It’s easy to look at Blade Runner 2049’s stunning use of shadow and light and declare it a part of the scifi noir genre. But it’s really the film’s narrative and thematic execution that grounds it in the longstanding noir storytelling tradition.
Noir stories aren’t just depressing detective stories. They’re twisty investigations into the truths behind society’s facades, a concern that lies right at the heart of Denis Villeneuve’s film. Film noir projects tend to have plots that stretch across socioeconomic class divides; lead characters in noir films often enjoy a status that lets them walk through those adjacent but oppositional worlds. Blade Runner 2049 puts humans and genetically-engineered replicants on either side of that class divide.
The leading men and women in noir works constantly get reminded of their outlier status as they move back and forth between the overworld and the underground. As a replicant police officer, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K fits the mold of other film noir protagonists. He gets called a skin job by other human cops and gets derided for hunting down his own kind in the opening encounter with Sapper Morton. Wherever he goes, he’s on the fringe.
Like Jake Gittes in Chinatown or Holly Martins in The Third Man, K has enough access to dig around in the dirt of other people’s lives, but lacks the social capital to rise above his own miserable lot in life. He finds solace in his relationship with his AI companion Joi, which plugs into another noir genre convention. Sexual desire across class lines is commonly associated with film noir and that motif runs all throughout Blade Runner 2049. It’s primarily present in K and Joi’s dynamic, which echoes back to Deckard and Rachael’s verboten flirtation from the original Blade Runner. When K trysts with a sex worker who acts as a stand-in for Joi, it’s a poignant reminder of how he can’t have what he wants.
Noir heroes often face rich, powerful, and politically connected antagonists who control vast swaths of the setting where the story happens. In Blade Runner 2049, Jared Leto’s Wallace fits the archetype and his mission to hunt down the baby born from replicant Rachael hooks into another familiar plot device in the noir genre, the illegitimate child. In the 1940s and 1950s, when the foundational texts of noir were created, having a child out of wedlock was a scandal that could ruin lives. The stigma grew exponentially when a baby came from a coupling of bodies from different social castes. As social mores changed, that stigma lessened. By setting his modern-day noir Brick in a high school, Rian Johnson was able to put this old-school genre convention in a place where it still had the weight of scandal. The creators of Blade Runner 2049 pull a similar trick, where the baby that shouldn’t exist comes from parents that shouldn’t even have been able to conceive.
In the run-up to release, it felt like Blade Runner 2049 itself might wind up as a kind of illegitimate child, born of circumstances that displeased people who loved Ridley Scott’s 1982 original. But, as a follow-up to a beloved movie from decades ago, Blade Runner 2049 mostly succeeds by building strong skeleton of noir conventions that support the focus on mood and idiosyncrasy. Noir movies always venture into places where morality is shifting and human nature gets exposed in its rawest forms, and Blade Runner 2049 shows how the template probably won’t ever go out of style.