The more I think about 2049, the less I think is there thematically. It tells a compelling moral journey for its lead but there’s nowhere near the depth of ideas the original had. All the reviews saying this movie runs laps around the first one make me think the reviewers haven’t watched it in a while–or are just understandably high off the incredible visuals and sound.
The first movie asked the question “what makes us human?” But it wasn’t about that in a huge way. Because the answers are pretty simple: emotions, desires, interiority. The first Blade Runner had bigger questions to ask, life and death questions, questions about creation and civilization.
The new one takes the “what makes us human?” question, gives the same answers, and makes that the whole movie. I like how it portrays those answers, especially because I love Villeneuve’s visual style, but they aren’t challenging answers, they’re comforting ones.
2049’s greatest addition to Blade Runner’s world is Joi/the idea of computerized AI. It shines a light on the tension between programming and free will that has always been a part of Blade Runner; we understand a computer being programmed more clearly than replicants, whose origins and biology have always been a bit hazy. To me, the best moment in 2049 is the Joi ad calling K “Joe” and the uncomfortable space that puts him, and us, in. Considering K’s choice in the end, I’m not convinced the revelation that the name “Joe” was programming destroys his belief in her personhood. I think he comes to see, on some level, that there’s programming, digital or genetic or social, in everyone. And if he can see the value in her sacrifice then he can see past his own “soullessness” (he really only sees himself as soulless because his programming is less subtle than a real human’s) and make a similar sacrifice for Deckard.