Humanity in Blade Runner 2049 has become sketchier. We’re told of famine and nuclear disaster, shown perpetual gray daylight and tiny, cubic domiciles. Who is a person and who is a replicant is distinguished only by which one is more overtly servile. The few confirmed people we see in 2049‘s narrative are either feeble or monstrous. They are a species teetering on the brink of collapse, while their physically perfect servants run the rat race. Ryan Gosling’s K is one such rat, a replicant blade runner tracking down and assassinating less obedient models. The snapshot of his life indicates a routine of consumer consumption and a kind of play-romance with his AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). The money he makes from his wage slave job as a robo-Pinkerton allows him to buy gadgets that give Joi more freedom, and encourage her to grow beyond the boundaries of her programming. She tags along on K’s latest case, involving a miracle replicant child, a plutocrat with a God complex (Jared Leto) and his lackey (Sylvia Hoeks), and crotchety Blade Runner protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) getting drunk in the ruins of Vegas. Along the way, she expands the boundaries of their relationship, leaving the safety of her domestic cage and synchronizing with a prostitute to bring physical intimacy to a relationship which was originally a one-sided transaction.
These lengthy asides promise to turn an otherwise sleepy noir (and unnecessary sequel) into a fascinating expansion of its predecessor’s ideas about sentience and personhood. Unfortunately, Denis Villeneuve doesn’t seem as interested in these ideas as Ridley Scott in his Alien prequels (or even Tron: Legacy, another 30-plus year sequel to a movie that didn’t need one). Once K’s story finally intersects with Deckard, 2049 ceases any pretense of exploring machine consciousness, as the narrative becomes about Ford’s deadbeat dad reuniting with his symbolically important kid. To hammer home how little care is shown towards the story they have, Villeneuve and his writers fridge Joi, to set up a punchy climax that resolves just enough to leave room for a sequel or two.