'Blade Runner 2049' dives deeper on AI to transcend the original

It's a rare sequel that does the impossible -- it surpasses a classic.
Warner Bros.
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Devindra Hardawar
Devindra Hardawar|@devindra|October 11, 2017 12:00 PM

Blade Runner 2049 is a miracle. It's a sequel that nobody really wanted -- certainly not fans of the seminal 1982 original by Ridley Scott. And ponderous explorations of artificial intelligence aren't something that typically clicks with mainstream audiences. (The film's disappointing box office results seems to make that clear.) But it turns out that Blade Runner 2049 -- directed by Denis Villeneuve -- is actually an ideal sequel. It builds on its incredibly influential predecessor by asking deeper questions about AI. As the lines between humans and replicants blur, the idea of being "more human than human" seems truer than ever.

Spoilers ahead for Blade Runner 2049.

The new models

Within the first few minutes, we learn that Ryan Gosling's "K," our new cyborg-hunting detective, is actually a replicant. There's no ambiguity, like there is with Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard in the first film. That immediately gives his job an added weight: He's hunting his own kind, and he's well aware of the inherent moral conflict.

We learn through the opening text that a lot has changed since 2019. The Tyrell Corporation unveiled its Nexus 8 replicants, which had a longer, human-like lifespan. That's exactly what Roy Batty and crew were fighting for in the first film, as they were older Nexus 6 models who could live for only a short four years. Rebellious replicants engineered a global blackout in 2022, in hopes of erasing identification records that were being used to hunt them down. That led to a ban on replicants altogether, which was lifted only when Wallace Corporation, a successor to the original replicant maker, Tyrell, proved that he could make models that were more obedient than the Nexus 8.

K is one of these newer replicants, which still have longer lifespans but differ from older models by their increased reliance on embedded memories. That's something we saw with Rachael (and potentially Deckard) in the first film, but in Blade Runner 2049 it's used as even more of a psychic cushion. Replicants are still aware that they're not "real," but the memories give them the illusion of human experience -- a birthday party growing up, perhaps, or playing with other children when they were a child. While you could view the memories as a "kindness," as one of their creators describes them, they're clearly a type of invisible shackle meant to keep replicants content with their subservient role in society.

Throughout the film, K is on the verge of an existential crisis. In the opening scene, he reluctantly subdues and kills a rogue Nexus 8 who's trying to live out his years as a protein farmer. He's shaken afterwards but takes the encounter in stride, since that's what he's programmed to do. During a mandatory synchronization test -- which appears to be an evolved form of the Voight-Kampff exam for finding replicants in the first film -- K proves that he's performing at "baseline." The movie doesn't explain what that means, but we can assume that it refers to being within the limits of his programming. Throughout the movie, though, he also strives to push against those boundaries to become a "real boy."

A replicant savior

Warner Bros.

The main tension behind Blade Runner 2049 is an explosive one: A replicant gave birth to a child naturally, just like a human. Specifically, Rachael and Rick Deckard had a child. K's boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), immediately understands the implication of that as something that "breaks the world." People rioted when replicants were able to live a bit longer -- how would they react to their being able to reproduce on their own? She tasks K with erasing all of the evidence of the discovery, a mission that sets him down the path to reject his programming.

The idea of artificially intelligent, human-like robots getting pregnant has profound implications. The original Blade Runner made the villainous replicants surprisingly sympathetic. They just wanted more life, as Roy Batty explained to his creator, Tyrell (before gouging his eyes out). Sure, they used violent methods to achieve their goal, but the desire is an understandable one for any conscious being. Giving replicants, which were stronger and smarter than humans, a short four-year lifespan seemed like an act of cruelty.

Blade Runner 2049 takes that existential question a step further. Now that replicants can live longer and have realistic emotional responses, what really separates them from humans? Especially if they can reproduce on their own? When they're merely manufactured, it's easy for us to convince ourselves that they're just soulless robots. But if a replicant can be born and age naturally, without any direct help from humans, we need to think harder about the nature of life.

Enter Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the genius scientist behind the most recent batch of replicants. He's desperate to figure out the secret behind replicant pregnancy, which was originally developed by Tyrell. For him, it's more about the corporate power of owning that technology. He can't build enough replicants, so he's looking for new ways to increase production. Niander isn't concerned with the moral implications -- he just wants to become an even bigger industry titan.

AI love

Blade Runner 2049

While K is tackling these bigger questions, he's also dealing with a domestic relationship. He's in "love" with Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI program who also appears to love him as well. We have to qualify that idea of love, though. Joi is marketed as the ideal companion, one who tells you what you want to hear and shows you what you want to see. She doesn't have the free will to do otherwise, and she's certainly not self-aware. So even if she produces a love-like emotional response in K, is that the same as the emotional responses from two conscious beings?

Once again, this relationship takes a simple idea from the first film -- can robots love? -- and evolves it in fascinating ways. While K is more conscious than Joi, he's still fundamentally an AI program as well. The big difference is that he's aware of himself, and he spends most of the film pushing against the limits of what he's built to do. It's ambiguous whether Joi ever does that in the film.

This is where things get interesting. Even if Joi is just a wish-fulfilling program, she still evokes a love-like response from K. And that's enough to make her important to him. So when we see Joi get "killed" later in the film -- the hardware she's stored in gets smashed -- we also feel genuine loss as an audience. Eventually, K encounters a giant Joi ad who repeats some of the same lines his Joi whispered in his ear. And he's reminded that as much as he loved her, it's not the same as a "real" relationship.

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Replicant rights

You could view the original Blade Runner as the story of a cop hunting down and killing lower-class beings, who aren't seen as people, in cold blood. Don't forget that at one point he ends up shooting an unarmed Nexus 6 multiple times in the back -- in public. That's a perspective laid out by Sarah Gailey at Tor, and it's an important one to consider as we move to Blade Runner 2049.

Just like before, replicants want more life. But it's not just about living longer -- there's an entire resistance movement that demands the same rights as humans. It's easy to see the parallels with the civil rights movement in America. Replicants have always been viewed as disposable slave labor. But as their consciousness and capabilities have improved, they've also become a threat to what makes humans special. And now that there's a replicant who was born naturally, they have a savior who could arguably have a "soul."

Unfortunately, Blade Runner 2049 doesn't dive too much into the replicant resistance. But it sets the stage for future films to explore that concept even further. That's not something I would've wanted before seeing this film -- especially given the way Prometheus and Alien Covenant went down. But now my mind is swimming with where the Blade Runner world can go. And if that's not a successful sequel, I don't know what is.

'Blade Runner 2049' dives deeper on AI to transcend the original