NOVEMBER 24, 2017
CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED and much hyped, Blade Runner 2049 has not been a box office success. Neither was its predecessor, Blade Runner, released in 1982 — although it became a cult classic, rescued by the rise of global cyberpunk, scholarly fascination with its cinematography, and the many revisions (US cut, director’s cut, final cut) that kept its enigmas alive. Given that the original Blade Runner spanned these three versions, a sequel would almost seem unnecessary, except for the fact that the industry and audiences seem to love sequels. Fredric Jameson once argued that science fiction does not offer us the future, but rather the present: it transforms our present — which is usually too overwhelming and caught up in personal obsessions to access directly — into another future’s past, so we can finally experience it. Given this logic, science fiction’s vocation is “to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future.” Perhaps the lack of interest in Blade Runner (combined with the sequels, prequels, off shoots, and kissing cousins — the constant updates — that litter all genres) reveals that we no longer need science fiction to perform these functions. Perhaps science fiction has lost its hold in a world in which imagined dystopias pale in comparison to a reality that we have no choice but to confront.
Perhaps. But, how, then, to account for the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, Black Mirror, and other science fiction/fantasy narratives? Why the lack of immediate interest in Blade Runner 2049, and why does it even matter? After all, shouldn’t a literary review of a film not consider its profitability, but rather focus on its cinematic qualities: its mise-en-scène, its cinematography, its affective pull, its character development and plot? We can, in fact, turn to these features of the film to ask: Why did a film with such a built-in audience fail to connect? And what would allow it to follow in the footsteps of its cult-classic progenitor?
Without doubt, there are brilliant moments in this film, which imagines the world 30 years after the original Blade Runner. The 1982 film followed the intersecting journeys of a group of rogue Nexus-6 replicants — who fled to Earth from their off-world slavery to seek a solution to their limited four-year life span from their “father,” Dr. Tyrell — and the blade runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who hunted them. As the film progresses, Deckard’s status as a human is called into question, and by the end, he flees with Rachael, Tyrell’s assistant, an experimental model who initially did not know she was a replicant. When BR2049 picks up the narrative, the Earth has been rescued from ecological disaster by the Wallace Corporation, which has also acquired the remains of the Tyrell Corporation. (The Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt after replicants were banned, following a series of violent slave rebellions.) The Wallace replicants, crucial to off-world colonization, are no longer rebellious because they have all been given false memories to treasure; a few of them, as blade runners, also hunt rogue Tyrell replicant Nexus-8s, who escaped and can live indefinitely. The Wallace Corporation also produces holographic female companions, Jois, to which blade runner Officer KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling) has become quite attached. The crisis emerges when K (as he’s called) discovers that Rachael, Deckard’s replicant love interest, has reproduced.
There are numerous evocative and thought-provoking sequences. The panoramic views of an endless exurban hell that frame the familiarly dystopian Los Angeles; the lighting cues that reflect and refract the original film’s intensely yellow- and blue-based color palettes; the visual glitches that register the film’s obsession with authenticity, memory, and digital “remakes.” There are clever sequences in which character and cinematography collide: the windows we peer through, which signal both constant surveillance and the fact that a wall between humans and replicants never truly existed; the snowflakes that K catches, which embody both the desire for and impossibility of individuality; the neon signs that dominate this future’s urban landscape and thus represent the predominance of capitalism — but that also advertise companies such as Atari and Pan Am that are long gone; the revelations regarding replicant programming that make us revisit earlier assumptions about insight, serendipity, and even love in BR2049 and its predecessors.
In fact, BR2049’s rewriting of love into Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Dr. Niander Wallace’s assassin-assistant, draws out the violent strains of coercive “affection” in the original films. Rachael’s seemingly unbidden “I love you” during Deckard’s assault takes on new meaning, juxtaposed not only against Luv’s murderous desire to be the best angel, but also Joi’s seemingly unbidden “I love you” in response to K’s gift of mobility and Elvis Presley’s glitchy “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The desires to love, to be loved, and to be special are brutally and ironically undermined. Is this the height of white, male individuality: being named a “joe” by a holograph named Joi? This brutal insight could almost compensate for the film’s relentless stereotypical “others” — from Russian-speaking toughs to African merchants, from Korean-language signs posts to Chinese bicyclers — that are used problematically to signify just how dystopian this world is. The figure of K as a white, male victim-hero depends on this menacing “multicultural” background, as well as the rewriting of slavery within the United States to a white-on-white affair (there are no nonwhite main characters). This of course, as media scholars Jian Chen and Adilifu Nama among others have argued, was central to the appeal of the originals.
Troubling racial and gender representations are among the many things that remain the same in this updated Blade Runner: unbridled commerce, which relies on slave labor; the belief that implanting false memories or a past within replicants facilitates greater control; the sacrifice of one white male for another (although the call to martyrdom in Blade Runner 2049, defined as the most human of actions, is actually the mission to murder another). For all the resonances between the two films, there also lies a yawning gap between them — one that perhaps explains the lack of enthusiasm for BR2049. If, as Jameson has argued, SF isn’t about the future but about the present, Blade Runner and BR2049 signal two very different presents, two very different stages within neoliberalism: its terrifying yet thrilling ascent and its terrifying and paranoid end. Blade Runner featured exceptional individual replicants — smarter, stronger, and more beautiful than their creators — who sought to live and thus to overcome hard limits and realities. It starred Deckard as the ramen-eating, rebel film noir hero, coerced into one last mission. BR2049 begins with a submissive, literally and constantly wounded, ramen-making, endlessly working white male K, who mistakenly believes that he is “special.” He is coaxed by an even more domesticated holographic female companion and by the “real” memories implanted within him by Dr. Ana Stelline, a white woman who creates memories for replicants while trapped in a “bubble” due to her auto-immune disease. K is treated affectionately by his female human superior police lieutenant — he’s a dog, a “good boy” — or taunted by his male human counterparts as a “skin job.”
These many differences reveal the disparities between the 1980s and the present. Instead of a bleak Japanified future (bleak for the United States, not the Japanese — not surprisingly Blade Runner inspired Japanese cyberpunk, such as Ghost in the Shell), we have a more “diverse” foreignness, with Russian, Chinese, and Korean signs and African markets. In the sequel’s opening scene, rather than witnessing a replicant shooting a blade runner who asks about his mother, we witness one being killed for the sake of a miraculous replicant mother. Instead of a “father,” Dr. Tyrell, killed by his rebellious offspring, we have a father, Dr. Wallace, who stabs his offspring because she cannot reproduce. Instead of a pet daughter figure, Rachael, we have a pet killer, Luv, who repeats the actions and words of her master. Instead of the desire to live, the desire to be real and thus to be able to rebel. Instead of gratuitous nudity, gratuitous violence. Instead of suspense, action-adventure. Instead of a test to determine humanity, one to determine replicant mental stability. Instead of origami, relentless surveillance. Instead of being traumatized by memories revealed to be false, being haunted by false memories that are real. The enigmas haunting the protagonists also seem polar opposites. Instead of the question: is Deckard a replicant? we ask: is KD6-3.7 of woman born — is he “joe”? The question moves from one of ontology — what is Deckard? — to one of procedure — what drives the unfolding plot? Is it K’s superior ability as a detective that finds Rachael’s serial number embedded in her bones and the picture of the child stashed in an old Russian cigarette case hidden within the piano, or do programmed memories determine his actions? Was Deckard programmed to fall in love with Rachael? Do we really know what’s real when memories are implanted?
The obsession with and nostalgia for what is real are what makes Blade Runner 2049 feel most dated. This question of the real — one that haunts film scholars everywhere as they mourn the loss of celluloid with its alleged physical tie to events that really happened — is arguably one that audience members brought up on digital media simply don’t care about. The old debates over whether digital photographs could be admitted as evidence, given that they could be manipulated, seem simply old. The more the film ponders the question of what’s real, the longer the film feels.
We’re told by Dr. Ana Stelline, whom K comes to believe is Rachael’s and Deckard’s daughter, that real memories differ from fake ones not because they are clearer, but rather because they evoke more intense emotions when they are recalled. This twinning of reality and affect seems symptomatic of a self-absorbed cinephilia that haunts the film, one that both wants to evoke emotional memories of not just the Blade Runner originals, but of all cinematic originals. Today, the relationship between authenticity, reality, falsity, and emotion, as Sarah Banet-Weiser has pointed out, is far more complex. Authenticity is now a brand, a trademark — a way to negotiate consumer capitalism. As Fan Yang has pointed out in her work on China, fakes are becoming “real” brands all the time. “Reality” has become the description of one of the most scripted forms of TV there is; reality TV is even franchised as “format TV.” BR2049’s obsession with what’s real — and its premise that a “natural” reproduction grounds rebellion — is a decoy: a way of avoiding the difficult question of what truly inspires political action, affection, and loyalty. Given the proliferation of artificial reproduction and surrogate births, the film’s obsession with being of woman born seems out of place at best. More pointedly, with the latest mass shootings and the rise of white supremacist male avenger, the wounded white male isn’t quite the sympathetic character he once was. What’s tired — or should become so — is the simultaneous invisibility of people of color as protagonists and their hyper-visibility as raced others, as well as the stereotypically castrating and maternal women characters, all needed to produce white male victim-hero. Or perhaps, more positively, Blade Runner exposes the cast of characters and stereotypes that this construct relies upon.
What might make Blade Runner 2049 stick, however, is its revelation that all snowflakes melt. It reveals the endless effort that it takes to make us feel special — the falsity of personal questions that make us feel desired and make us desire in turn. It reveals how the mechanisms of Joi are also those used to track us. It reveals that we are the commodity: Luv bitingly asks both Joi and K if they are satisfied with each other as Wallace products. Luv intervenes — she saves K when he is attacked by humans at the waste facility that San Diego County has become — so he can do his job. Most eerily, it reveals that our most intimate moments are those that are linked to others through corporations. Holographic images of others map onto the real bodies before us, so we can love them. Through “Big Data” our history and memories become intertwined with others; through this intertwining our future narrows as we become more predictable. Most presciently, perhaps, it reveals that the best situation here might be to become “joe”: average — the mass citizen that seems so lost to us now and thus so fetishized by every politician. To be an exceptional joe is to be hunted, dissected — to be subjected overtly to experimentation.
Will Blade Runner 2049 ever become a cult classic, and will it spawn more sequels? The fate of our hero and his actions, after all, aren’t yet settled, for the film’s ending is ambiguous: is K right that Ana is the “one” — or is his delivery of Deckard to her another programmed action? But the question of whether it will become a cult classic depends on the future — and on those in the future looking back to this present with either nostalgia or desire. What future would need to be in place for this to happen? One in which the film’s call for solidarity in the face of techno-corporate engineering and of plans to “ditch” the Earth to escape from ecological disaster resonates as a possibility. If Blade Runner became a belated classic — as its seemingly bleak Japanified future proved an inspiration for Japanese techno-Orientalism and Deckard a model of cyberpunk heroism — then perhaps BR2049 can also become one, one of solidarity and rebellion, of melted snowflakes that harden into hard, slick ice. Perhaps.