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)

STEM TO STEAM

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) has been in the news for the last two years. The STEM initiative grew from concerns in the United States and elsewhere about the decline in student interest in what are perceived to be key areas of study for 21st century economies. Underlying these policy discussions are concerns about the effectiveness of K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions and their ability to meet the needs of contemporary society. Here is how the California Department of Education explains the initiative:

STEM education is a sequence of courses or program of study that prepares students, including underrepresented groups:

•       for successful employment, post-secondary education, or both that require different and more technically sophisticated skills including the application of mathematics and science skills and concepts, and

•       to be competent, capable citizens in our technology-dependent, democratic society. 

These goals have been fundamental to most forms of education and most stages of learning in western countries for over fifty years. There is nothing new here other than the acronym. It is not an accident that most schools in the K-12 and post-secondary system, have well developed science, technology and mathematics departments or faculties. These areas have always been strongly supported. In contrast, teachers and learners in the humanities and creative areas like the visual arts and music have always struggled with less dollars and even less public concern.

In response, an important and strategically well thought out campaign has been developed to shift STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics).

Initially, I was a supporter of the initiative. After all, government policy in education in Western democracies purposely leaves out the creative process, art, music and the humanities in general. STEAM was developed to sensitize policymakers to the diversity and complexity of learning, and to the variety of ways in which students learn.

Stephen Beal, the President of the California College of the Arts in San Francisco summarizes the discussion in the following way:

But if you dig a little deeper you will realize that art and science are not polar opposites. That there are far more commonalities than there are differences. Art and science are, in the words of astronaut Mae Jamison, "manifestations of the same thing. They are avatars of human creativity."

Creativity. Just one thing the disciplines share. Here are some other words that resonate for both fields: research, observation, experimentation, discovery, collaboration, and innovation.

Then why does this art-science dichotomy persist? Human history shows us that artistic and cultural upheavals have always gone hand-in-hand with scientific and technological advances. (Turn STEM to STEAM: Why Science Needs the Arts Huffington Post, June 11, 2013 )

Beal is right and to varying degrees parents in particular know that their children need the diversity that cross-disciplinary approaches encourage. Intuitively all of these divisions between the sciences and the arts just don’t feel right since for the most part culture in all its manifestations and institutional forms is an integral part of the life of communities. “There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million in 2011).” The figures for online attendance at museums are also in the hundreds of millions.

However, something about the STEM to STEAM discussion feels stale. In the first place, it is not a new debate but one that has been raging for decades. Secondly, the new technologies now transforming commerce, science and the arts are by their very nature integrated and integrative. The umbilical cord linking all of these practices and disciplines is design, which is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

In other words, our culture, economy and daily practices have moved on and are now far beyond the divisions that STEM and STEAM suggest and promote. In fact, both acronyms suggest disagreements that would have made it impossible for companies like Amazon and Apple to survive. Videogames by their very nature utilize not only the sciences but also mathematics and engineering and art. Policymakers may be about twenty years behind in this debate, but daily life in the digital and Internet age long ago surpassed the simple divisions built into these acronyms.  

Rather and in my opinion more importantly, how can educational institutions and teaching practices catch up to learners who will just as easily make a YouTube instructional video about STEM, as they will a fictional video about vampires? Or, combining the computer sciences, technological knowhow and culture produce games, hybrid experiments in virtual worlds and invent new ways of using 3D printing in manufacturing?

It is an irony that most of the technologies developed in Silicon Valley and in fact, even the term start-up, grew from ideas that sometimes intuitively and other times quite deliberately understood and anticipated cultural needs and trends. Behind the debate about STEM and STEAM, there remains a 19th century notion that what we teach needs to reflect where we think our society is going both culturally and economically. It would be better if we examined how we got to this stage and even better if we would recognize that there is no clear formula to producing the contexts within which creativity and learning experiences can flourish in any discipline.

Acronyms like STEM or STEAM suggest formulas and simple ways of arriving at mutually agreed upon destinations. Schools then become funnels for preconceived ideas and programs that supposedly will solve issues of employment, economics and citizenship. These things can happen but only if we recognize that learning is now dominated by multi-modal forms of communications and interaction. More happens informally than formally. We finally have permeable spaces and disciplines will have a much harder time hiding away from the mainstream.

Learning has always been about relationships and at present those relationships extend far beyond the halls of academe or a high school. In a sense, and from a cultural point of view, we have arrived at a point of convergence between the general culture and the culture of learning. In this new environment, we need new models and new ways of prototyping different approaches to learning. STEM to STEAM, while not unimportant is a debate from another era.