Blade Runner 2049

One of the things that really impressed me about Blade Runner 2049 was its soundtrack. I love the score to the 1982 original, and was pleased that, though 2049’s soundtrack quotes it at moments, it doesn’t try to imitate Vangelis’s lush romanticism. It even sometimes seems to be doing the opposite, feeling, at times, like an oppressive aural assault, particularly when it brings in that alarming, motorcycle-like roar. The different ways the soundtracks work says a lot about the two films.

Vangelis’s soundtrack provides a necessary counterpoint of emotional texturing to the 1982 film’s noir-ish future: it conjures the suppressed, battered emotional lives behind the characters’ cynical facades in an otherwise dehumanising world. Although electronic, it isn’t bleakly electronic; it’s awash with melody and (oddly, for something so technological and futuristic) with nostalgia, too. That nostalgia is for a long-gone romanticism, the sort of thing to be found in the likes of Casablanca or The Big Sleep, as if Blade Runner’s world is so dystopian, it looks back on even the dark, psychologically twisted worlds of film noir with longing.

In a way, then, the 1982 film’s use of an electronic score could be seen as highlighting how its future is a debased imitation of a more authentic-feeling past. But at the same time, Vangelis’s score used its electronic instruments to point out how human emotion could still come through an electronic device, be it a Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser or a replicant called Rachael.

Vangelis’s soundtrack being electronic was unusual for the time — particularly after Star Wars set the rule that what science fiction needed was the warmth and familiarity of an orchestra to ground it in a recognisable human reality. But nowadays we’re used to technology; what we need is to be jolted with a reminder of how dehumanising it can be. This seems to be the purpose of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score to Blade Runner 2049, which doesn’t attempt to mimic or outdo the Vangelis soundtrack, but quotes it, as though it were “quoting” moments of humanity amidst what is otherwise a wash of very dark and jarring electronic whooshes, roars, jangles, groans, screeches and rattles.

The 2049 soundtrack’s first task, perhaps, is to make sure there’s no chance the viewer is going to watch the film thinking something like, “Oh, how nice, a sequel to that lovely film Blade Runner.” It’s there to remind you of the danger of the future. Just as Vangelis’s score worked to humanise its film’s technology, this score is there to remind you that this is an oppressive, dehumanising world, and that technology is part of that oppression. We’re too used to seeing modishly dystopian futures in movies, and need to be reminded how closely linked this future is to our present, and just how bleak a thing it would be to live in.

There’s still a longing to the score, but its longing is that much more distant. It longs for something human, something real, in a world where it’s difficult to tell what is human, what is real. As Police Lt. Joshi (a human) says to our replicant protagonist K: “We’re all just looking out for something real.”

Voight-Kampff in the 1982 Blade Runner

So how do you tell what’s real? Both films have sequences where non-human characters are put through a procedure to test their humanity. In Blade Runner, it’s the Voight-Kampff test, which measures levels of empathic response to determine whether the subject is a human (empathic) or a replicant (not). In Blade Runner 2049, it’s the far more brutal “baseline” test, a rapid-fire verbal assault designed to ensure a replicant’s emotional responses remain within acceptable (i.e., tightly controlled, and far below human) limits. In 2049, passing the test is not about proving empathy, but lack of it.

The baseline test in Blade Runner 2049

But is this the definition of “humanity”, and therefore “reality”, we should be using? After all, our replicant hero K fails the baseline test, which means he’s starting to become insufficiently inseparable from his human masters. How else, then, do we determine what’s real, in a world of replicants and 3D holographic AIs?

Joi and Joe

At the heart of it is K, a replicant, and Joi, his holographic AI home-companion, and the question of whether what they feel for each other could be described as love. Neither is “real” (i.e., human). The advertising slogan used to market the Joi AI is “Everything you want to hear. Everything you want to see.” So, she’s designed around the idea of self-gratification and imitation. When she decides K is “real” and ought to have a name, she chooses “Joe”, the same name a giant, billboard version of her uses later as part of its advertising spiel, so is “Joe” a term of Joi’s affection, or a result of her programming? And what about when she says “I love you” — programming or genuine? How can we tell?

Perhaps it’s Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace who provides the answer, in amongst all his other tiresome verbiage: “Pain reminds you the joy you felt was real.” So, the thing you don’t want to hear, don’t want to see, and don’t want to have to feel; the opposite of self-gratification.

Prismatic Marilyn Monroes — now, there’s a Ballardian image

Blade Runner 2049 seems to be saying what’s real can still be found even in the midst of the unreal, like genuine human emotion coming through Vangelis’s synth sounds in the 1982 film. After all, Deckard, grizzled and battered by love and loss, is clearly (replicant or not) “real”, but where is he found? In the home of unreality, Las Vegas, whose lack of reality is heightened by the presence of a jittery 3D holographic Elvis. But Deckard likes the song. And he has his own test for what’s real. When asked if his dog is real, he says, “Ask him.” And I feel the same applies to K as he wanders the streets of 2049 LA near the end of the film, bereft. Was the love between him and Joi real? Ask him. That does seem to be real pain he’s feeling.

And I think this reality-unreality comes through in the score, too. It’s in the moments where Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s music quotes the Vangelis original, harking back to that film in the same way that film harked back to the days of black & white Hollywood romance — days of unreality, yes, as they’re films, but within their reality, perhaps, something human, something real, can be found, however artificial it might appear to be.