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)

Reflections on Disciplines

This short piece is adapted from a lecture I gave some years ago about the way disciplines, in particular film studies, develop into departments within universities. How do disciplines stay alive and remain current and connected to the social and historical context of which they are a part? How do they grow and how and why do they often stagnate?

Disciplines or areas of study and research are in large measure created and sustained by the institutions within which they are taught. To my mind when I say that, I am presuming that a discipline cannot be taught without also being researched, even if that research consists of no more than just keeping up with the production of others in the field.

Film Studies for example, has always been a hybrid of many different disciplines. This, as we shall see, has had both negative and positive results sometimes leading to an expansion of the discipline, other times leading to a severe contraction. Film is both an object of study and a creative discipline although there is a tendency to separate production from theory.

The construction of a discipline is dependent upon a set of processes which are located in the structure, politics and history of institutions. This may seem obvious, but over time the processes which have produced that history are often lost from view. The struggle through which that history has been forged recedes into the background. There have been many efforts over the last 35 years or so to build the study of film into a coherent and recognizable as well as acceptable discipline. Yet, because institutions drive towards discursive sameness (and this need not be a negative characteristic) as a means of giving disciplines credibility for teaching and research purposes, the often complex and bumpy road which has been followed doesn't appear to be a part of the discipline itself.

In concrete terms it would be unusual for a university film department to offer students a history of its own construction because that might entail rethinking the very purpose of the department itself. Furthermore, questions as to how one discourse, say in film theory, has become more privileged than another, go right to the heart of how a consensus has been built in the first place. Even, for example, the presumption that film history needs to be taught in film departments, suggests a particular theoretical schema, one that needs to be foregrounded and not simply assumed.

The internal cohesion of a discipline is driven by the demands of institutions, demands which are more often than not situated in the very language of the institutions themselves. How do the conditions of knowledge production affect the goals of disciplinary development?

The daily practice of film scholarship is provided with meaning by the community of researchers and teachers who together participate in constituting, creating and maintaining it. That community, however heterogeneous, will inevitably search for, and then fix upon a certain set of primary ideas which it feels 'represent' the discipline (a canon). The creation of a specific and sometimes very powerful discourse to re-enforce the strength of that approach is perhaps unavoidable. What needs to be discussed are the assumptions which have produced that discourse and the politics which have governed the choices that have shaped the discipline.

Sometimes, the environment of universities for example tends to militate against that happening. And so students are faced, as they are in many other disciplines, with an area called film studies which of necessity presents itself as already constituted. Again, this is perhaps unavoidable, but what interests me is what is lost in the process and how institutionalization has created pedagogical and research models to support certain discourses over others.

Cinema Studies has, in a short period of time, achieved what seemed very remote in the early 1970's. There are at present many teachers of cinema and an extraordinary proliferation of film departments at both the university and college level, particularly in North America. The discipline has been fragmented into a variety of specialties with each having an internal cohesion undreamed of during the early period of disciplinary 'construction'.

The heterogeneity of approaches which characterizes the study of film, has a great deal to do with what critical theorists like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno recognized in the 1930's. Film was then seen as the cutting edge of twentieth century culture, the practical manifestation of all that was wrong and right about the effects of new technologies upon art and audiences. If we were to reconstruct the arguments of that period we would find that the examination of film was heavily affected by debates in psychoanalysis and linguistics, as well as in literary criticism and the arts. Those debates were not seen as an infringement on the already defined territory of film studies, rather, it was if new technologies like film needed those debates and drifted inevitably towards the ideas which those debates initiated and developed.

Ironically, if film represented that sphere, that cross-section of interests which reflected its position as a new technology, it also pointed the way to a re-evaluation of the critical and theoretical enterprise in the arts. Its particular organization of meaning, its effective collapse of signifier and signified, its astonishing naturalization of the difference between the real and representation, all of these characteristics meant that the study of film could not proceed along conventional lines.

It is interesting to note that in each successive phase in the development of film studies, "other" disciplines have been used, as if the difficulty of finding a strategy to analyse film, meant that some kind of master code had to be found elsewhere. But as it turns out, this elsewhere suggests a division between disciplines and other areas which film studies has never been able to sustain. Film as poem, film as novel, film as text, images as sentences, as words, as frames. Film as painting, as music. Film and television, film in opposition to television and so on. I won't even begin to raise all of the comparisons with photography, the presumed interdependence, photographic metaphors, the fact that film as movement, images in movement, have always been seen in the light of images as still, photographic stills.

What we call film studies has never been able to bare its soul, to reveal, beneath of all of the comparisons, precisely that uniqueness which might distinguish it from the interlopers who camouflage it. I would suggest that film studies has been quite fortunate, because that essence just doesn't exist, and both the history of the 'discipline' and the manner in which films produce meaning, points towards the interdisciplinary as the context in which definitions of the field can best be worked out. Problems remain of course because every discipline has its own history, its own set of debates, often, its own language. But this doesn't in any way devalue the process of borrowing, albeit that more care needs to be taken with the use of other disciplines, including a more profound recognition of their boundaries and assumptions.