Blade Runner 2049 has been in theaters for more than a week now, and viewers are still unpacking many of its burning questions. It's a film, as director Denis Villeneuve put it, that's packed with "layers," from lingering moral quandaries to unresolved subplots to backstory questions. Now Villeneuve is offering his take on one of the biggest.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BLADE RUNNER, AND BLADE RUNNER: 2049!
The most enduring question left from the original Blade Runner, and the one that fans and film scholars have been debating for 35 years at this point, is whether blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is himself a replicant. The original film poses the question but does not answer it, even though director Ridley Scott said his interpretation of the origami unicorn in his "Final Cut" version is confirmation that Deckard is a replicant. That's only one guy's interpretation, and while Scott's opinion certainly holds a lot of weight, there's still lots of room for ambiguity in the story itself.
So, when 2049 rolled around, fans wondered: Will the sequel confirm or deny Deckard's replicant status? Villeneuve and the other filmmakers refused to give any details about how, or whether, their film would answer the question. Then the film came out, and we saw how 2049 dealt with it: with still more ambiguity.
The film's clearest confrontation of the Deckard question arrives somewhat near the end, when Deckard is captured and taken to a meeting with replicant maker Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Wallace is eager to get his hands on the missing child Deckard conceived with his replicant lover, Rachael (Sean Young), many years earlier, and he's willing to both tempt and torture Deckard in equal measure to get what he wants. One of the ways he does this is by posing a question: Was Deckard's love for Rachael a genuine emotional response? When they meet he feels an immediate connection to her. Was it fate that him put there in that moment, to fall in love? Or was he biologically engineered by someone and implanted with the idea of loving this woman? It's a question that drives Deckard crazy. It's also a question the film never answers. The Deckard replicant debate remains unresolved.
Speaking with USA Today, Villeneuve talked about why it was important for him to keep it that way.
"Deckard himself is unsure of his own identity," says Villeneuve, adding that replicant creator Niander Wallace "plays with [Deckard] with this at the end."
Wallace might know, but Villeneuve happily insists even he doesn't.
"I love the fact that we are not sure," he says. "It’s more exciting and more dynamic. When you are sure, it’s a dead end. In my heart, I prefer to keep the question alive."
In another series of sci-fi films, such a question might feel like nothing more than sequel bait, a chance to kick the can down the road for another big box-office haul. There is an overwhelming drive among certain franchises to generate that "I need to know!" panic in viewers, only to toy with them through another film. It can start to feel cynical. Blade Runner, like Twin Peaks, isn't cynical in its refusal to answer certain big questions.
Villeneuve is clearly not thinking in terms of sequel, but in terms of the storytelling decisions that delight him. In Blade Runner, delighting in mystery, or even just accepting it and trying to move on, is a major theme. Getting a 2049 director who understands that is one of the best things that could have happened to the sequel.