The question ‘What is real?’ is a popular topic in science fiction films. Audiences are asked to question everything they know about the story playing before them. Their horizons are broadened only for more doubts to be raised. Sometimes the film’s philosophy can extend beyond the screen and lead us to question aspects of our own world. When paired with the noir genre we get a more human story that leverages genre and stylistic conventions to create a compelling level of ambiguity. The result of combining these genres is tech noir, coined in James Cameron’s, The Terminator (1984), it encompasses both science fiction and noir conventions to present, “technology as a destructive and dystopian force that threatens every aspect of our reality,” (Auger, 2011, p. 21). The world of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is one where anything can be made and as a result, there is a fine line between what is perceived as a real and what is not. Through the manipulation of the narrative’s form and use of stylistic elements, each character’s sense of self can be called into question.
Defining one’s humanity is no small task, especially in a world where replicants and humans co-exist. Yet, the film does layout some basic rules that state replicants lack humanity, despite the many indications that they might be more human than humans. Since replicants are made and not born they are without a soul, and since they cannot bear children, they cannot create life and subsequently lack humanity. This logic is thrown on its axes with the discovery that Rachel, a replicant, bore a child with Deckard, a human. Upon his capture by Niander Wallace, an industry tycoon driven to create replicants that can bear children, Deckard finds his own humanity teeters on the edge. The combination of light, sound, and dialogue are important factors in this scene as they are used to create a general sense of unease.
The scene opens on Deckard disoriented and in silhouette. The harsh shadows are contrasted by warm light. We know just from the lighting that we are in Wallace’s office as it uses a distinctly warm color palette that is not seen anywhere else but at the Wallace headquarters. Rays of light circle overhead to create ever-shifting areas of darkness, while the top lighting serves to hide the actor’s eyes and periodically reveals a glimpse of their faces. From this comes a sense of ambiguity, further emphasizing the secrets they keep, as the audience never sees either character fully exposed. Throughout the scene, Wallace tries to persuade Deckard into revealing information about the sought-after child. Wallace emerges from shadow, monologuing, and the rest of their conversation takes place in shadow, true to the noir genre placing both the characters and the viewers on uneven footing. He draws upon the first meeting of Rachel and Deckard using audio clips from the original film to spark a sense of nostalgia followed by a cut to Rachel’s first appearance in the original Blade Runner (1982). Wallace captivates us by painting a biter sweet picture, “All these years you looked back on that day, drunk on the memory of its perfection. How shiny her lips, how instant your connection,” at this point, the nostalgia fades and a more ominous tone takes over. Low throaty singing mixed with an overdubbed base, turned up as high as it could go begins to fade in as Wallace continues:
“Did it never occur to you that’s why you were summoned in the first place? Designed to do nothing short of fall for her, right then and there? All to make that single perfect specimen. That is if you were designed. Love, or mathematical precision?” (Villeneuve, 2017, 2:09:15).
The non-diegetic sounds signal a revelation and build the tension in places where Wallace pauses, allowing the soundtrack to fill the silence and drive home the importance of what is being said. A single low drum beat punctuates his final words, like a bomb being dropped. The specific word choice in this monologue suggests that Deckard was never human, he was designed, not born, and only humans can be born. Consequently, both Deckard and the audience are forced to consider Deckard’s humanity and his relationship with Rachel, however, Deckard dismisses this by saying, “I know what’s real,” (Villeneuve, 2017, 2:09:15). Pushing this further Wallace reveals his recreation of Rachel, proving that anything can be made. Through the use of visual effects, the creative team was able to make it so Loren Peta appeared to look just as Sean Young did while playing Rachel in 1982. We get an emotional reunion between the two but in the end, Deckard rejects the new Rachel on the bases of having brown eyes and not green like the original, in doing so he seems to prove that he knows what is real and what is fake. While Deckard seems sure, the audience is left to wonder if he really is human, and how could we possibly tell in a world where they can seemingly bring the dead back to life? It is a question presented in the latter half of the film (see segment: Revelations), during a point when all the loose ends appear to be wrapping up, yet it is one of the many questions we never receive a clear answer to. This scene is not only immensely satisfying for those who are long-time fans of the original film, but it shows us how with the combination of lighting, sound, visual effects, and a few key phrases can set the viewer off-balance enough that they question everything they know about a central character in the film.
Humanity and Memories Intertwined
While Deckard is an important character, the story is not just about him. For the majority of the film, we follow Officer K, a blade runner. At first glance, there is no telling if he is a human or replicant, but the opening sequence quickly answers that question. K showcases superhuman strength and resilience against Morton’s brutal attacks. Watching the wall cave in time with the muffled thumps drives home how brutal the assault was. Finally, after subduing the larger man K is asked how it feels to kill his own kind revealing that he too is not human. From here out we think of him as a replicant but this slowly is turned on its head as the story progresses and his memories are deemed to be untrustworthy.
The first clue to the child’s whereabouts comes with the finding of 6.10.21 carved on the base of Morton’s dead tree. We can tell that K recognizes this number as a low rumble and tuneless drone play in the background. We cut to a child standing in front of a lit furnace holding a wooden horse. This scene acquaints the audience with the key motifs that weave this story together: the soundtrack 2049 and the wooden horse. Props and music are used to stitch together the body of the film. The horse connects each scene while the music provides signals to the audience. The main composer, Benjamin Wallfisch, described a puzzle and soul theme that could be found in the track 2049. This one song is made of multiple parts, the tuneless drone signifies K’s personal unraveling due to the unveiling of, “specific pieces of discoveries,” within the puzzle theme, while the heavy synth crescendo represents, “significant discoveries,” and is a part of the soul theme. Elements of this track can be found in others such as Furnace, puzzle theme, and That’s Why We Believe, soul theme (“Blade Runner 2049 by Benjamin Wallfisch…”).
The next couple of scenes explain the significance of the wooden horse. By spreading out the reveal of the object’s significance viewers are able to piece together the story like a detective while still keeping pace with the film. Following the discovery of 6.10.21, K arrives home to find Lieutenant Joshi awaiting an update. Here the image of the child with the wooden horse is connected to K’s memories when we see the exact same shot as he recalls his single childhood memory. This memory is initially dismissed as it is implanted and therefore not real, but it does raise the interesting question of how can you tell if your memories are real? The ensuing scene explains the importance of 6.10.21 when Joi reveals that those digits were inscribed on the bottom of the wooden horse. It is a dangerous coincidence that would make K the child everyone seeks. Based on how these few scenes are edited together, with spliced shots from K’s memory, the audience is led to question whether K and his memories are real.
The sense of uncertainty builds as K visits the orphanage. The ruined ship hull is familiar with its multi-layered walkways. This location is tied to K’s memory by showing us the same shot his memory opened on. Initially, K ignores this in favor of the records he seeks but upon discovering that they are missing he decides to follow his gut. A wooden horse ashtray prompts K to venture to the boiler room. K looking at the ashtray tells the audience what he is thinking so we can anticipate what comes next. The same furnaces, unlit, line the passage just as they did in his memory. He searches the piles of ash and finds an object wrapped in cloth, at the same time the low thrum and drone plays signaling K’s personal unraveling. Already we know he has found the horse thanks to the use of music. Ryan Gosling’s performance matches this, the calm and cool K shakes as he reveals the wooden horse. The music shows us the importance of this moment and Ryan Gosling uses nothing but the shaking of his body to convey the change that is taking place within K.
We cut to K back in his apartment, the horse sitting alone in the center of the table while Joi and K stare at it. It is silent building the tension between the two,.Joi is the first to speak, she reaffirms what the audience is already thinking. K is, “a real boy,” (Villeneuve, 2017, 1:15:03) and names him Jo, he was brought into the world, loved, and therefore deserves a name. It is everything he’s ever wanted but it also goes against everything he knows. Still unsure of his memories K visits Dr. Ana Stelline the creator of replicant memories.
We open on Ana in a beautiful forest, it seems too good to be true for this world, and it is. Through the use of visual effects, we see Ana at work as she alters a bug on a leaf, and it is revealed that she lives in a stark white compound unable to leave. She explains to K how memories work, that you can distinguish what is real from what is not based on the level of detail in a memory, and that it is illegal to implant real ones. He asks her to check his. Rather than revisiting the memory again, we watch as Ana peers through a small machine and into his mind. Acting and music together convey the implied meaning of this scene, while subtly hinting at a greater truth. Her assessment is brief, the only noise comes from the machine and the tension builds as we await the verdict. This time the soul theme is at play as long synths fill the room and Ana reveals that “someone lived this, yes. This happened,” (Villeneuve, 2017, 1:16:26). The music signals a discovery, and we are led to believe that K is the child, though that was not the true discovery in this scene. K fully unravels screaming as the music peters out. His whole world is flipped on its head and for the next forty minutes of the film, the audience is left to believe that K’s memories are real and that he is the child.
The way these scenes were edited together told a specific story to the audience and lead us to believe that K was the child. The horse matched his memory and his memory was deemed real by Ana. For each clue that was found audio cues shaped our understanding of these scenes. This is only part of the puzzle and all it takes is one scene to dismantle everything we thought we knew. The final revelation comes near the end of the film (see segment: Revelations) where K, like Deckard, awakes in silhouette to a room dimly lit. Freysa talks of revolution and the music builds, and other replicants gather around K. The scene is set to make K seem important, he is the child that will lead the revolution and now he will take his place. But Freysa tells us that Rachel had a girl, not a boy. K is not the child. There is silence, the feeling of importance replaced with one of disappointment as he falls to his seat, a loud thump echoing in the empty room. K and Freysa fall back into silhouette, a medium-long shot captures their full forms, mirroring the following scene with Wallace and Deckard as we are given another twist. The puzzle pieces fall into place with the use of nonsimultaneous sound, as a brief montage of key stills and voice-over lines from Ana and Deckard connect the dots for us. Scenes are rearranged and paired with audio clips to reveal the truth; Ana is the child, the memories of the horse were hers all along. As K comes to understand this so does the audience. With this new truth, the long shots used throughout the film to show K alongside colossal statues and in empty spaces make sense; he is a part of something much larger than himself. Audio cues, props, and editing were used to miss direct the audience into thinking K was something more, and it was through the same techniques that this idea was shattered causing us to wonder how we know if anyone’s memories are their own.
From the moment we are introduced to Joi, she appears to have a connection with K, the question is how far does that connection go? Her level of sentience is unknown and therefore her ability to love is called into question. Has she grown beyond her programming to love K, or is simply programmed to tell her ‘owner’ what they want to hear? Joi has the desire to escape the apartment which is facilitated by K’s gift to her, an emanator. On the rooftop, we see their relationship in full form. The track Rain plays, light piano, and synths seen nowhere else in the film help us fall for them as the music hints at something beautiful in this dingy world. Yet, she cannot occupy any physical space as we are reminded with the help of visual effects. Joi freezes mid-scene and we are harshly pulled out of the romantic moment; a phone interface pops up beside her reminding us that she is part of a device.
Joi remains by K’s side, their relationship being a subplot of the film. She is out of sight for the most part, but not out of mind. We are reminded of her presence with a little chime that shows she is present. The tune originates from Peter and the Wolf and is a subtle nod to classic literature, a sub-theme that presents itself throughout the film and is tied to the idea of freedom and reality. Once K finds the wooden horse, she immediately reaffirms the idea that he is special by naming him Jo, a nice call back to the noir genre where the main character is most often an “average Joe.” Another level of intimacy is added to their relationship when Joi decides to have Mariette act as her physical body to have sex with K for the first time (see segment: Memory Maker). Immediately following Joi’s physical display of love, we cut to a billboard-like ad of Joi and can clearly see that she is for everyone, below her the ad reads: ‘Everything you want to see/ hear.’ Visual effects are used to bring her to life not just for K but to show that she plays a larger role for everyone in this world. Either she is everywhere and has a single conciseness or there are multiple copies of her spread across the city.
This is easy to put aside as she travels with K and eventually meets her demise at the hands of Luv, her last words directed at K being, ‘I love you.’ Throughout their journey, she has shown what appears to be a genuine dedication to K, but when he comes face to face with another advertisement of Joi the validity of their relationship becomes suspicious. This ad is a sexed-up anonymous version of the Joi we know. Her signature tune plays and she approaches K calling him handsome saying, “You look like a good Joe,” (Villeneuve, 2017, 2:17:12). K says nothing and in response, she leaves. Fast-paced drumming builds in the background preparing the audience for the next scene while also heightening our sense of K’s inner turmoil. Clearly, she is not the same Joi from before, yet, she still calls him Jo. This begs the question is Joi programmed to give each passerby the name? Is that how she picked his name? If so then the act of naming K loses its importance and implies that she might not be as sentient as we were led to believe. Was she designed to fall for those who own a copy for her in the same way Deckard may have been designed to fall for Rachel? It is a question that goes unanswered but speaks to the larger debate that the film inspires. Joi’s existence leads us to not only scrutinize their relationship but challenges us to question our own future and how our lives will be impacted by the technology that surrounds us. Will we be able to tell what is real or not, and how will we define what a real relationship is?
Blade Runner 2049 has a distinct visual style that is in keeping with sci-fi conventions, while the twisted configuration of the narrative matches that of the noir genre. With both of these, we get darkness and grit mixed into an electric and wondrous world of technology. Harsh lighting is used to create dramatic shadows and is coupled with the deep reverberating sounds to keep us on edge, while also signaling important discoveries. Beautiful visual effects catch our eye and create a layer of realism to the futuristic world by bringing key characters to life and showing us how technology has bled its way into all aspects of everyday life. From this, we can see how fine a line there is between what is real and what is not. Props serve as much needed anchor points for the audience as they move through the ever-shifting narrative. Each of these elements are used in conjunction with acting, cinematography, and dialogue to create powerful scenes. There are rarely more than one or two elements at work at any given time making the multiple layers of complexity all the more palatable for viewers. Tech noir conventions allow for an atmosphere where uncertainty reigns, where threads are woven together only to be torn back part as the lead character searches for a truth, thus inspiring larger questions about our world challenging us to define humanity, love, and reality.
Auger, E. E. (2011). Tech-noir Film: A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres. Intellect Books.
Blade Runner 2049 by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer (Soundtrack Review). (2017, November 5). Retrieved from https://behindtheaudio.com/2017/11/blade-runner-2049-benjamin-wallfisch-hans-zimmer-soundtrack-review/
Villeneuve, D. (Director). (2017). Blade Runner 2049 [Motion picture]. USA: Warner Bros.
The following lists segments throughout the film. Each contains key scenes and events to provide context to the scenes mentioned in this analysis.
- K retires Sapper Morton and finds bones laid to rest under Morton’s dead tree.
- K at home with Joi, his artificial intelligent girlfriend. We see him alone and are introduced to their relationship.
- K is called into work.
A Child is Born
- The bones are analyzed and they find a serial number. We discover that a Replicant did the impossible, she gave birth- created life something only humans were capable of.
- Lieutenant Joshi tasks K with finding the child and killing them.
- K visits the Wallace Corporation to track down who this woman was. Introduction of Luv. The bones belong to Rachel from the first movie.
- Wallace reviews the new models and tasks Luv with find the child and bringing them to him. He wants to make it so Replicants can create life, he cannot make enough himself and needs the child to accelerate his plan to expand humanities reach through the stars.
The Hunt is On
- K returns to Morton’s home finds a baby sock and images; one is of the dead tree outside. He checks the tree and finds 6.10.21 carved at its base.
- K returns to his apartment; Joshi is already there awaiting an update. There is little to share and K withholds the carving from her.
- Joshi and K talk about memories and K is told to share his. We see the memory of him as a child hiding a wooden horse, it is all he has and he will not let the other children take it from him. They beat him in the end, but he will not tell them where he hid the horse.
- K studies the photos over coffee. Mariette approaches him trying to get information, she represents another unknown party that is also interested in the child.
- K studies lists of DNA at the police station to track down the child. Reveal: 6.10.21 inscribed on the base of the horse in K’s memories.
- K checks their records, but they are missing. He recognizes this place from his memory and looks around. He finds the horse in the exact spot he remembers.
- At home K shares his findings with Joi and she names him Jo.
- K visits Dr. Ana Stelline at an upgrade center. She explains how Replicant memories work.
- It is illegal to use real memories – then all implants should be fake.
- What makes a memory real is the lack of detail – she can determine if a memory is real.
- Ana checks the memory and confirms that “someone lived this, yes.”
- A police cruiser approaches to take K in for his Baseline test. He fails, but tells Joshi that the child is dead and in return Joshi gives him 48 hours to get himself together.
- K and Joi use Mariette to have sex for the first time.
- In Vegas K finds Deckard. They fight but agree to be civil.
- Luv loses track of K and heads to the police station for answers. She kills Joshi and locates K.
- Luv attacks, takes Deckard, kills Joi, and leaves K for dead.
- K awakes to Mariette and Freysa, they are apart of a revolution, a Replicant uprising. Reveal: Rachel had a daughter, not son. K is not the child. He is then tasked with killing Deckard to protect the child.
- Deckard awakes to Wallace who calls his humanity into question and tempts him with another Rachel in return for information on the child. He is shaken but does not break.
- K wanders the street alone. An anonymous Joi advertisement approached K calling him a, “good Jo.” K makes his decision.
- Luv flies with Deckard, she is planning to leave the planet. K takes out the escort, knocking everyone out of the sky.
- K and Luv fight. He kills Luv and saves Deckard.
- K takes Deckard to his daughter and hands Deckard the wooden horse. Once alone K dies on the steps of the upgrade center.
- Inside Deckard and Ana are reunited.