Blade Runner 2049: No hope in the dystopia

Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers.

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book explores power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. (Handout)

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book explores power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. (Handout)

I went to see Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, with great anticipation. The original was so unique and although I was ambivalent about the film’s story and politics, many of its images have stayed in my mind for over 35 years. I have even used Blade Runner in my film studies classes. Yet, I left the theatre severely disappointed. Blade Runner 2049represents a failure of the imagination. The film is a series of vignettes strung together and is the definition of solipsism — steeped in narcissism, excessive self-absorption, isolation and regressive politics. 

The set up for the original film was brilliantly articulated by critic, Pauline Kael in a 1982 New Yorker review. She wrote that Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, “sets up the action with a crawl announcing the time is early in the twenty-first century and that a blade runner is a police officer who ‛retires’ — i.e., kills — ‛replicants,’ the powerful humanoids manufactured by genetic engineers.”

To varying degrees, the original Blade Runner anticipated numerous contemporary debates about artificial intelligence and robots. Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which so much of the original film was based, is a profoundly dystopian yet ultimately hopeful novel about human engagement with artificial life. 

The dystopia cityscape from Blade Runner 1982.

The dystopia cityscape from Blade Runner 1982.

Dick’s book can be despairing and hopeful at the same time, and it is this tension that actually turned the novel into a rich piece of science fiction. Because in spite of the many challenges they face, the characters actually learn both from each other and from the replicants. They learn that power corrupts and it doesn’t matter whether you are human or robot, but feeling emotions of varying sorts makes the difference between a meaningful life and one that has no meaning. 

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book makes profound comments on power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. Crucially missing from both the new and the original film, is some history and context. Why are we in such a mess? Why has society degenerated to such a degree?

As if the back story doesn’t matter, Blade Runner 2049 is not really set up at all. Audiences are shown that replicants are everywhere, integrated into society, that blade runner police are ubiquitous and that some of the older versions of the replicants are, as before, still unruly and therefore need to be killed. Society is dominated by a seemingly endless horde of people going nowhere in particular and buildings are rotting in the rain. 

The story is strung together

As the film opens, K, played by Ryan Gosling, a programmed blade runner, is asleep at the wheel of a vehicle he later calls a car, that is flying through the darkness towards an unknown destination. All of this is covered in the one of most expensive fog-and-mist scenes ever produced for a film (the production rings in at just over $150 million). 

The wasteland is interrupted when K reaches his destination and encounters a replicant who is targeted for death and who says before he is killed, “you don’t know what a miracle is.” The miracle he is referring to is clarified a bit later on in the film as the birth of a human child, which he witnessed. 

The entire film then circles around the search for the miracle child with K discovering that he himself might be human, then watching his hopes dashed but not before he meets his supposed father, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford who reprises his original role from 1982. 

Deckard and K develop a relationship and Deckard, of course, becomes a paternal figure to K. Deckard has apparently been living alone for an untold number of years in the remains of Las Vegas. In the portrayal of Vegas lies an implied critique of the reasons for the decay of humanity with Las Vegas representing all that is superficial and wrong about humans. The film does not explain this, it just alludes to the fall of humans as if, because of our past hedonism, we deserve to live in misery, a common theme in dystopian films. 

In this vision of the future, we repeat all the clichés of voyeurism that dominated the previous century. (Handout)

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Like the original, the story is unimportant and the approach is also derivative relying on the clichés of dystopias drawn from dozens of similar films. Blade Runner 2049 also suffers from a bad script and some odd stylistic filmmaking choices. It is essentially a series of events, strung together within a special effects universe, that Villeneuve thinks represents another world or another phase of history. Do we care about flying cars and exploding buildings and robots who fight each other shattering into pieces that fly off into the dark landscape? The fetish for special effects is killing the storytelling in Hollywood.

The opportunity for social commentary is lost. How does industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), maker of replicants, come to have such enormous power? He determines whether real humans should be killed — to preserve, what exactly, his business? His supremacy? The corporate entity over which Wallace rules is so sophisticated that it knows everything about everybody — a not so subtle variation on the original film and a banal reiteration of endless variations on the themes of absolute power and the human response to fascism. Niander Wallace’s actions may lead us to hate him but we don’t understand his motivations and even if his lack of motivation is a shallow critique of industrial capitalism - is it enough to make us care? 

All life leads to death

All the characters, even the holographic ones, live in isolated circumstances with no social encounters of any value. If we accept that it is 2049, then why are women portrayed as sex objects? Why do their nude bodies appear everywhere? In Villeneuve’s dystopia, sex is provided through an illusory construction of desires that are mechanical and mechanized. Yet, even if this were seen as a critique of the society Wallace and his fellow industrialists have invented, it remains a fact that we have screwed ourselves and our planet and how we decide to survive is to repeat all the clichés of voyeurism that dominated the previous century.

Blade Runner 2049 has successfully created a solipsistic universe - where humans are isolated from real feelings, celebrate selfishness with gusto and are completely involved with their own needs, so self-centred that it matters little whether reality or illusion are the guideposts. Either will do because both will lead you nowhere. The overarching principle behind this film is that life is ultimately going to lead to death and all people and robots have to do is survive all the crap in between. 

Here K, the male hero, suffers for the good of others as a consequence of a semi-religious conversion, which means he must make the ultimate sacrifice - his own life. Sound familiar? K’s death solves nothing - and brings no hope - unless the hope is hinting at a sequel. Perhaps Harrison Ford will play God in the next film. Kael suggests that the original Blade Runner was a victim of its own depiction of decay suggesting that it has “nothing to give to audiences,” and this, Villeneuve has succeeded in replicating. 

“Every civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce.” Blade Runner 2049 Trailer (Warner Bros. 2017)

Vancouver's Urban Conundrum: Let's Design Better Cities

Vancouver promotes itself as a modern if not postmodern city. Doug Coupland’s book, City of Glass, rightly captured the city’s look and aesthetic, which is dominated by high rises set against magnificent mountains and the ocean.

It’s an exciting place to live, profoundly multi-faceted and rich in diversity. It is a peaceful city with many contradictions, the downtown Eastside being the most visible example of the challenges faced by local governments struggling with the needs of the poor and underprivileged against a backdrop of incredible wealth and economic activity.

These contradictions are not unique to Vancouver. But there was always the hope that British Columbia and its largest city would find the measure of these problems and develop creative solutions to envision the city differently.

Over the last 16 years, I have been working on the development of a new campus for Emily Carr University of Art and Design. As a consequence, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined about the challenges of creatively engaging with the built environment in urban centres and with the ways in which cities like Vancouver are organized to both facilitate and impede the development of new areas of the city and the buildings we put into them.

The new campus is situated on what was the former site of the Finning Corp. Finning gifted 18 acres to four post-secondary institutions in the Vancouver area in 2001: University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia Institute of Technology and Emily Carr.

The gift was generous and was given with the understanding that the lands would be used for collaborative purposes by the four institutions. The initial vision was to build and then share facilities in a cross-disciplinary environment for the benefit of students coming from many different parts of the city.

An unrealized vision

This vision was never realized because the institutions never found the measure of each other’s strengths and never negotiated long enough to make something happen.

But Emily Carr decided to go ahead and build a new campus because of the four institutions, it owned no land and had leased its facilities over its 92-year history.

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Among all the challenges, three stand out: Raising $122.5 million to build the campus; developing the architectural plan for the facility and, finally, the City of Vancouver itself.

A summary of just some of the challenges: From permitting through to planning and engineering, differing interests, different personalities, sometimes ambiguous rules and regulations, conflict among people working at City Hall that led to many slowdowns, lack of clarity as to how to achieve the goals of the project, arbitrary interpretations of land use, conflict-laden discussions of transportation, parking and amenities.

Sometimes we were told something had to happen because “rules are rules.” Alternately we were told that time did not permit the depth of research required to make changes to existing site and district plans, some of which had been formulated years and decades earlier.

Inevitably, this lead to compromises, some good and some bad.

Perhaps the most challenging compromise was the grade upon which the building was erected. The costs of following the city plan were not only financial but also affected the design and look and feel of the building. Part of the interior of the building is now underground as a result of a decision that still today feels awkward and unnecessary.

The location of the campus means that it could link the western and eastern parts of the city through large open plazas and a permeable campus closely linked to the immediate communities in which it is situated.

My ideal scenario would see the area turn into a connector, allowing people to walk from the east side of the city to the downtown core through a series of connected walkways. None of this will be possible because at some point or other plans were developed that now, from all accounts, cannot and will not change.

The heart of the issue here is how cities respond to change. I don’t think that Vancouver is unique.

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Differing interests and contesting values especially around land use and housing are at the heart of debates among citizens, politicians and bureaucrats in all cities. The new campus was completed a few months ago and is magnificent, but all of the problems I have described still exist.

Design as a discipline

As someone who works in an art and design institution, I am amazed that some of the great value that design as a discipline brings to so many areas has not really infiltrated City Hall.

For example, how can new building sites be broken down into nodes and networks so that building mass is lighter and less imposing and landscaping is not just peripheral but integral and central?

Well, there are at least four different city departments that would have to get together and answer those types of questions. Aside from the challenges of scheduling, it is not possible to bring that many differing interests to the same table in an environment of engaged and productive discussion.

Design is a problem-solving discipline and one that, like engineering, seeks answers to difficult challenges. But if the context for problem-solving is unclear, then even the best designers will have difficulties in solving complex issues.

Cities have always struggled with the ups and downs of population growth, affordable housing and making space for industry and employers to actually set up their businesses.

From a historical point of view, and over the course of the 20th century in particular, there have always been tensions between urban needs and suburban growth, between areas that undergo gentrification and those that remain “undeveloped.”

In all this, no magic solutions have been found to rising costs and decreasing availability in the housing sector. And cities continue to develop their transportation systems without deeper questions being asked about sustainability or even capacity.

Some cities grow by design, but most grow incrementally and without a real understanding of the short and long-term implications of planning processes and outcomes and decisions that often ripple far beyond their initial assumptions.

It’s almost impossible to sustain a vision for a city without modelling, critiquing and examining the outcomes of decisions made by many different departments, which for most part operate in isolation from each other.

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As a consequence, cities have large bureaucracies with conflicting interests that often have nothing to do with good policy development or pragmatic planning. They are self-perpetuating machines. They set rules in one decade and hold onto the same rules in another, even when conditions on the ground have changed.

Imagine the difficulty for the thousands who work in city halls to engage in an ethnography of their cities and themselves; to research in an impartial manner how people live and what their aspirations are and to try and understand the flow and flux of their everyday lives in the context of policy development.

No one has the time for what appears to be an academic exercise and yet this knowledge should drive decision-making. What is described as consultation is more often than not an exercise in futility — not because anyone’s intentions are negative, but because real consultation takes more than a few hours on a Thursday evening.

The city as an onion

Cities are like onions without a core. The more you peel off, the more challenges there seem to be. And the beauty of this contradiction is that cities are resilient inventions, able to outlive poor government and poor governance, able to grow in response to the elasticity of the economy, full of culture and cultural activities, vibrant and in some cases genuinely open-minded.

The challenge is that cities and the people who live in them have different and sometimes unusual expectations. What’s more, cities are places that change by the day if not by the hour. Cities scramble to keep up, including Vancouver.

We need new models for the planning process. We need to think about cities as living organisms, and most of all we need to face the mistakes head on.

Vancouver may see itself as postmodern, but it has fallen far behind cities like Melbourne because in all the areas to tick off in discussing cities — road safety, traffic congestion, integrated transportation systems, varied approaches to the movement of people, (why isn’t there any light rail in Vancouver?), housing affordability, access to services, traffic management, cultural venues and streetscapes, and yes, the role of bikes — Vancouver is not in the game.

Its development and discussion of policy does not attract open debate and true dialogue. The control that City Hall exercises over development is more bureaucratic than progressive, and it seems to be pedalling backwards as the city accelerates.

Vancouver is indeed, at this moment in its history, a city of glass.

This article first appeared in The Conversation (Canadian version) and was reprinted in The Tyee