Questions of humanity and authenticity have always been at the heart of the Blade Runner universe. In Ridley Scott’s original film, Rick Deckard a “blade runner,” administers an “empathy test” meant to distinguish humans from realistic androids known as replicants, and fans have spent well over three decades debating whether Deckard himself is a replicant. Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), deftly maintains a sense of ambiguity regarding Deckard’s origins, and also finds new ways to wrestle with the question of what it means to be “real.”
Blade Runner 2049’s protagonist, Agent K, a blade runner like Deckard and unambiguously a replicant, goes home each night to a holographic girlfriend named Joi who is in many ways less “real” than K. Translucent and intangible, she’s tethered to the devices that project her. At times, K and Joi’s emotional connection feels authentic, but we’re reminded that Joi is a commercial product when K encounters a towering holographic advertisement that looks and sounds like his girlfriend. Joi’s presence underscores the trouble we have pinpointing what makes a being human.
The film has been wrestling with such existential questions for over 90 minutes when K finally catches up with Deckard in an abandoned casino in Las Vegas, which is now an irradiated ruin of its former self. Deckard is extremely hostile to his uninvited guest, and the ensuing fight scene makes brilliant comic and thematic use of the holograms that pervade Blade Runner 2049’s grim future. In an attempt to disorient K, Deckard switches on a malfunctioning holographic floor show that flickers between simulacra of twentieth century pop culture icons like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Liberace, as well as troupes of costumed showgirls. The sound cuts in and out like a poorly tuned radio and ghostly apparitions of icons of glamour, decadence, and kitsch from a bygone era remind us that our collective past was – or at least could be – a clear forerunner to the capitalist dystopia of 2049. The wraithlike images of Elvis and Marilyn, commodified and objectified in death as in their own lifetimes, in many ways anticipate how Joi – and K himself – are often viewed as products, not people.
Of course, the use of holograms during Deckard and K’s confrontation also heightens the tension of the scene: the unpredictability of the sounds and images make them almost as startling as the gunshot that Deckard fires in K’s direction. And Villeneuve finds sly humor in peppering the fight scene with snippets of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” before scoring K and Deckard’s uneasy truce with “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The holographic icons also delicately lampshade the iconic status of Deckard himself. By its very nature, 2049 is vulnerable to the accusation of being a poor simulation of Scott’s “real” Blade Runner (1982), a bad copy like the moribund Vegas holograms. Yet the scene’s humor and inventiveness, and Ford’s grounded, engaging performance suggest that the opposite is true of Blade Runner 2049.