment on Lieutenant Joshi’s flirtatious exploration of the possibility of intimacy with K. I see what you’re saying about her wanting him to make a choice reflects her agency and her self-awareness about her behavior. I also took this in another way. This future is very dystopian. There’s a toxic level of manipulation going on, and the idea that you can create sentient slaves is of course horrifying at its core. Slavery and submission run deep throughout the movie. The future is bad, and the film is showing how women suffer under the patriarchy. Women are being exploited, no doubt. In that same hierarchy, where women obtain their power primarily from men, there are also replicants under women. Joshi is demeaning K through her behavior. By playfully intimating sexual harassment of K, she’s demeaning him, showing us by implication that replicants are the lowest stratum of society. I thought the scene was well-written because it simultaneously gives us a sense of Joshi’s agency, helps us understand the world, and generates empathy for K, with essentially one line of dialogue. And yes, I did read the essay you shared. I think that generally speaking it’s unwise to try to apply the Bechdel test to individual works of fiction. I know that could sound paradoxical, because how else would you apply it? The answer is statistically, to groups of narratives, or genres, or the entire body of work of an author. In those cases it would be more meaningful. But if you write a story, for example, from a close third-person male POV, and therefore that male POV is present in every scene, you would automatically fail the Bechdel test—but it could be a great story.
[MK] Like you say, these things are better served as a general rule. A scientist, an astronomer, recently commented on my Facebook post and said something similar, that the Bechdel test is useful for a large sample of works but you shouldn’t use something so simplistic on an individual piece. You need to analyze it within its own context. The more you narrow the lens through which you look at the film, the more you’re going to miss.
[AZA] Like your wife, I was uncomfortable with the depiction of women throughout the movie—but not because I thought that depiction was inconsistent with the story but because I was uncomfortable with how most characters were being manipulated and the women in particular suffered in that scheme. I felt bad, I felt empathy.
[MK] We’re meant to be horrified. We’re meant to be horrified by the nakedness and vulnerability of the un-named replicant in the face of Wallace.
[AZA] There were moments like that in Ex Machina, when you see the agony caused to some of the prior female robot versions. I think there’s sufficient evidence to defend the position that Blade Runner 2049 shows a profoundly anti-feminist future, but is not in itself anti-feminist. To portray something is not to espouse its values. Another concern I’ve seen raised is the depiction of persons of color. What’s your take?
[MK] I’m more receptive to that concern. I do feel that in a society that has a lot of Asian iconography, for instance, you don’t see many Asian characters. You do see a few persons of color, like the person doing Luv’s nails, or the guy who helps K analyze the wooden horse, or a black blade runner. The actress who plays Freysa, Haim Abbass, is an Israeli-Palestinian. But the point is, I agree that there’s an issue: none of the main characters are persons of color. Deckard can’t be, of course, and Rachael can’t be, which means their daughter can’t be either. Sapper is played by David Bautista, who is of Filipino and Greek descent. But there were several opportunities for other characters to be played by persons of color. It’s possible part of what we were saying about the dystopia being anti-feminist relates to the dystopia being racist. If not, Wallace for example could have been played by a person of color. K’s boss could have been a person of color.
[AZA] If you make someone like Wallace your only POC lead, there’s potentially a risk that by having such a rampant psychopath be a POC, audience members could infer a negative portrayal of that ethnicity because of its association.
[MK] Where are you on this one?
[AZA] Honestly, I didn’t think about it much until I saw the criticism. Which is a good reminder to me that I should be more thoughtful about this perspective. On reflection, I don’t think it’s super-problematic but there were was certainly a missed opportunity here, like you say, particularly in how more POC inclusivity could have improved the world-building, made things more consistent. I think of all the main characters, K could have been a person of color and that would have worked well. However, I don’t think the movie is a bad movie because they didn’t go that route. This reminds me of a little thing I wanted to ask you about. In the original, Tyrell wears these really thick glasses. Later Roy Batty puts his fingers through his eye-sockets, in a way penetrating him where he’s most vulnerable. There’s other eye imagery, like when Roy and the other replicant are looking for Tyrell and the first scientist they trace is the one who makes the eyes. So eye-stuff ties the creator to the creator’s destroyer. Is Wallace’s blindness somehow related to this? Is he echoing Tyrell?
[MK] Blade Runner opens with an eye looking over Los Angeles. You also have the eye close-ups during the Voight-Kampff test and the replicants have these glowing discs in their eyes. It implies the question, do we trust what we see? Is what we see real? Wallace is blind so in a sense he’s beyond this. He creates his own reality. He’s not subject to any preconceptions of how things should be, just how he wants them to be. The first thing I thought about when I saw him was the notion of the blind watchmaker, a God metaphor. A mad creator. Wallace’s blindness is part of his megalomania. He’s so intent on his vision that he can’t see anything but that. But he can see through his floating fishes, those creepy little things. Their sound gave me the chills.
[AZA] For these dramatic reasons, I think it’s a solid choice. But I don’t know that I buy that Wallace would actually be blind in this society. If you have the technology to make an A.I. like Joi or a replicant like K, couldn’t Wallace have cured his blindness? It seems that with that level of technology and genetic engineering you could address it. Does he choose to remain blind for eccentric reasons of his own?
[MK] That’s a very good point. Think about everything Wallace is missing. Spectacular sights.
[AZA] That could almost be a line in the movie: “I’ve not seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” Maybe a new column title too. On that note, I’m going to suggest we wrap up.
[MK] This has been a lot of fun. I’ll say in closing that I think Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best science fiction movies I’ve seen. The director and the actors did an amazing job. And I think it’s good that the film isn’t immune from criticism, some of which we’ve discussed. I’m curious to see if it will influence other directors and film-makers, inspiring them to step up their game. And as much as I enjoyed it, I hope they don’t make another sequel!
[AZA] Time will judge the sequel’s place in film history. I hope it achieves the same long-term success as the original. While watching it I worried that its cold, dark aesthetic, the sense of foreboding and loss, would make it artistically satisfying but maybe not emotionally moving. The scene in which Joi is destroyed made me realize how emotionally invested I’d become, a subtle and gradual process I wasn’t aware of. In that sense it was a remarkable achievement, to be so moving while being apparently so cold. Thanks so much for joining me.