Science Fiction has a way of questioning our position in the world: by imagining the future we imagine the present. In this piece Jozef Doyle assesses the refraction of late capitalist society through Blade Runner 2019 and 2049.
Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 both depict an existence saturated in intensified forms of struggle; for a sense of self, for belonging, for love, for acceptance. While Blade Runner had the advantage of being the progenitor of neo-noir narratives, 2049 presents itself amid a far larger corpus of academic, cinematic and philosophic critique, causing the questions it raises to be scrutinized more thoroughly than its predecessor – not least for the fact that 2049 makes some of the same mistakes for which Blade Runner was justly criticised.
For the most part, films have hitherto only interpreted dystopia in various ways; the point ought to be to avoid it. In engaging with a ruined Earth or an overtly oppressive regime, filmmakers are able to heighten an audience’s awareness of climate change or dictatorial tendencies they themselves may experience. The sense of catharsis experienced when the hero defeats evil can be accompanied, if the film and viewer both are attentive, by questions about how that evil was allowed to grow, and why there weren’t more heroes standing against it.
Blade Runner (2019)
In Blade Runner (1982) director Ridley Scott was able to deploy state of the art cinematic and visual techniques to create the now ubiquitous techno-dystopian landscape – squalor and low-level technological advancement at ground level next to buildings as large as cities with flying cars and on-demand hedonism – as the backdrop to a narrative that would have been more at home in a 1940s noir movie.
The protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is coerced into returning to his old job working with the Los Angeles police force and is set to hunting down a series of outlaws. As he visits a lead, he is introduced to Rachel (Sean Young) the assistant to Tyrell, (Joe Turkel) for whom the outlaws once worked. Deckard and Rachel become emotionally connected and, once Deckard completes his mission, it’s implied they run away together. The plot is trope-heavy, reliant on the audience’s prior exposure to film noir plot contrivances, but the backdrop and delivery of that plot are essential in realising the value of Blade Runner’s message. The outlaws Deckard is tasked to hunt down are replicants, highly developed artificial humanoids who had escaped from the tasks they were conceived and built to perform. His mission is to “retire” them – futurespeak for kill – and Tyrell Corporation built the replicants as well as put them to work. Rachel herself is a replicant, though she doesn’t realise until late in the film; Tyrell created her with implanted memories as an experiment to see whether the pretence of humanity would prevent disobedience. Further, as Deckard meets and defeats each rogue replicant, he is forced to face their characters as individuals rather than machines, culminating in the death of the rogue replicant leader, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), whose last words are:
“I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe…
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark
Near the Tannhäuser Gates.
All those… moments… will be lost in time,
Like tears… in… rain.
Time… to die…”
Here and throughout the film the audience are led to question both the means by which Deckard is able correctly to identify replicants, and the reason for doing so in the first place. Deckard shares a moment of deep poignancy with Roy who, in describing the transitory nature of his own experiences, forces Deckard and by extension the audience, to wonder whether a short life lived free from bondage would be better than a secure life under the thumb of a corporate entity or police force taskmaster, who each demand the lives of their workers to be forfeit if necessary. The learning of this lesson prompts Deckard to flee with Rachel, and the film closes – depending on the version being watched – on them escaping the city entirely.
Blade Runner (2049)
In Denis Villeneuve’s 2049, the audience is returned to Los Angeles thirty years after the death of Tyrell at the hands of Roy, along with the collapse of Tyrell’s corporate empire. In a climate badly damaged and without the resource-gathering power of Tyrell’s enslaved replicant workforce, the world sat on the edge of starvation until a new industrialist, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) developed farming solutions that prevented general ruin.
Wallace bought the remains of Tyrell’s business and now controls the market for AI-based holographic companions as well as the production of improved replicant workers. This time, they all have implanted memories yet are all aware of their memory’s artificiality; they’re given them as emotional anchors to prevent disobedience rather than veils to hide their true nature.
The audience is introduced to K (Ryan Gosling) who, in a lethal encounter on a protein farm with Sapper, (Dave Bautista) one of the final rogue replicants from Deckard’s era, is revealed to be the newest generation of blade runners, and is himself a replicant. Before his death, Sapper asks K how it feels to kill his own kind. K’s response sets the scene for this new take on the dystopian future built by the first film: “I don’t kill my own kind, because we don’t run.”
K’s apparent acceptance of his place within society is brought to the fore repeatedly in the opening minutes; as he reports the successful retirement to his senior officer Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) she notes his wounds and says, “I’m not paying for that” to which he responds, “I’ll glue it”; as he returns to the LAPD headquarters he stares pointedly downwards as a fellow officer passes him while hissing “fucking skinjob”; K then is processed by means of a “Baseline” test – reminiscent of the previous film’s Voigt-Kampff scale used by Deckard, this variation is dialled up in intensity and accusatory tone. K is forced to sit and listen to questions like “when you’re not performing your duty, do they keep you in a little box? Cells.” and repeat the keyword embedded in the question. This interrogation, overtly designed to needle at potential insecurities that a replicant might have about their existence in a workforce, culture and society that requires yet reviles them, is one K passes without incident. Indeed, his ability to remain unaffected by the job he performs repeatedly is alluded to at the end of the baseline test, where the tester calls him “constant K”.
Where Deckard was coerced into returning to the job of killing replicant escapees, K displays no qualms in the task he has been assigned – or perhaps built – to complete. Upon his return home – a small, nondescript apartment in a filthy block filled to bursting with people who verbally abuse him for being a replicant – he describes his injuries to his Wallace Corporation holographic partner Joi (Ana de Armas) as “an accident at work”. In the moment of their ersatz embrace (they cannot physically connect since Joi is purely holographic) K pauses her animation to listen to a voice recording from work, and leaves her motionless as he returns to the job.
His acceptance of his place in life is shaken when he uncovers the remains of Rachel, who died on Sapper’s farm around 30 years ago from the trauma of childbirth. This revelation stuns both K and Joshi, who is immediately aware of the damage such a revelation could bring to a world that needs the separation of replicant and human to remain in place. Replicants are not born, they are made, and K confronts this head on; “to be born is to have a soul”, he says, before being dispatched to retire the child of Rachel in order to prevent what Joshi describes as “a war… or a slaughter”. While it is implied that replicants are unable to lie or refuse an order, K is clearly unsure as to the morality of murdering someone different to himself; “I’ve never retired anything with a soul before”. Yet the true weight of his task is left undiscussed – he obeys without question the order to kill a new form of life, one that blurs the line between his enslaved kind and the free, valued humans around him.
It is revealed that the memories K has are linked to Rachel, and after he verifies the legitimacy of his recollections he is convinced that he is the miraculous son of Rachel and Deckard – the very child he was sent to retire. The discovery doesn’t go unnoticed, as K fails his next baseline test and is thus scheduled to be retired anyway, as is the consequence of developing a malfunction. Joshi grants him reprieve since she believes K’s lie about “dealing with” the replicant child. Sending him home to recover, Joshi is confronted and murdered by an intruder – Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the assistant to Wallace who is convinced this miracle of replicant reproduction can be used to bolster and speed up Wallace’s efforts to colonise the entire galaxy.
In a monologue laced with plagal cadence and religious imagery, Wallace describes the stagnation of society is because people “lost their appetite for slavery”. He is determined not to make such an error and uses Luv to secure Rachel’s remains in the hopes of discovering the secret that allowed for her to give birth. Meanwhile, K seeks out the man he believes to be his father, Rick Deckard. In the ruins of a casino they find each other and after a stunted fight – Deckard believes K is there to kill (or retire) him – K explains the series of events that led him to seek Deckard out.
This meeting is interrupted by Luv and Wallace’s agents who kidnap Deckard and seriously wound K, but not before destroying a device that contained the only copy of K’s partner, who disappears for the last time before K blacks out. He is revived by Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), a prostitute replicant who is actually a member of an underground replicant resistance, led by a friend of Rachel who believes that replicant childbirth will be the catalyst of a revolution against humankind, ushering in a new era of replicant emancipation. K is told that the child of Rachel is female, and that his memories, while real, do not belong to him.
The film’s climax is a frenzied fight between Luv and K over Deckard, and ends in K taking Deckard to meet his daughter, the memory architect who verified the realness of K’s memories initially, since they belonged to her. K, knowing he has suffered mortal wounds during the fight, seems to accept his death as he stares at the snow falling around him, in a scene reminiscent of Roy’s death in Blade Runner.
Themes and variations
What more can be learned by this expansion to the narrative first developed over 30 years ago? The first point to mention is that while Blade Runner is an early example of neo-noir, 2049 mirrors but does not truly reflect the genre; it is a simulacrum rather than an homage. K is sexually and politically naïve, functioning as a mask through which the audience can see the world rather than a fully developed tragic hero. Further, the world K inhabits is no longer cynically framed, as Deckard’s was – there is no threat underlying a demand to return to work, since the option to not work is removed altogether; the notion to not work is, perhaps literally, removed from K’s consciousness, and existential bitterness, another hallmark of the noir and neo-noir cinematic style, is replaced instead with obedient indifference. This shift in tone between the two films raises new questions, and the comparison serves to highlight the differences all the more.
As mentioned above the distinction between Gosling and Ford’s blade runner is most clearly felt in K’s seeming lack of cynicism; he accepts his memories to be fake until he is forced to confront their realness, and accepts this new truth until he is confronted once again. Where Deckard was forced, by the replicants’ ability to hide amongst the population, to constantly be aware of the motivations and behaviour of those around him, K is never required to engage with people in this way. He kills Sapper because he is sent to kill him, and extracts information about where the replicant child might have gone with the muzzle of his gun rather than with tactful questioning. There is no standoff from which K might gain insight into his experience of the world; his one battle of wits is found when he first meets Deckard, who is impressed by K’s ability to recognise a bizarre quotation from Treasure Island.
It might be argued that this shedding of the noir anti-hero trope is down to a collective change in taste – audiences may have grown to see the unpleasantness of Clint Eastwood’s characters before they appreciate their strength – but Gosling’s character goes further than this. He is a man without a code of ethics outside of the mandate his superiors provide, and with a personality about as unique as his mass-produced, store-bought partner. His desired holographic projections, with (presumably) an infinite array of options, extend no further than burgers and a milkshake served by Joi in a fast food worker’s uniform. At first blush K seems like a character designed for projection: the audience can fantasize about being as handsome and capable and strong as he is, being the hero of a story about good and evil. But beneath the facade Gosling’s K is hollow and without personal merit, a dystopian non-hero that acts not out of compulsion but through dull calculation.
2049 mirrors Blade Runner more closely when K visits a street level vendor named Doc Badger (Barkhad Abdi) who identifies the childhood from K’s memory, mimicking Deckard’s experience asking a similar vendor to identify an artificial snake scale. But while Deckard was confronted with an incomprehensible “mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you” and responds with gesticulations and meaningful looks, K is spoken to in a foreign language, responds in English and is perfectly well understood. When looking up DNA records the machine K uses responds to his requests in Japanese, and the door to the Baseline test room has Devanagari script beneath the English warning message. From this we might infer that K is proficient in multiple languages, or that he has some form of universal translator aiding his investigation, but the text doesn’t support this guesswork. K’s use of English as a blunt weapon to beat past linguistic obstacles suggests the point that he is Other, without a culture he can draw from or heritage that links him to those he interacts with, but without further development the audience must infer more than enjoy this idea.
Where Blade Runner displayed a developed city with a distinct culture informed by myriad sources, 2049 merely references them; much has been made about techno-dystopian art’s obsession with Asian culture but its indifference to Asian people, and this is clearly felt in 2049 as it was in the original Blade Runner. K eats noodles, hears Japanese advertisements and programs his partner to wear cheongsams, but his exposure to Asian people in an unnervingly vast LA is conspicuously lacking. This is not to say Blade Runner did diverse casting well, but this modern-day oversight highlights the idea that culture can be summed up in the consumption of garments and food.
Another area 2049 failed to modernise was that of gender roles. In Blade Runner Ford played the laconic chauvinist that is all but required in a faithful film noir plot. While the behaviour itself is unpleasant, its deployment made thematic sense and likely helped the audience of the day parse his Umwelt. As mentioned earlier, 2049 isn’t ‘noir enough’ to justifiably rely on these tropes, but at times it tries to anyway. Joi as a character is troubling enough – an easily reprogrammable spouse that is confined to the house, and is “set free” by a gift K provides that in fact merely allows her to go where he goes, and no further. She risks permanent erasure by begging Wallace’s agents to leave K alone, yet K, after crashing his car and damaging Joi’s projection on the way to find the replicant child, tells the car’s built in drone to look after the car, making no mention of the one and only device that houses the love of his life.
Further, Joi apparently hires Mariette to sleep with K while she overlays her holographic form, effectively making Mariette look like a physical Joi. in a scene too long to be accidentally uncomfortable the audience watches both women undress simultaneously for K, who remains mostly dressed and watches without comment or reaction. It’s unclear why Joi thought this would be a good idea, and it goes without question that K is accepting of the interaction, but in a far stranger interaction the morning after Joi asks Mariette to leave, saying “I have no more use for you” to which Mariette responds “Hush now, I’ve been inside you… not as much there as you think.” This contrived rivalry between women is pulled from nowhere and seems to serve no other purpose than to affirm K’s status as desirable and worthy of jealousy. Later, a replicated Rachel is used as a bribe to convince Deckard to side with Wallace and tell all he knows about the whereabouts of “the specimen” – Deckard’s child. This overt metaphor of woman-as-reward is punctuated by Luv’s execution of Rachel after Deckard refuses the offer, and while the horror of the act is clear, Deckard’s refusal, sardonically delivered or not, is based on the physical inaccuracy of the copy and not the moral reprehensibility of the offer itself.
Finally, and most damaging to the world-building efforts of Villeneuve’s team, there is no female-oriented sexual consumption on display. The brothel Mariette works in has frosted windows that all but displays the sex acts occurring indoors, but there are no male or non-binary presenting prostitutes to be seen. There are scantily clad holographic cheerleader girls advertising in the middle of the street, with giant holographic ballerinas en pointe in tow also advertising something or other, but there’s not a single male model to be seen. The closest the audience gets to female-centred consumer products is a stuttering, broken-down rendering of Elvis Presley during the casino fight and a palm sized Frank Sinatra in Deckard’s apartment. Most notably, the Joi product that K bought himself is shown in a holographic billboard as a nude, purple skinned woman with black irises and blue hair. If dystopian capitalism has deemed it profitable to sell to that market, it is baffling that heterosexual women, gay men, non-binary people and everyone besides K’s demographic are not equally bombarded with consumerist propaganda. The fact Lt. Joshi openly flirts with K at one point only serves to emphasize the absence of realistic marketing, even (or especially) in a dystopian setting.
One of the unique questions that arose in 2049 is found with the introduction of a replicant rebellion. When K meets Freysa (Hiam Abbas), a one-eyed replicant who claims to have known Rachel, she describes the discovery of childbirth in replicants as one that will galvanise the enslaved replicant population into a state of righteous indignation, with a state of revolution taking every colony and outpost that houses a replicant workforce. Her argument frames the enslavement of replicant kind as one easily dismantled; replicants are stronger and more robust than humans, as seen by K’s resilience to damage, physical dexterity and strength, and once they learn how to reproduce the one power humans have over them will be removed. They will be, as Mariette puts it in reference to Tyrell’s old slogan for replicants, “More human than human”.
The emergence of a revolutionary element comes out of left field in the film and raises a host of smaller questions: how are they organising, since people like K exist to hunt down rogue replicants and it is established that Wallace’s corporation can eavesdrop on connected devices, such as Joi’s hardware? Is the end goal of a replicant revolution merely coexistence? Or is Freysa willing to do unto humans as they would unto replicants? She has, after all, lost an eye in an attempt to thwart pursuit by blade runners. It is also unclear how or why the message of childbirth would awaken all replicants to their suffering. Indeed, Luv states that replicants can be designed and built without any semblance of emotion or personality. Would these replicant workers, once aware of their capacity, gain class consciousness and escape their oppressors? The struggle to raise a force to stand against the system is clearly an uphill battle and Freysa notes this openly; “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.” This fundamental pessimism speaks to an awareness of the magnitude of the mechanisms such a revolution apparently hopes to unseat. These workers are capable of shearing the very chains from their bodies with ease, yet such ability is fruitless if all they can then do is run and hide, as seen with Sapper, Deckard, Rachel and Roy. The problem reflected to sympathetic audiences is keenly felt: organising and mobilising enough disillusioned comrades to make a difference is antithetical to survival in the current system, and so outbreaks and small-scale rebellions are all that can manifest. The long-term goal of such a general uprising is, at best, unclear.
What is far clearer is the opposing force’s willingness to deploy the gift of childbirth to replicants as soon as it can be harnessed. The standout character of the film also captures and personifies the overarching ‘point’ of the sequel. Niander Wallace speaks of spreading his children throughout thousands of stars, building a legacy that Tyrell could only dream of by building an army of passive living machinery that self-regulates and self-replicates. Leto’s depiction of Wallace conjures a far more powerful image of accelerationist horror than Joe Turkel’s comparatively sedate businessman ever could; dressed varyingly in black yukata, ceremonial robes and all-black businesswear, he is the logical conclusion to Jobs and Zuckerburg’s image curation. With consistent biblical allusions and almost-paternal tone, he has all the air of a man determined to be seen as a visionary. Wallace even physically ‘sees’ differently to normal people by way of smooth pebble-like robots that hover around him, emitting clicks akin to the sound of bats’ sonar. It’s worth noting that he is the only obviously augmented person depicted, with a device behind his ear linking his vision to that of his robot helpers, foregrounding his willingness to shed humanity in order to achieve or experience more. His is a future truly dystopian, with a replicant slave race endlessly repeating to capitalise on all creation, and his drive to find and harness childbirth leaves him with little compunction over retiring his lesser “angels” who lack that ability.
Wallace represents the power fantasy of unfettered industry, but more than that: he embodies the as-yet irrational fear of a cult of personality finding a way to mass-produce cultists. As it was with Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz or Orwell’s Big Brother, the idea of a man deifying himself as a means of progressing his own agenda is fearful stuff, but here is the dystopian ideal of such self-deification becoming enmeshed with society root-to-stem, from consumer to thing consumed. Wallace owns the means to produce workers, to whom he then sells products, as evidenced by K owning Joi. He has mastered playing God already, and is now playing consumerism itself.
It is against this enemy that Freysa stands, with the hope that mere awareness will break the chains replicants are born wearing. We see in K’s despondent face that as soon as he found he was not the miracle child he lost hope in becoming anything more, and he goes along with the revolution’s plan to kill Deckard to prevent Wallace getting information out of him for no discernible reason, only leaving Deckard alive to see his daughter because it wasn’t what Luv wanted. Of all the messages 2049 brings, this one is most distinct from its predecessor: when you realise that you aren’t even a useful cog in the system that degrades and abuses you, and you discover you don’t contain a miracle that solves the world’s problems, whose cause do you side with? K chose a path that showed human kindness, but will likely lead to Wallace discovering and interrogating Deckard despite K’s assurance to the contrary. He did nothing for the resistance in the end, even though he lived through the same suffering and abuses his fellow replicants did.
The opening of 2049 shows the failings of the system displayed in the earlier Blade Runner. With the Tyrell Corporation collapsed and food shortages reaching a critical level, the world seemed ready to die of capitalist causes. But in its rejuvenation through a new industrialist messiah we see the projected suffering of millions, if not billions of workers on the horizon, packaged and sold back to those workers as conveniences and contrivances to pass the time between shifts.
The power of dystopian art comes not from fantastical landscapes or impossible technology, but from the simple fear that down the road, with enough mistakes made, we could reach the same point in our own world. Though the presentation of such a future has blind spots which point to the bias of its creators, 2049 nevertheless expertly produces the horror of endlessly replicating industry, breaking down co-workers and comrades alike.
In our world more than ever before are the brazen abuses of consumerism found, uncovered and shared globally. With this heightened awareness of what is happening the template for what could happen put down by Blade Runner over thirty years ago has necessarily changed from one of grandiose thoughts on the value of humanity to more urgent, pragmatic questions surrounding uncontrolled human and human-made expansion. As we see our own media reflecting the fears of a deprived global workforce and unregulated, extralegal industrial powers running rampant, we must hope that the audience sits up and pays attention.