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rochefort [Celluloid 01.18.18] cyberpunk scifi noir



[Editor's note: Be sure to read part one of Rochefort's series here.]

Cyberspace, artificial intelligence, street tech, cyborgs, shady megacorporations. These are just some of the staples of Cyberpunk, a science-fiction subgenre that began as a literary movement spearheaded by authors like William Gibson (whose “Neuromancer” won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards in 1984), Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley and Neal Stephenson.

Cyberpunk reshaped the way we see the future, and has informed our understanding of the age of big data. Its pervasive and frequently subversive influence can be found in everything from the way we work and the devices we use to fashion, music and cinema.

And underneath all the neon, grime, leather and chrome, cyberpunk
fiction continues to ask vital questions about how we cope with progress and what it means to be human.



SPOILERS AHEAD


CINEMA’S FIRST TRUE CYBERPUNK CHARACTERS

With the aforementioned exception of Wallace, the characters in the Blade Runner universe are a memorable and frequently fascinating lot. Instead of the stock characterization we find in so much sci-fi cinema, we get damaged individuals with neuroses and complex internal motivations, and this treatment of character raises both films above the level of pulp into something much more layered and rewarding, even thought their conflicts are, on the surface, alien to us.

After all, none of us lives in a world where we seriously question whether or not we’re real or manufactured. And no matter your opinion of your fellow man and woman, you probably don’t get depressed about the fact that you’re too poor, dangerous or unhealthy to live out in space with all the cool kids. What we see in the likes of Deckard, Batty, K and Luv is the chance to empathize with creatures we shouldn’t actually be able to understand.

In the original film, it slowly creeps up on us that even though replicants can pass for “human” (as long as they don’t bend any steel bars or stick their hands in freezing liquid) they still have a few tells, and the more you look for them the more obvious they become. Many of their old-school human counterparts tend to be dour and even low-key, and these performances ring true much in the same way that in Scott’s previous film Alien it didn’t take us long to accept the idea of a blue collar spaceship crew.

Bryant is bored and satisfied with the little triumphs his job allows. Gaff just wants to do his job and go home. Sebastian is beaten down and a slave to routine. And Tyrell is all business, even when faced with Batty, and tries to dissuade the powerful replicant from killing him using negotiation tactics that he sees through instantly. Not a hero among them, and not even any real villain, either, just people whose circumstances we accept and whose lives we hope don’t too closely resemble our own.

Most of the non-replicant characters have obviously spent way too long in the city. By contrast, the replicants, particularly the ones who have spent the most time among their own kind, act less and less like their human masters, displaying wildly varying degrees of personality and prone to drastic mood swings. They may be “more human than human”, with greater agility, strength, intelligence, etc., but when it comes to the basic stuff they tend to overcompensate in a clumsy attempt to make up for lost time. And of all the characters in both films, replicants seem to be the only ones having any fun.





It’s easy to view Batty’s gang of four as extremely naive and dangerous children, each of them stuck in an adolescent growth stage. Pris is the lovestruck weird girl, who during her fight with Deckard is so committed to her gymnast routine that her cartwheels give him a desperately needed opening to shoot her when she could have just easily beaten him to death. Leon is the reluctant school bully who idolizes Batty and is eager to please. When they visit Chew in the eye lab and Batty refers to Tyrell as “not an easy man to see”, Leon puts eyes on Chew’s shoulder in a clumsy visual echo of Batty’s own words.

Zhora is the sneering fringe girl, Batty the misunderstood jock, and even Rachael, once confronted with the truth about herself, shows Deckard her family photos as “proof” of her humanity in a naive attempt to change his mind about what he already knows. None of the replicants are as world-weary and cynical as their human counterparts (save for Deckard, who has a lot more practice, but more on that in the next section) and their quest for more life, futile as it is, is the most overt display of hope in the entire film.

But in many ways the show belongs to Batty alone, the most compelling character in the film and one of the best villains in sci-fi cinema history. Physically, he’s perfect: handsome but scary-looking, his spiky white hair both extremely punk rock and a visual signifier that his time is running out. Hauer’s deep hiss of a voice is perfect as he misquotes William Blake (“Fiery the angels fell…”) to both scare Chew in the eye lab and cue the audience that there’s more to him than just an imposing frame.





And those falling angels he’s talking about? They’re the same ones that Wallace references in his Lucifer rant in Blade Runner 2049, but when Batty does it there’s a much heavier meaning behind it all. He and his comrades were banished into a hellish life in space, and now they’ve returned to a planet they were cast out of. It’s easy to infer that when he punctuates his little poetry reading with a knowing smirk, it’s because he appreciates the irony that he and his friends are marked for death for coming back to a world everybody else is trying to leave.





Batty’s introductory scene is fantastic, but it’s still in some ways pretty standard villain stuff, and he’s never that standard again. Scene after scene, Batty is to Blade Runner what the Joker is to The Dark Knight, a villain who is neither overused nor overwritten, and every scene without him makes you anxious for his return. The scene where he confronts Tyrell in his pyramid is arguably the film’s second best (after the opening). Their science debate, Batty’s tears as he crushes his maker’s head between his hands, his offscreen murder of Sebastian, and the completely out-of-left-field smirk on his face as he descends in the elevator, all held together by Vangelis’ slowly ratcheting score, is intense, majestic filmmaking, ranking high with Scott’s career best, and anchored by Hauer’s brilliant work.





Having just killed his innocence by murdering the similarly childlike Sebastian, the Batty that confronts Deckard is well and truly terrifying, made worse when he arrives back at the Bradbury building just moments after Deckard blows a hole in Pris’ chest. He becomes a feral, hulking animal during the final fight and treats his chase with Deckard as a literal game of hide and seek, howling like a dog and chanting playground rhymes as he shoves his head through walls and takes pipe blasts to the face. When his body starts to shut down he plunges a construction nail through one hand, an obvious reference to stigmata and a visual suggestion that, at best, Batty in this rapidly declining state could only ever be half a messiah.




Hauer’s performance during the chase would already be fun, with his over the top panting and cackling, but is even more interesting when viewed as a psychological experiment on Deckard executed with the bizarre panache of a giddy, brilliant kid. And in the end he shows his true colors when he saves Deckard from falling to a certain death, revealing that for all his malevolent posturing and violent actions, he never really wanted to be the bad guy, and once he knows he only has minutes left he doesn’t see the point in letting anyone else die. It cannot be overstated how the combination of script, direction and Hauer’s performance make Batty one of the most vital elements of the film, and a real contributing factor to its staying power.

In 2049, the performances are, again, superb (even the badly written Wallace). Gosling is excellent in a role wisely written to more resemble Batty’s tragic arc than Deckard’s. Dave Bautista’s brief role as Sapper Morton continues his career trajectory of getting better with each performance he gives. And Harrison Ford’s return to the character of Deckard is the best work he’s done in a long time.

He’s still drinking too much and still getting into fistfights he can’t win, but the sadness in Deckard's face when Wallace shows him a beautifully realized reconstruction of his late love Rachael is genuinely affecting. Ford wisely plays Deckard like a man who has never stopped mourning, for Rachael, for Batty, for all the replicants he’s killed, and for the child he’s not even sure is still alive.

But the two most memorable characters in Blade Runner 2049 are Joi and Wallace’s hench-skinner Luv, both of whom serve as parallels and upgrades of the first film’s character conceits. Joi, the off-the-rack hologram that K loves in spite of himself, is as disturbing a character as she is frighteningly plausible. All smiles, sex appeal and doe-eyed innocence on the surface, Joi may seem like a source of comfort for K, but in actuality she’s what ultimately seals his doom. Because she’s programmed to, Joi eggs K on in his investigation and whispers in his ear about destiny and his supposedly chosen status.

And it’s Joi who arranges the threeway with Mariette, giving false hope to a sterile being by making him think he might somehow be able to replicate Deckard and Rachael’s “miracle” conception. She may seem like K’s soulmate, and even declares she loves him before Luv destroys her, but in the end turns out to be most poisonous sort of social media app.

It’s no coincidence Joi was made by the bad guys. When K watches the holo-ad and finally accepts that she’s just a product and her behavior with him was never unique, it almost crushes his spirit. Thankfully, K realizes that it signifies something special about him because Joi, mass-produced or not, has helped him realize he actually has a spirit to crush.

The other Wallace product, Luv, is definitely a baddie, no doubt about it, but what makes her a great deal more interesting than Wallace is that she’s an extremely confused bigot. She considers herself far better than the previous models of her own kind, and really only admires one human that we know of, her master Niander. Her superiority complex has made her self-isolated, and loneliness seeps out of her constantly. She opens up quickly to K, probably because she sees in him a peer since he kills many of the replicants she so despises, but when shuts down her cold and awkward attempt at flirting she becomes an instant enemy (just notice the way she relishes destroying K’s Joi app).

And unlike Batty, whose flowing tears when he kills his maker make a certain degree of sense, Luv is so boxed-in that she cries almost every time her emotions go into the red, almost as if she’s searching fruitlessly for a better way to fix things. The tragedy of Luv is that her hatred is not so much programmed as nurtured, since by giving her special attention (as well as another equally precious thing, a name), Wallace has taught her how to emulate his own feelings of superiority towards others, despite the fact that a part of her genuinely wishes it could live up to her otherwise ironic name. Sylvia Hoeks works magic with what is already a very well-written character, and almost every line she speaks has dual meaning, reflecting her own split nature, and she does an excellent job of carrying on the BR tradition of compelling post-human characters.

And then there’s the elephant in the room.





IS HE OR ISN’T HE?

Much like George Lucas’ “Special Editions” of the Star Wars films, Blade Runner’s “The Final Cut” was an attempt by Scott to correct the flaws he perceived in the initial releases. Most of the corrections are cosmetic: lips not matching dialogue, CGI re-facing over obvious stunt doubles and things like that, and almost all the fixes are for the better, including at least one nagging plot hole: the number of replicants Deckard is initially tasked with retiring.

In all the earlier versions, when Deckard first arrives at Bryant’s office his old boss tells him “I’ve got four skin jobs walking the streets”, but one scene later Bryant tells him that six replicants made it to earth and one was killed trying to scale an electric fence, leaving five. Deckard clearly only hunts four replicants, and the fifth one suggested by Bryant was never addressed again in any versions of the film. The final cut changes Bryant’s dialogue to state that two were killed scaling the fence, but for decades audiences had been wondering what happened to that fifth replicant.

So with such a big, front-and-center mistake in every release until the last one, it’s understandable why fans would be skeptical when Scott added a new shot to the Final Cut, an unused shot of a unicorn from Legend that Deckard recalls while brooding over his piano. This is, according to Scott, the reason why Gaff leaves the unicorn origami that Deckard finds in his apartment in the final scene, confirming to Deckard what Gaff has known all along, that Deckard is a replicant who was somehow fooled into believing he’s a human Blade Runner. This was Scott’s way of supposedly putting any debates to bed and course-correcting what he viewed as an incomplete story.

There’s been a lot of pushback from people, including Harrison Ford, who think this is a bad idea that robs the character of his relatability and throws the story logic into a tailspin. I don’t even know if Scott is to be believed when he claims Deckard’s replicant status was in the script from the beginning (there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, including the source material), but the idea is out there and can’t go back into the box. If you’re as big a fan of the film as I am, it’s likely you’ve made up your mind about which take you buy.

I choose to believe that Deckard is, in fact, a replicant. Not because I think the film ever needed a whip-snap, overly clever “gotcha” moment, but because I think it makes an already excellent story even more so.

For starters, I strongly disagree with those who say that it robs the film of a human connection, because even if he’s manufactured Deckard is also human. All replicants are. Hell, that’s one of the chief themes in both films. And watching a manufactured human stumble through a pantomime of humanity is even more interesting than watching a depressed, alcoholic detective/hitman carry out one last job, which is a definitely more worn-out premise. Once I gave Deckard’s newly revealed artificiality a chance, the world of Blade Runner opened up and I found myself loving the movie even more as I searched for clues that might confirm or disprove.

In all of his scenes with Deckard, Bryant makes a point of reiterating what a great Blade Runner Deckard is (a habit that clearly gets on Gaff’s nerves), and even refers to Deckard’s skill as “magic”. And yet just moments after Bryant informs Deckard about Batty’s gang, Deckard asks Bryant why replicants would risk returning to earth, despite the fact that his unit of the police force was created specifically to deal with replicants returning to earth. Then he asks “what’s this?” when shown the pictures of Batty, like he’s still several steps behind. Generally, Deckard doesn’t seem as familiar with replicants as a “magic” Blade Runner would be.

He’s also surprised when Tyrell explains how each replicant is embedded with false memories to make them more docile. All of this serves as exposition for the audience, of course, especially considering how many of the more science-fiction-ey concepts were so alien to much of the 80’s audience, but in terms of pure story, the evidence that Rick Deckard isn’t the master Blade Runner he’s advertised as really starts to add up.

Another tidbit is that while we pretty much accept that Deckard is something of a career alcoholic, the first time we see him drink is when Bryant offers him one in his office. Throughout the film we never actually see Deckard get drunk, despite the fact that he gulps the stuff down constantly, and if he’s a replicant it’s possible his design prevents him from feeling the effects. He may not even know that he’s never actually been drunk, and simply drinks because he thinks that’s what sad humans do. If Bryant knows all or even some of this, then why does he call Deckard “a goddamn, one man slaughterhouse”? Maybe Bryant knows that the only way to keep Deckard frosty is to agitate him with untrue praise. And with Gaff watching, Bryant may even get a kick out of knowing that his comments are a clear sign of condescension towards both his underlings.

When Rachael attempts to prove her humanity to Deckard at his apartment, his response is overtly cruel, as he describes in detail things only she should remember and convinces her that she’s definitely not human. Both Pris and Zhora easily overpower Deckard in later scenes, so there’s no reason to assume Rachael wouldn’t be capable of the same, and he’s probably surmised by this point that she’s gone rogue and would be considered just as dangerous as any other renegade. That Deckard is so willing to confirm that she’s a replicant, like all the others he’s killed, is a curious thing to do, especially considering they’re alone in his apartment and he’s already put down his gun.

And even as Deckard frequently tries to ape his human counterparts’ malaise, he shows a more vibrant and frankly goofy side as he role-plays his way through the Zhora encounter. The only productive result of this charade is it gets him into her dressing room to match the scales from her snake to the one he’d found in Leon’s apartment. But he never does a microscopic analysis of it, and he already knows Zhora by sight, so the whole exercise seems pretty pointless. And Zhora knows he’s faking it anyway, so the entire scene is bewildering if Deckard is in fact the pro he’s touted to be. It makes a great deal more sense if viewed from the perspective that Deckard is more or less imitating the kind of scumbag he’d just questioned, Zhora’s boss Taffey Lewis, and thinks on some childlike level that this will help him lull Zhora into a more vulnerable state. And just look at the boyish grin on his face when she exits the shower and throws him her towel. It’s not the grin of a man who’s about to murder this woman; it’s the grin of a boy who can’t believe a half-naked lady is showing him her backside and letting him touch her. Alas, she chops him in the throat first chance she gets, and would have easily killed him had other performing girls not entered the dressing room.

Even the way Deckard makes sexy time has a peculiar slant to it, although a lot of the weirdness originated in behind-the-scenes awkwardness. By most accounts, Harrison Ford and Sean Young didn’t get along during filming, and their lack of chemistry is pretty evident in their scenes together, but the resulting dynamic yields some noteworthy quirks. After Deckard displays his affection by melodramatically slamming her against a wall, they both behave like kids with crushes doing crude impressions of grown-ups in the heat of passion, even though they probably don’t yet understand what passion even is.





When Deckard arrives at the Bradbury building, he calls Sebastian’s apartment and Pris answers the phone. Deckard pretends to be an “old friend of J.F.’s”, but Pris hangs up immediately. This mini-charade, much like the one with Zhora, is completely ineffective and counterproductive; in both cases they give his prey too much time to decide how to deal with him. And lastly, when Deckard finds the origami and remembers Gaff’s final words, he nods his head, seemingly resigned to a truth he may have suspected all along.

In fact, one of the reasons why Blade Runner is so rewatchable is the “is he or isn’t he” question. The kinda-reveal about Deckard’s potential artificiality is brilliant if only for how it has spurned such a lasting debate. After all, how current is the discussion about which humans in Battlestar Galactica turned out to be cylons? Or how much do people still care that Tom Cruise was a clone in Oblivion? And if you’re a fan of the current incarnation of Westworld, you have to concede that the Deckard “controversy” left a pretty strong impression on Jonathan Nolan and company. And yes, some or all of the examples cited above may just be a series of shoddy screenwriting decisions, or not. What I know is that, for me, it’s no more difficult to relate to replicant Deckard than it is to relate to Hazel in Watership Down, Hellboy, Star Trek’s Data, or Frankenstein’s monster. They live in very different worlds and have very different experiences, but I root for them just the same.





WHY WE LOVE THEM

Over the years Blade Runner has inspired a huge amount of analysis and evaluation, and now that we can all breathe easier about 2049’s quality I suspect that the analysis will continue, especially since both films are just so much fun to examine. In this final section I’d like to just list a few final story elements, little details, and lasting impressions that make these movies so great.

In the original film the buildings are built so ludicrously tall that it’s likely many of them are enveloped by the excessive smog. The flying “spinner” cars are for those who supposedly want to stay above the traffic, but in most of the street scenes we see little to no vehicles, an oddity in LA. Some areas of the city are ridiculously crowded and yet, mere blocks away, tons of prime real estate lie empty due to the Offworld exodus. It’s funny, in a vaguely depressing manner, to realize that the city planners and political bigwigs of the future are just as inept as they are today.

Keeping in mind that I’ve bought into the Deckard-is-a-replicant scenario: Consider the fact that in keeping with the themes of extinction established by Dick’s novel wherein animals are rare and precious, both Deckard and K have prime memories involving horses. Whereas Philip K.’s androids dreamed of electric sheep (livestock), Deckard in the original film and K in 2049 fixate on visions involving horses (beasts of burden). At the end of 2049 K gives Deckard yet another horse totem, but this time it’s his daughter’s. Unlike the original film, where Gaff’s unicorn origami was a symbol of futility, in 2049 a similar totem is now a symbol of hope for the future.

Both films depict inventive variations on the Turing test, Alan Turing’s method of determining the extent to which machines might successfully mimic human behavior. In the original film the Voight-Kampff machine has been designed to detect empathy, implying that since replicants are so sophisticated Turing’s original methodology was not enough. 2049’s update is the “baseline”, a much harsher and rapid-fire version of the V-K that combines both the Turing test and the V-K’s eye scanner. This results in a strenuous and decidedly more oppressive exam that some replicants may likely fail even if they’re not “malfunctioning”.





Like its predecessor, 2049 may not be teeming with action scenes, but each one leaves a pretty strong impression. The San Diego scene is a rich piece of cyberpunk filmmaking, full of scavengers reminiscent of Gibson’s Lo Teks, oceans of mechanical junk, a child labor commune where the children pry out nickel to sell to spaceship builders, an excellent flying car crash and remote-controlled attack satellites.

The final confrontation at the sea wall where K rescues Deckard from a sinking spinner may not be quite as thrilling as Batty chasing Deckard in the original film, but it’s a stunning sequence nonetheless. The stark lighting, crashing waves and swelling score perfectly suit the no-nonsense brawl between K and Luv, and the elements come together so superbly you can feel the temperature drop.





In depicting a very different kind of singularity, both films make refreshingly astute observations about society’s (and particularly Hollywood’s) recurring fixation with victimhood and otherization. Specifically, the real threat to humanity in 2049 is not the emergence of replicants who can breed, but the knowledge that the entire human race is either responsible for (or an accessory to) the enslavement and frequent slaughter of an entirely new life form. So while the surface themes of bad humans vs. good replicants may satisfy the bloodlust of social justice stormtroopers and people who seek affirmation of their political views in everything (even director Villeneuve has acquiesced somewhat to online accusations of misogyny in the script, despite the fact that anyone with common sense can tell it’s not an anti-woman film), the symbolism here can function in a much broader sense, boiling down to the essentials of what most of us already know but hear less and less these days: Everybody who breathes air has the potential to become an oppressor, no matter their sex or skin color.

Despite all the bleakness, squalor and brutality on display, both films are strikingly compassionate at their respective cores. The darkness never overwhelms, even if if comes awfully close, and the optimism that peeks out feels fought for and earned, more authentic than the shiny, quasi-utopia of Star Trek, and not forced like that of most dystopian cinema.

And lastly, the box office failure of both films is most likely a blessing disguised as a curse. If a third film is never made (it’s a possibility, but a distant one), then Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 will surpass pretty much every major genre franchise in one key respect: It will remain a duology of rich, fantastic films not tainted by any subsequent, substandard entry. It will occupy the most satisfying and unashamed space on your shelf.

I personally feel that the existence of either film is a remarkable thing. Both films are masterpieces of cyberpunk, a genre many people haven’t even heard of, which would be accomplishment enough. The idea that not one but two films this visually dazzling and profound exist at all is nothing short of a small miracle.



Recommended Release: Blade Runner









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Christopher (8 months ago) Reply

I've always been a staunch, anti Dekard as replicant so your take is interesting to read. You *almost* turned me around ;)

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MRAllen134 (8 months ago) Reply

There are a couple of scenes, in the Director's cut, where Deckard's eyes reflect red light. This is a a trait you will see with some of the replicants, like Rachael.

In the book, Deckard is a human mercenary of sorts. Though, I still have to order the book. Scott's intention was for Deckard to be a replicant and he mentions this in at least one interview.

I think he is a replicant, in at least the first film. As for the second...

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Hot Fuzz (8 months ago) Reply

I have no doubt that Scott thinks he is a replicant, but I think he retconned that idea once they started filming based on the accounts I've read. It's an idea that occurred to him and he liked it.

I don't know whether he is or isn't, but I prefer the story if he isn't. Deckard should be a proxy for our struggle to identify a relationship with artificial intellegance. If he's also synthetic then what's the point of the story?

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KILLDOZR (8 months ago) Reply

I've always held the belief that Deckard was human. First, with the numbers game (Where's the fifth?) thing - well, obviously RACHAEL is the fifth. Deckard wasn't assigned Rachael. She was Gaff's job.

Second, the real giveaway for the Is He, Isn't He dilemma: Why would a replicant specifically designed to retire replicants be physically weaker than even standard pleasure models? There's even a visual clue in the film - Deckard wraps himself in a blanket while standing on his balcony at night. If Leon can put his hand into a vat of liquid nitrogen, why would Deckard need a blanky on the balcony?

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Correctinator (8 months ago) Reply

Rachael was never the 5th replicant. When Deckard gets his assignment she doesn't even know she's a replicant and therefore wouldn't need to be considered rogue. And Rachael wears a coat in the street scenes, and covers herself with a blanket when she sleeps, so your blanket theory doesn't work, either. And if Deckard was programmed to think he's human so he'd be easier to control, it's reasonable to assume he wouldn't be programmed with superhuman strength, which would probably spoil the illusion, don't you think?

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KILLDOZR (8 months ago) Reply

I don't think that theory holds up either. If Deckard doesn't know his memories are fake, why would he think it strange that he's as strong, or stronger than the things he's supposed to kill? They obviously put a lot of effort to get him trained for the job he needs to do, why risk everything by making him weak?

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Correctinator (8 months ago) Reply

Well, the whole point of programming him to think he's human would be to make sure he's not a threat to the humans that programmed him. For all we know the humans have a whole factory full of empty replicants like Deckard just ready to go every time somebody like Holden gets hurt. Dust one off, fill him full of memories that he's a great blade runner, and send him out. Leon and Batty were supposed to be some of the strongest types anyway. And I think that Deckard would probably be suspicious if it turned out he was a lot stronger than the humans around him. Buuuuuut... I think your comments are still reasonable, especially considering he gets his ass kicked by every single one of the reps. I don't know, it's all very messy. But the debate is fun.

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Genius (8 months ago) Reply

I never really thought of Deckard as being a replicant but it makes sense for the Blade Runner 2049 which has made me buy a 4k HDR Bluray player.

The AI is the most disturbing! She is programmed to love, or is she really falling in love, so is he just following a program. Joe. And that is really disturbing for the future where half of society is already lost to cell phones.
Sex Bots will be a thing next year.


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