Hacking It: “Blade Runner 2049”




A WOMAN — a vision of liberty yet constrained, made of light and lighting the way — undergoes some unknown shock. The feed weakens; the read skips; the glitch tells us the transmission is imperfect, an indication of a deeper problem and a portent of a coming crisis. The apparition is Joi (Ana de Armas), the hologram girlfriend of the blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049. Thanks to an “anniversary” gift, a hard drive-projector hybrid, Joi can roam anywhere in the world, but she’s nonetheless confined by proximity to her owner-boyfriend’s device. Her visual integrity depends, alas, on the strength of the information-bearing signal. Sharp enough to dislike Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with its always evaporating distinctions between creator and creation, Joi herself functions as a kind of oracle, the interface between the narrative world of Blade Runner 2049 and the motivations of its creators.

But this woman-oracle trafficking between the film and its production is not just Joi, or, in any case, not Joi first. We are introduced to BR2049’s major preoccupations and stylistic tendencies by the goddess Columbia, the final logo to appear in the roll of the film’s financiers. And, as in BR2049, where women exist almost exclusively for the pleasures and purposes of men and corporations, the goddess serves a yet higher power: her parent company, Sony Pictures.

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Blade Runner 2049 has already occasioned no shortage of meditations on its fidelity to its forebear — the 1982 Ridley Scott classic — and measures of their relative quality. Alissa Wilkinson at Vox puts the matter succinctly, suggesting that the new movie is a replicant of the first: good, but not as good as the original. Comparative evaluation is appropriate, often cleverly done, and, it seems, thoroughly invited by the makers of the new movie.

Conceiving of the movie as a “replicant” leads us to consider where BR2049 fits into the current taxonomy of franchises. It’s not a reboot and, as the latest manifestation of an array of Blade Runner intellectual property (IP) over the past 35 years, it’s more than a mere sequel. Instead, BR2049 looks like a special instance of a recent phenomenon: the ever-expanding cinematic universes that extend along multiple vectors and involve increasingly intricate and interconnected narratives and means of promotion. The question, then, is why now? Why would Sony, in splitting a more than $150 million budget with Alcon Entertainment, decide to invest so heavily and insistently in IP and the replicant analogy it occasions? The timing, I’d suggest, isn’t accidental. Rather, it’s a function of a studio’s attempts to contain, move beyond, and ultimately capitalize on calamity.

Our memories of Hollywood catastrophe recede ever more quickly with the unremitting revelations of the present: the Weinstein debacle (itself only an exclamation point on a decades-long misery) is the latest in a long history of industry crises that need redress and invite exploitation. So we might be forgiven for having already forgotten the magnitude of the Sony hack.

In 2014, just shy of Thanksgiving, a group by the name of “Guardians of Peace,” angry with Sony Pictures’s decision to release Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s The Interview, dumped a massive trove of the studio’s confidential documents on the web and wiped many of their servers clean. Co-chairperson Amy Pascal lost her job after, among other things, it was revealed that she exchanged racist jokes with producer Scott Rudin about Obama’s movie preferences. More generally, as Kim Zetter of Wired memorably put it, the attack “brought the entertainment giant to its knees.” In response to two questions from the Harvard Business Review’s editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius, Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, offered a response that deserves to be understood as an articulation of the company’s strategy going forward:

Have your personal priorities changed?

This is going to sound naive, but the crisis demonstrated how overreliant we are on e-mail and the network. We should wean ourselves off it. Not that we have to walk around with abacuses, but nonetheless.

Has Sony Pictures managed to preserve its culture?

You can’t prepare for a black swan event. It just happens. But this did bring the place together. It forced everybody to work closely in a way that they hadn’t in the past. And they liked that experience. I got to meet a lot of people I normally wouldn’t meet and hear their concerns. We’re trying to wrestle now with how to preserve all that.

Lynton describes the hack as damaging in one obvious respect but a boon in another, and they both derive from a fantasy of the analog: taking things offline, out of the realm of the digital, not only keeps information safer but also brings people together in unmediated contact. Privacy and the productive pleasure of community are, it would seem, the Sony dream in the wake of the data nightmare.

Just after the hack’s immediate fallout, the movie that became Blade Runner 2049 shifted gears drastically. Ridley Scott left the director’s chair and entered the front office as an executive producer, and Denis Villeneuve was brought in to direct. By the time the movie was greenlit in January 2016, with Gosling and others signed on, Sony was on board for half of the movie’s budget. It would be among Sony’s first blockbusters of the post-hack era, and a special one at that: unlike Ghostbusters and Spider-Man: Homecoming, themselves movies part of storied franchises, Blade Runner 2049 would double as a bid for Academy Awards. It would have to sell tickets to recoup expenses, while also accruing industry prestige and artistic plaudits. The rabbit-duck split between IP and art manifested most immediately in the date of its release, October 6, at the fuzzy border between popcorn and Oscar seasons. Blade Runner 2049, it was hoped, would be that unicorn, the Indian summer blockbuster.

Unicorns — here, Deckard’s from the original “Blade Runner” — are hard to come by

This seems to be a plausible reason why, although Alcon owned the rights to the franchise and had a longstanding distribution deal with Warner Bros., Sony put its stamp on all aspects of the movie, and insistently so. Before towering Jois line the streets of the film’s Los Angeles, “SONY” is the first sky-high fluorescent blue projection we see. The other brands appearing in that early tableau — Coca-Cola and, slightly later, Atari — are instructive by contrast, indicating the degree to which Sony claimed title to the production. Neither company was arbitrarily chosen, as both harken back to the early 1980s and the milieu of the original Blade Runner. In 1982, the year of Scott’s movie, Coca-Cola sold Columbia Pictures to Sony, an early sign of the end of the ’70s era of conglomeration (think of Kinney National’s purchase of Warner Bros., or Seagram’s acquisition of Universal) and the rise of communications synergy (e.g., Time Warner and Comcast NBC Universal). Conversely, by 1985, in response to the video game crash of 1983, Warner Communications had divested all ownership of Atari, Inc. In a very real sense, then, the Coke can contains the origin of the entity that would bring BR2049 to life. And in the Atari asymptote, we find the sign of Warner Bros. at a loss. This concentrated pictorial drama of dispossession and attainment demonstrates the degree to which Sony endeavored to lay claim to its property.

This will-to-ownership extended to BR2049’s marketing and promotion. In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott griped:

The studio has been unusually insistent in its pleas to critics not to reveal plot points. That’s fair enough, but it’s also evidence of how imaginatively impoverished big-budget movies have become. Like any great movie, Mr. Scott’s “Blade Runner” cannot be spoiled. It repays repeated viewing because its mysteries are too deep to be solved and don’t depend on the sequence of events.

A. O. Scott is duly miffed by the artificial constraints placed on his craft, but in contemporary Hollywood, intellectual property has value like never before. The rainbow of subsidiary rights has long been a boon to the studios, going back to department store tie-ins and later, the broadcasting of features on television. It intensified during the early blockbuster era with promotional tie-ins and the proliferation of VHS. But it’s not hard to see, through the development of comic universes, the penchant for the reboot, and the multitude of distribution channels and marketing opportunities, that intellectual property matters to an unprecedented degree. As Hollywood scholar J. D. Connor writes, “The total library, stocked with ‘fresh facts’ and instantly available: this has been a remarkably durable commercial utopia. The digital library promises to make sense of the convergent flux of filmmaking practices, corporate mythologies, and audience involvements; it promises to show business as it is right now.” For Connor, the libraries depicted in contemporary movies like The Incredible Hulk, The Punisher, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are the visual expression of this property rights utopia.

But along with the promise of the digital library’s treasures comes the threat of its failure. The hack, with its information leakage and loss, is that failure at its most catastrophic.

Unsurprisingly, then, BR2049 is fundamentally a story about the aftermath of just such a disaster. The movie calls it the Blackout, the weeklong moment of digital darkness that marked an epochal shift. We might say that the movie begins with two acts of excavation from this abyss: first, the recovery of the bones of a deceased replicant and, more explicitly still, a trip into the Wallace Company’s archive. There the movie introduces us to the value of the franchise, where we hear Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford’s) voice for the first time. The data is damaged, though, and we only get a snippet. Throughout, records and images, however valuable and however old or new, are compromised, and we are never allowed to forget it. Every glitch — every interrupted transmission, every shaky memory — is a reminder of the terrifying fragility of information.

It is for this reason that the movie, following Lynton’s praise of the analog, depends so thoroughly on the very old but very stable platform of paper. As Coco (David Dastmalchian), the forensics scientist, remarks, “It’s funny it’s only paper that lasts.” And yet it’s difficult not to hear a humorous respect for the foundations of so many major movies: print literature. Ever since the invention of movie rights by the Townsend Amendment to the Copyright Act in 1912, Hollywood studios have depended on the market stability and prestige of “pre-sold” properties, including comic books, young adult fiction, and, in Blade Runner’s case, genre fiction (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968]).

“Your story isn’t over yet,” says Joi in the trailer of “BR2049.” “There’s still a page left.”

Paper and books also point to the expositional work done by the opening title screen, an incredibly full page of text that lays the groundwork for all that follows. There, in simple white type, BR2049 explains its backstory and signals the necessary interpretive approach. The Blackout created the possibility of market consolidation (Silicon Valley’s mantra of disruption, turned up to 11), and Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a cyborg CEO, achieved dominance by buying the Tyrell Corporation’s original replicant technology and improving on it, up to a point. Wallace seeks to recover his fugitive data: the child of Deckard and the replicant Rachael (Sean Young). In so doing, he hopes to locate the elusive key to infinite growth: when replicants are mother-born, they can reproduce on their own, and thereby make more not-quite-human workers for the colonizing of new worlds than a factory ever could.

It’s hard to imagine a more obvious expression of the dream of intellectual property — the concept of licensing allows a work to reproduce (i.e., be sold to various enterprises for prescribed uses) so long as it is fertile (useful; lucrative). These are the dreams upon which cinematic universes are built. [1] Yet the sinister silliness of Leto’s Wallace suggests that, in its zeal to tell its story, Sony created a caricature of itself. In this regard, one of Wallace’s dead-eyed prophecies is particularly worth lingering on. While inspecting his newly made female replicant (Sallie Harmsen), the industrialist proudly describes how his creations have made possible the human population (i.e., colonial domination) of nine worlds. But his mood shifts and he testily proclaims, “A child can count to nine on his fingers … we should own the stars!” And after grabbing the replicant’s crotch and ruing the failure of the “dead space between the stars,” he slices open her would-be womb and leaves her to die. Perhaps the less said about this mess the better, but Sony perhaps said more than it knew in showing how the whole wretched pursuit of the cinematic universe is built on the exploited and disposed bodies of women actors.

Tyrell is to Wallace Corp as Warner Bros. is to Sony Corp

Villeneuve, knowing so much was at stake, has played the part of company man, and apparently well enough from Sony’s perspective. As Deadline Hollywood reported on September 27, the director has begun talks with the company to direct the erstwhile Angelina Jolie project Cleopatra, the former Pascal-Rudin movie that, thanks to the hack, gave us Rudin’s famous burn of Jolie as a “minimally talented spoiled brat.” That is to say, Villeneuve has acquitted himself well enough to be seen as trustworthy enough: he has hacked it … for now.

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To think of Blade Runner 2049 as a narrativized bundle of subsidiary rights, however, only gets at part of the story. Villeneuve and his team believe in their art as art; this is evident from the loving and terrifying metacinematic sequence in which Wallace’s angel of death Luv, played with unnerving aplomb by Sylvia Hoeks, drops bombs through a viewfinder on armed scavengers while having her nails done. Or when drones piloted by K track and pan as though they were moved by Murnau. If, from Sony’s vantage, recalled information is commodifiable data, for the people making the movie, it’s memory, the very Lockean stuff that makes us men and not mere matter. Ryan Gosling puts the matter most concretely: “What adds to the surrealness of [the movie] is that the original film is baked into your memory. So as you start to unravel the idea of memory, in general, Denis and I just kept finding ourselves back to the original, which was so much a part of our early memories.” Gosling describes how important the 1982 film was to his and Villeneuve’s conceptions of themselves, as people and, more specifically, as filmmakers. From there, it’s just a short step to suppose that, if memory is what makes humans, for the craftspeople in front of and behind the camera, the primacy of the memory of art is what makes them artists, people of special talent and unique sensibility, different from the scores of men and women who’d take their jobs in a heartbeat.

In the film, K’s great heartbreak stems from having learned that his most formative memory — of hiding his own carved toy horse, his Blade Runner — was not his own, and that, as a result, he is no person after all. That memory, in fact, belongs to Deckard and Rachael’s daughter, Dr. Ana Stelline (Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary; Stelline, starlike). BR2049 introduces Stelline earlier as the most successful maker of memories. That success, as K divines, depends on the fact of their having been actually experienced at some point (as the cult of experience since Whitman demands). “What makes your memories so authentic?” K asks Dr. Ana Stelline; she replies, “There’s part of the artist in all works.” That is, the makers of future art-memories depend on the art-memories recalled. And Stelline, as the memory-artist, prizes her independence, compromised though it is by the transparent cage in which she lives. She adamantly tells K that she is Wallace’s subcontractor, not his employee (and, I would add, not his replicant: not his child: not his slave). “Wallace tried to buy me out, but I take my freedom where I can get it.” Subcontracting is an odd form of freedom, except when it is understood as the freedom to contract in the first place. And it’s hard not to hear Villeneuve and company speaking collectively here in their willful submission to another corporation, Sony Pictures.

Just shy of a year ago, I wrote in these webpages on Arrival, and how Villeneuve and his co-workers’ approach to the movie aligned ideally with that of Paramount Pictures: how Arrival, as a fantasy of perfect communication, lent itself equally well to allegorical readings of, on the one hand, humanist education and the interchange between disciplines, and, on the other, of the language of cinema and the interchange between individual artists and the studio that employs them. Blade Runner 2049 — also directed by Villeneuve, likewise based on an adaptation of literary sci-fi — presents us with the opportunity for a natural commutation test, a chance to account for differences in attitude and meaning that might arise from the different studios.

Villeneuve staged the final scene of BR2049 almost exactly as he presented the most reflexive moment in Arrival, but with a crucial twist. Recall that, in Arrival, Amy Adams’s Dr. Louise Banks communicates with the Heptapods through a sheet of glass, and that she achieves her competency in the Heptapod logogrammatic language — metaphors for cinematic images — when she finally crosses the clear boundary. This, I suggested, portrayed a sympathetic alignment of screenwriter and director with production company.

BR2049 ends with Stelline behind the same glass, cut off from the world under the pretense of an immunodeficiency. Thus, when Deckard enters her workspace — we might as well call it her studio — he sees her, the maker of memories — a ready image of the filmmaker. But that isn’t the whole picture. Stelline is both artist and art. She is both intellectual property — the ultimate intellectual property, the humanish commodity that can reproduce itself without becoming the thing it is not (really human) — and the art object conceived in love by Deckard and Rachael, and sent out in the world, only to remain mediated (seen behind glass). IP, artwork; Sony, Villeneuve: the tension is insoluble, and for that reason Deckard never does cross the threshold — not yet, anyway. “The world is built on a wall that separates kinds,” Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi tells K earlier in her office, as she stares out an enormous window. Most immediately, she means the division between human and replicant. But the wall is now more than a political metaphor or a police tactic; it is an insuperable divide between perhaps incompatible beliefs. And so the last image we see is Deckard’s hand on the glass. That is to say, the tension endures until the movie’s final glitch, an abrupt cut, at which point, blackout.

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Jordan Brower is a lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University. His academic writing can be found at https://harvard.academia.edu/JordanBrower.

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[1] The second and last time Sony presents its logo, it’s in an archive of another kind: the pristine interior of a Vegas casino, where it adorns a neo-jukebox playing Frank Sinatra. Old Blue Eyes, singing “One for My Baby,” says more than he knew when he croons, “We’re drinkin’, my friend, to the end of a brief episode,” and we know that, now, a brief episode always predicts another. Speculation about a BR2049 follow-up is, naturally, well underway.


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