Didn’t get the reference? The A.V. Club is here to help, picking apart the network of literary references and allusions that make up the ambitious alternate-future reality of Blade Runner 2049. The cyberpunk novelist William Gibson once praised the original Blade Runner’s intoxicating mix of quotations and designs as “a lyrical sort of information sickness”; while the sequel never escapes the original’s long shadow, it’s a fascinating film in its own right.
Be forewarned: The following contains spoilers for Blade Runner and minor spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner (1982)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Blade Runner 2049 is a direct sequel to the classic science fiction film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by David Webb Peoples and Hampton Fancher, yada yada yada.
Loosely adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner is set Los Angeles in 2019—a dark, polluted, purgatorial metropolis of monolithic skyscrapers and giant video billboards—and stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a trench coat-wearing cop who specializes in tracking and killing “replicants,” biomechanical androids used as a form of synthetic slave labor in the distant “off-world” space colonies. A tour de force of mood and production design, the original film has exerted a tremendous influence on the last 35 years of sci-fi, despite the mixed reception it received when originally released to theaters in a version compromised by studio interference. Additionally, the question of whether Deckard might himself be a replicant has become one of the genre’s favorite mysteries—one that no one really wants to have answered.
Technically, the sequel is set in an alternate future, as it continues the first movie’s futuristic 21st-century timeline; the Soviet Union and the defunct airline Pan Am still exist in the world of Blade Runner 2049. Ford returns in a supporting role as the older Deckard, which would lead one to presume that the former detective isn’t a replicant, given the extremely limited life spans of these artificial beings—a key plot point in the original film. However, the new movie finds a way to preserve the character’s ambiguous nature. From the opening crawl, it establishes the existence of experimental models that could live and age like humans, and then shifts attention to, well, other questions.
Although referred to as “machines,” replicants are more like lab-grown, genetically engineered humans, produced in Blade Runner by the trifocal-wearing tech tycoon Eldon Tyrell and in Blade Runner 2049 by the reclusive blind industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). The fact that replicants’ brains have to be programmed makes them a form of artificial intelligence, but the question of what (if anything) actually separates them from us remains open to interpretation. In the original Blade Runner, replicants can be distinguished from “real” humans in two ways: with the Voight-Kampff Test, a polygraph-oid gizmo that measures emotional response by recording the movement of their eyes; or, more subtly, by the glimmer of their pupils, which sometimes catch and reflect light.
The pupils mark the original’s replicants as nocturnal animals, bred for a literally dark future by literally short-sighted creators—all part of Blade Runner’s vision thing, a preoccupation with eyeballs, designer eyeglasses, and varying definitions of vision and perception. This ocular fixation—that is one of the movie’s most famous (and debated) visual motifs—is carried over by director Denis Villeneuve in Blade Runner 2049. Although the sequel often quotes scenes or individual shots from Scott’s film, it’s in the service of a narrative arc that inverts many of its original’s themes. While Blade Runner sows doubt about reality and memory, its sequel keeps finding glimmers of the real thing in simulation and projection.
Film noir and neo-noir
The term “film noir” was first used by high-minded French critics in the mid to late 1940s to describe what they saw as a unique category of hard-boiled, cynical, and often kinky or sadistic American crime films. The surrealists loved these movies for their expressionist imagery, twisted psychologies, and dreamy experiments with voice-over, flashbacks, and subjective camerawork; the existentialists were drawn to their desperate, alienated characters and fatalistic plotting. But while appreciations of film noir movies and the American pulp novels that inspired them played an important role in French film culture in the postwar decades, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the idea of noir as a sensibility gained traction in the United States.
The result was what we now think of as “neo-noir.” The original Blade Runner has all the hallmarks of this derivative genre, from the moody pacing to the world-weary investigator—a stock character that is mostly a ’70s invention, rare in classic noir—to the saxophone on the soundtrack. It ingeniously finds a common ground in the paranoia shared by noir stories and bleak sci-fi, exaggerating the urban iconography of the former into a smoky, expressionist futurescape of constant darkness and rain. Which, in turn, makes Blade Runner 2049 a kind of neo-neo-noir.
The script, by Fancher and Michael Green, draws the Blade Runner future closer to the classic detective fiction influences that were so often revisited by the first wave of neo-noirs; running almost an hour longer than the original film, it has a shaggier narrative with a bona fide mystery somewhere at its center. The protagonist—a replicant-hunting detective who knows he’s a replicant, played by Ryan Gosling and referred to at various points as Officer K or “Joe,”—often ends up beaten and bloodied. At one point, he even sports a large bandage over his nose that echoes the one that covers Jack Nicholson’s schnoz in the quintessential neo-noir Chinatown—a film whose internal web of business conspiracies and screwed-up family secrets is a fairly obvious point of inspiration for the new film.
Water, water everywhere…
A titanic seawall encircles Blade Runner 2049’s Los Angeles, protecting its snowy streets from the catastrophically risen Pacific tide. Paul Schrader, in his influential essay on film noir, jokes of the art form’s “almost Freudian attachment to water”—the rain-slicked pavements and fogbound docks that abound in the noir-verse. (Of course, water also figures prominently in the plot of Chinatown.) It’s a trope that the original Blade Runner exaggerates to literally atmospheric effect, creating a future of dampness, drip, and ceaseless drizzle, crowned with the most celebrated monologue in sci-fi film: the “tears in rain” speech, delivered at the end by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the peroxide-blond leader of a gang of fugitive replicants.
Perhaps encouraged by Villeneuve’s fondness for framing shots through rain and wet glass (see: Prisoners), Blade Runner 2049 pushes the pluvial imagery into the grotesque: noir’s ubiquitous fog and rain as an environmental disaster, one more bad omen dooming an already hopeless future. While the original film stages its final showdown during a downpour, the sequel takes to stormy open waters for the climax. Rain brings to mind the late-night cityscapes of classic films, but it’s also primeval—the stuff of flood myths and creation stories.
Paradise Lost (1667) and gnosticism
But then the original Blade Runner has many biblical references (a serpent, a dove, the parable of the prodigal son, etc.), mysteriously linked to Roy Batty and his replicant gang, who move through the film like New Wave fallen angles, searching for their creator, Tyrell, who lives decadently in a futuristic ziggurat. Compared to Harrison Ford’s other iconic roles, Deckard is a muted character; Batty is the real charismatic center of the film, a paradoxical figure who seems to be identified with the Lucifer of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and with the rebellious, messianic Orc, an important character in the work of the late-18th- and early-19th-century visionary poet and artist William Blake.
That both Blade Runners are set around the City Of Angels is almost too perfect—though the original film’s varied religious imagery, like its use of noir, is meant lyrically rather than allegorically. Blade Runner 2049, in contrast, is blatant in its sci-fi spirituality; it’s the kind of movie where LAPD officers find themselves talking about the soul. It takes those references to Milton’s telling of the biblical fall of man as scripture, casting Deckard and the replicant Rachel as Adam and Eve. Officer K, the punching-bag gumshoe, sets the plot into motion when he finds a forbidden secret in a tree. It’s all very Genesis.
Call it the ultimate tribute to the original’s religion-obsessed atheist director, Ridley Scott, a hodgepodge of crypto-Judeo-Christian references: the Nicene Creed, The Epistle To The Galatians, contrasting artificial women named Joi (Ana De Armas) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a flight into the desert. And then there’s the successor to Tyrell’s fallen replicant-making empire, the aforementioned Niander Wallace, who took over the business after making a fortune on synthetic food. A very literal life-giver, feeding the huddled human masses trying to weather the global flood, hidden in his fortress headquarters (lit by reflections off pools of water, of course), where he tends and is tended to by his “angels,” the superhuman replicants.
Wallace speaks of battles at the gates of heaven and the wombs of Old Testament prophets’ wives as though narrating portentously. It should be noted that like Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost by dictation, he is blind. But this pseudo-poetic, antagonist world-builder isn’t very redolent of a personal Christian god, is he? He’s more like the demiurge of gnosticism, an old religious philosophy that obsessed Dick, the author of Blade Runner’s source novel, in his later years.
Born around the same time as Christianity in the same parts of the world, gnosticism viewed the material world as the handiwork of a flawed, remote craftsman—the demiurge—who stood between humanity and the designs of a higher, unknowable supreme being. This was the gnostic solution to the existence of evil: God was perfect, but he had a shitty contractor. It’s an ingeniously paranoid belief system with an underlying mistrust of reality—or texts, as in the case of a fictional reality like the world of Blade Runner 2049.
Because the creation-myth-slash-mystery is really about stories and what we read into them. Replicant aren’t born, they’re made, like characters. Does Officer K know he’s in a sequel?
The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926)
Yes, the main character of Blade Runner 2049 is named K or Joe—as in Josef K, the bank cashier inexplicably charged with an unknown crime in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and K, the man faced with a remote bureaucracy in Kafka’s other major novel, The Castle. Officer K, the replicant detective ordered to investigate a case so that he can cover it up, even has kind of the sexual hang-ups often associated with Kafka. In fact, it’s hard to think of another recent movie that buries more interesting ideas in its characters’ sex lives, whether it’s K’s romantic relationship with holographic domestic computer Joi or the way his human lieutenant (Robin Wright) at one point makes a pass at her replicant subordinate.
But let’s get back to Kafka, whose short stories and two major novels—never finished and only published posthumously—shaped modern literature. The German-speaking Czech writer’s name has become shorthand for the existentially absurd, and there are some stark, Kafkaesque images scattered throughout Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve’s more minimalist visual style really lends itself to this stuff: the labyrinthine archive at Wallace’s headquarters; a specialist in artificial memories living deprived inside of an empty, sealed dome. Of course, the relationship between Kafka’s sense of anxiety and the nightmarish qualities of film noir has been noted as far back as the 1950s, and most movies based on Kafka’s work (including Orson Welles’ version of The Trial) draw to some degree on the techniques of noir.
Much as the later, moodier derivatives of noir tend to lose the original genre’s twisted urgency, so the general idea of the “Kafkaesque” tends to lose the writer’s underlying ironies; his characters aren’t simply trapped by bizarre circumstances, but are somehow connected to them. So there’s a smidgen of “authentic Kafka” in Officer K, a man who sees himself in a mystery that he will have to hush up.
Pale Fire (1962)
Speaking of texts, paranoia, and classic 20th-century literature: The most blatant literary reference in Blade Runner 2049 has to be Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Officer K has a copy of the novel in his apartment, despite the fact it is very literally programmed into his brain. (Milton, Nabokov, Kafka: One thing Blade Runner 2049 can’t be accused of is that it holds too low of an opinion of itself.) A masterpiece of intricate metafiction, layered with references and literary parodies, Pale Fire takes the form of long poem (also titled “Pale Fire”) by a poet named John Shade, with extensive (and largely digressive) commentary by his neighbor, Dr. Charles Kinbote, an academic who believes himself to be the exiled monarch of an imaginary Eastern European kingdom.
That’s the oversimplified version, anyway. (There’s a murder mystery in there, too.) But suffice it to say that Pale Fire’s multiple layers of delusion and projection find parallels in Blade Runner 2049’s plot that we don’t spoil here, for the benefit of those who haven’t seen the film. K could just as easily be short for Kinbote; lines from the “Pale Fire” poem (“Cells interlinked within cells,” “a tall white fountain played”) are prompted by his human colleagues in the LAPD in a diagnostic called the Post-Trauma Baseline Test, checking the responsiveness of his replicant brain. Programmed to do what? Write literary criticism?
Replicants are, in the words of Blade Runner’s Tyrell, “more human than human.” Their concerns are existential: identity, mortality, the past. Officer K is a man who finds meaning in a projection, even after he realizes that it’s all it is—an idea visualized in one of the movie’s most striking images, in which the detective is dwarfed by an advertisement for the Wallace-designed Joi, a mass-produced artificial intelligence that is the closest thing he has to a lover. In the original film, artificial memories were a source of existential paranoia; in Blade Runner 2049, we learn that they are an art. Or maybe they are art. There’s nothing more human than imagining that you’re the main character of a story.