Sunday Reads: Within Cells Interlinked: The A.I. In BLADE RUNNER 2049

How Denis Villeneuve's cyberpunk sequel shares more than one similarity to Steven Spielberg's Kubrick collaboration.

***Caution: Major Spoilers For Blade Runner 2049 Contained Within***

When Steven Spielberg released A.I. in ’01, it was a project Stanley Kubrick had been kicking around for twenty-plus years; one that ultimately outlived the master filmmaker. The finished film was the climax of a rather tumultuous development process that dated back to ’83, when Kubrick originally bought the rights to Brian Aldiss’ short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long. Set in a flooded, dystopian world, Aldiss’ sci-fi yarn plays out like a robot Pinocchio, centered on an android boy with human emotions. For Kubrick, A.I. was a chance to not only explore the notion of a manufactured being yearning to possess a human spirit, but also an opportunity for the notoriously meticulous and imaginative auteur to tackle a fairy tale he'd been obsessed with, as well indulging as his fetish for futurism (just like he had with the filmic landmark, 2001: A Space Odyssey [’68]). 

Kubrick planned to make the movie after Full Metal Jacket (’87), once his own version of Shindler’s List (’93) – a WWII Holocaust drama titled The Aryan Papers – was abandoned due to Spielberg’s Oscar-winning success (the director didn't want "another Platoon ['87] situation" on his hands). As Kubrick’s long-standing Executive Producer Jan Harlan explains it, there’d been some experimental pre-production performed (including the construction of remote control machines and a little boy with a movable face that looked “just awful”), and Kubrick had done some helicopter shooting of oil rigs in the North Sea, to see what the body of water would look like during poor weather. Outside of that, Spielberg (who’d inherited the picture from Kubrick in ’95) was starting from scratch, working off seven years’ worth of correspondence the two artistic friends shared while Kubrick was adapting the short, including over one thousand drawings Harlan handed over to the Beard during his own development period. Having seen the initial models and design work Spielberg performed on A.I., Harlan posthumously blessed the project from Kubrick’s estate, utterly ecstatic over the new screenplay Spielberg had written himself (which stuck very close to the treatment Ian Watson penned for the late 2001 director). While the movie couldn't offically be EP'd by the man (as was the plan), his spirit was certainly all over Spielberg's work. 

Upon release, A.I. received mixed reviews from critics. Many admired Spielberg’s attempts at fidelity regarding what he assumed Kubrick's final vision of this flooded future would look like. A.O. Scott of The New York Times noted that the director was attempting the “improbable feat of melding Kubrick’s chilly, analytical style with his own warmer, needier sensibility.” But the picture also received heavy criticism regarding its more “Spielbergian” touches, particularly the maudlin ending where “one last day” is shared between the robot boy and mother he’d lost eons ago to mere human mortality. That epilogue has been a point of contention for many cinephiles over the years, to such an extreme extent that Spielberg actually defended his decision (in the ’07 doc Spielberg On Spielberg) by noting that the conclusion was in the original Kubrick-approved treatment. Fidelity had become a double-edged sword, as his attempts to stay true backfired and caused him to be blamed the for the parts fans didn’t enjoy, while Kubrick (of course) was credited with its numerous enjoyable elements. 

Like A.I., Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a work of auteurist fidelity. Executive produced by Ridley Scott – whose original Blade Runner (’82) becomes a mold on which Villeneuve grafts his own portentous hellscape – and co-written by original scribe Hampton Fancher (who's recycling certain ideas that date all the way back to his original BR draft, as our own Dave Schilling notes in his review), 2049 is a labor of love, continuing pre-existing visual motifs while crafting a story whose text is in dialogue with the subtext of Blade Runner. At the same time, its Cyberpunk Pinocchio through-line recalls Spielberg and Kubrick’s dystopian dilemma, where David (Haley Joel Osment) journeys to find the Blue Fairy, in hopes she'll make him a real boy. Yet instead of yearning for simple "realness", Officer K (Ryan Gosling) desires a sense of purpose beyond hunting his own Replicant kind. Where Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and the other outdated Off World slaves hungered for more life from the Tyrell Corporation, K's newer model has learned that an extended existence can also easily slide into monotonous meaninglessness.

K is a Blade Runner, a job that – as the opening titles remind us – has not seen a change in description since 2019. His duty is to hunt down and "retire" rogue Replicants; an obligation he does not take any pleasure in. But after his latest deadly assignment (during which he puts down Dave Bautista’s peaceful protein farmer), a discovery that could “break the world” (in the words of his supervisor, Madam Joshi [Robin Wright]) distorts his perception of reality altogether. A box of bones, buried beneath a tree, reveals a miracle: Replicants may possess the power to reproduce. Madam tasks K with killing the child who came from this skeleton’s womb (prompting a comment regarding K's paradox of never having retired something that was "born"), because if industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) finds it first, a Replicant revolution could be in store for the human race, and they will not survive. The Blade Runner's job has only been in service of order, and order has never been more necessary in Los Angeles than at this moment. 

Before this Baby Robot Christ was unveiled, K struggled with significance. The baseline tests administered following each retirement ensured he was brought back to being the obedient servant Niander's company designed him to be. Constantly referred to as a “skin job” by human colleagues, and dozing off his in his Spinner, the only life in his cramped apartment comes from Joi (Ana de Armas), another product of the synthetic factory. A holographic representation of female companionship, Joi is ostensibly K’s only friend (much like the freakish Teddy [Jack Angel] was David’s sole post-human companion in A.I.). She cooks him an imaginary dinner that takes the place of his bland bowl of noodles, and coos when K gives her an “anniversary present” (though they have no true date): an Emanator, which allows the Blade Runner to transport Joi outside of the high rise prison where she’s been confined due to the limitations of her technology. 

The Emanator also lets Joi feel the rain, the same way K and all other solidified beings do. Suddenly, shape and texture are added dimensions in her life. “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” she says, after letting the drops soak her hair, and plop on her palm. “You don’t have to say that,” K retorts, knowing that no matter how far he’s able to deliver her beyond the relam she already knew, she’s still programmed (the way he is) to serve a particular master. The sensations of life may fill her with experiences she never knew until this instance, but beyond purchasing an upgrade that made this moment possible, K did nothing more than let her out of a cage. The scene is even interrupted by a phone call, which freezes Joi in place, reminding the Blade Runner that she is nothing more than a mass manufactured entity, just as he is. Their realities are controlled by mathematics, not love. 

In 2049, there’s more than one Replicant looking to distinguish themselves from their synthetic pack. Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is the right hand servant to Wallace’s blind, reclusive genius (who may or may not be a Replicant himself – based on the plug-ins his girl gives him), sent out into LA's glowing nowheresville to retrieve the child before K can kill it. Luv has no grand design to be anything more than she is, but that doesn’t stop her from emotionally responding when she feels Niander is denigrating her kind (by stating that without reproductive organs, they are lesser beings), or when K casually insults her by saying “you must be special” when she reveals her name. A single tear runs down Luv's cheek on several occasions, clueing us in to her state of mind (or is this the only emotive cue she knows?). But where the Blade Runner has grown weary of his life's lot, Luv utilizes her job as a means to prove to her creator that she is the very best Replicant ever crafted (and even says as such at the end of the climactic showdown with the policeman). Storming through one environment after the next, Luv leaves a trail of bodies in her wake, cococting lies to cover her tracks as she races toward an empowering endgame. She and K are puppets, dangled from their designer's strings, only one is happy to dance for the man behind the curtain. 

Much how Spielberg strained to create a sheen of icy observance with A.I., Villeneuve pantomimes the big studio hypnodrone of Scott's Blade Runner, replicating its rainy, enviromentally devastated otherworld of impossibly vertical buildings and soaked back alleys. Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the neon signs and steamy, cavernous underpasses with the same moody verve of Jordan Cronenweth's initial lensing. Hans Zimmer pumps his typically aggressive orchestration full of cues and callbacks to Vangelis' iconic score, saving the most recognizable notes for the movie's overwhelmingly emotional finale. The labor that went into lining the two films up is beyond impressive, even as Villeneuve injects his own sense of austere humanism into the proceedings, never allowing this fastidiously designed continuation to become too detached. 

Both of these synthetic sons' journeys send them on a crash course toward lost parents. However, where David always wanted to "be real" for the mommy (Frances O'Connor) whose love he never believed he fully earned due to his artificial nature, K discovers his desire to be human is sparked by a hope that never existed before the Christ Child. 2049 heavily telegraphs the notion that K may be the son of Deckard (the OG Blade Runner, Harrison Ford), and his forbidden Replicant love (Sean Young -- whose appearance leads to one of this movie's most unnerving bits of violence). Turns out, it was Rachel's bones that were in that box, and whose womb the Christ Child Replicant was born from. As K's quest continues, his discoveries link to the Blade Runner's seemingly implanted memories from the past, which are confirmed to be real instead of concocted by the greatest recollection artist in the business (Carla Juri). After all this time, K now has a purpose beyond government sanctioned murder -- he can actually become a beacon of belief to those he's spent his entire life eradicating, and Joi's incessant whispering regarding how "special" he is are proven true. 

Sadly, the cruelty of Fancher and Michael Green's screenplay is found in how it instills hope in K, bestowing him with what he'd been craving his whole life before tearing it all away. Joi's "realness" is brought to a shattering conclusion, as Luv stomps on the Emanator, not even allowing the holographic love object to finsh her final declaration to K before she "dies." Shortly thereafter, K learns that he is not the son of Deckard and Rachel, but only the carrier for a literal Trojan Horse -- a memory from the true Christ Child Replicant implanted in his head at inception. Now, he's alone again, cast off into a melancholy industrial wasteland of isolation. The only remaining chance he has at reclaiming his own meaningfulness is to rescue Deckard from Luv and Niander Wallace's clutches, so that the old cop may enjoy his own "final day" with the daughter he abandoned out of obligation to her safety. His task has been transformed from hopeful symbol to kamikaze death march; a dagger straight to the heart of any movement that desires to bring supremacy to the Replicant race. It's fatalism that borders on nihilism, and K's final wintry breaths on the snowy steps of Stelline Labs are just as heartbreaking as Roy Batty clutching that pigeon, or David lying in his mother's arms for one last time. Just like all ordinary souls, he will be lost, like tears in the rain.