Since there were a lot of ways the sequel to the bizarre, Asianesque sci-fi noir classic Blade Runner could have been awful, I was expecting Blade Runner 2049 to be handled about as well as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Ghost in the Shell, both of which failed to delight their devoted target audiences. I was pleasantly surprised.
2049 has some disturbing violent moments, and the whole finale is one of those water scenes I really dislike, but I enjoyed it more than the original, I think because it generally made more sense, or because of some beautiful, colorful architectural shots, or perhaps simply because it was new and therefore I did not feel obliged to like it simply because, for two or three decades, other people already had.
There’s a lot of chatter about this movie’s ties to the original, and about philosophical questions relating to memory and the soul, but for me the movie is about the journey from blissful ignorance through mistake or self-deception to self-knowledge and finally acceptance. Ignorance is never bliss, and you always have a choice.
See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Blade Runner 2049
Fields of mirrors reflecting solar energy towards solar towers—everything is grey and there are no people, or any living things, anywhere. The future sucks.
K is a newer model replicant (android) who looks and acts human but unlike the older models was built to follow orders rather than make choices; such beings are universally reviled, accepted neither by humans nor by the older replicants. He lives in a super-dense future version of LA and he’s a blade runner, which means that his job is to ‘retire’ (kill off) the older models surviving from earlier times. One target (who farms maggots for protein) tells him something about seeing a miracle. After K kills the target, he undergoes a mental fitness test at work, gets paid, and then goes home to his virtual girlfriend, an AI that can not only project a hologram of herself in his apartment, but also travel with him using a newly-purchased device.
Near the target’s home, K finds a box that contains the bones of a replicant who died in childbirth. The birth of a child replicant might be the miracle the target was referring to because replicants are made, not born. K’s boss tells him to find the child and kill it. If humans discover that replicants can reproduce, there will be war.
When K seems hesitant to retire the child, his boss asks him what his problem is. He says he has never before retired anything that was born.
Break into Two
K’s boss asks him whether he will do the job, and he says something about not having any choice, but it isn’t quite the same as actually agreeing to do it. She ignores or fails to notice the ambiguity, and says, “Good boy.”
B Story / Fun and Games
K takes the replicant mother’s hair to the offices of Wallace Corporation, the company that currently sells replicants, to learn about her. Records are patchy, but we hear enough to recognize two characters from the first movie: Rachael (a replicant agent of Tyrell Corporation, Wallace’s predecessor) and Deckard (the old blade runner played by Harrison Ford). From the recording, it seems that Deckard thought Rachael might be human. Deckard is long gone, but K goes and speaks to an old man who knew him. For reasons the internet will be debating for decades, the old man folds an origami sheep.
The sadistic, blind Wallace boss would love to know how to make replicants that can reproduce; that’s a secret that seems to have died with the former company owner—or perhaps it was lost during the blackout, when a bunch of electronic data storage systems failed. Now that he knows about K’s investigation, he sends a deadly female agent to steal Rachael’s bones from the LAPD.
K returns to where he found the bones and notices and recognizes a date carved on the tree marking Rachael’s grave. It’s the same date that’s carved on a wooden horse that he remembers hiding in a furnace as a child. His memories are all implants, since he was never really a child, but seeing the familiar date is a pretty weird coincidence.
Inside the target’s house, he finds a tin containing a baby sock and a photo of a woman in front of the dead tree. He ponders the photo in a local canteen, where he rejects the advances of the local hookers, who for some reason have been told to find out what he’s working on.
K looks in a machine that contains genetic records of children born on 6.10.21. He finds two identical records, one a boy and one a girl. Only one is a living child. He discovers that the boy was in an orphanage in what’s left of San Diego. His AI girlfriend encourages him to believe that he himself was that boy, that the memory he has of the wooden horse is his own real memory. She names him Joe.
K takes his hovercar to the orphanage. There’s a fight, but he survives because the Wallace agent intervenes from afar to protect him from the local scavengers who shoot him down. He recognizes the orphanage from his wooden-horse memory. He speaks with the head of the orphanage, who produces record books that should furnish further clues about the boy, but the relevant pages have been torn out. K follows the memory and finds the wooden horse, which he takes with him. (Ominous music!)
K visits a woman who creates memories for implantation. She lives in a bare room sealed off from the world because of her susceptibility to sickness, but in spite of or because of her isolation, she’s really good at imagining stuff. He asks her whether replicants are implanted with real people’s memories, and she says that they could be, but that it’s illegal. He asks her whether his memory of the wooden horse is real, and she watches him remember it and says it is.
K returns to his office and ambiguously tells his boss that he has done what was asked, suggesting that he killed the boy he was looking for. However, when undergoing the usual post-mission mental fitness test, he fails. His boss agrees to give him some additional time in which to recover from his mission. If he fails the test again, he will be executed.
Bad Guys Close In
K’s AI has invited one of the local prostitutes over, and he makes love to their combined form. The prostitute notices the wooden horse. She plants a tracking device in K’s coat pocket before leaving his apartment.
Knowing he cannot stay in LA because he will fail the LAPD mental fitness test, K transfers his AI girlfriend to the mobile device, deleting the backup in his apartment. If anything happens to the device, she will effectively die. (Guess what happens later.)
K goes and has the wooden horse analyzed. He is told (unsurprisingly) that it was indeed made from wood, a material now quite scarce. It is radioactive in some special way, which somehow indicates that it came from the abandoned city of Las Vegas. Despite the high resale value of the wooden horse, K does not sell it.
K goes to Las Vegas and enters an abandoned Korean luxury casino hotel. It’s not really abandoned, though… Deckard is hiding out there, and isn’t happy to be discovered. (Outside of his dog, books are his best friend; inside his dog, it’s too dark to read.) He shoots first, but K survives. They fight for a while; we get to see a glitchy holographic Elvis singing “some things are meant to be”, which is appropriate: a human who suspects he is a replicant is facing a replicant who suspects he may be a human—who may in fact be that man’s son by the dead woman whose bones he found. In other words, our protagonist is the Chosen One and he has a Great Destiny, which is to Save the Underdogs. Eventually they agree to a truce and sit down to drink together. There are some other carved animals around, which Deckard apparently made. From wood.
Meanwhile, Wallace’s agent kills K’s boss to find out what he knows and where he went.
All Is Lost
Wallace’s agent shows up. The two blade runners fight, lose, and get separated.
Deckard gets taken to Wallace, where the boss insists he share the secret of how replicants reproduce. He threatens torture and promises great rewards. He offers him a copy of his lover, Rachael. Deckard says her eyes are the wrong color: she is promptly killed.
K’s AI girlfriend gets destroyed just as she screams “I love you”. K gets rescued by the mysterious group that planted a tracker on him. They are replicants who are organizing a rebellion. Their leader will be the replicant child, Rachael’s child, who has been kept safely hidden. However, when they tell K that Rachael’s child was a girl, K realizes he couldn’t possibly be that child. The wooden horse memory isn’t his. He’s just another replicant after all.
Dark Night of the Soul
It is, of course, night, and K is out on the neon-lit city streets. He interacts with an advertisement for an AI companion made by Wallace. The AI is designed to be “everything you want” and says all the same things that his own used to say to him, even calling him “Joe”. He realizes that his girlfriend only ever said what he wanted to hear. K is not special to anybody anywhere for any reason. K looks at his gun. Maybe he should just kill himself?
Break into Three
No, he can still choose to fight for replicant freedom, he can still make his own life count for something, he can still serve the cause even if he can’t lead it.
K shoots down the space shuttle that is taking Deckard to the Wallace space station or some other planet or something. It lands in water and starts leaking—and that’s where I stopped watching. I don’t like watching people almost drown. There is some stabbing involved, as well as some actual drowning, and the Wallace agent dies. As far as Wallace is concerned, Deckard is dead, too. Thus he’s free.
The blade runners go to the place where the memory-creating woman is living in her isolation chamber. Obviously, the wooden horse memory was really hers all along, and she’s the child of Rachael and Deckard. She was dressed as a boy when sent to the orphanage by her father and his rebel friends. K is proud of having done his part for the cause, and bleeds to death on the steps outside after marveling at the falling snow the way his AI marveled at the rain when taking her first steps outside.
Deckard sees his grown-up daughter for the first time. Oh, the power of love!