The best sci-fi films usually are a mirror to the age in which they are made. So, what can we learn from the future, and what it means to be human, in Denis Villeneuve’s film?
Movies are by their nature hybrids of technology and sentiment, machines for the delivery of human emotion. The first Blade Runner approached this as a philosophical problem and an artistic challenge. Ridley Scott used imagery borrowed from old Hollywood and German Expressionism to create a dazzlingly artificial environment where authenticity was out of the question. Except, of course, that it was the question: How do we know what is real, ourselves included?
Few people wanted to hear what the original Blade Runner had to say in 1982. The economy was beginning to come out of recession. Blade Runner gave us a world where everything that could go wrong had gone wrong: environmental degradation, pollution, urban sprawl, corporate dominance, technology run amok; prototype of all dystopias. No wonder audiences preferred the upbeat embrace of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Indeed, dystopian movies could be seen as the hardest sell in cinema. Who wants to see a film telling you that everything will go wrong and we all live miserably ever after? But increasingly, it seems that, this is what we want to see, looking at recent hit sagas such as The Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes, Divergent and now a Blade Runner sequel. The pill has to be romanticised with spectacle and romance, but dystopian futures perform a function. They show us where we are going off-course and what we are afraid of, not in the future, but in the present. In the same way, we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t understand it.
Where most sci-fi movies quickly date, Blade Runner has improved with age. Of course, it was always a fantastic ride, superbly detailed and steeped in a neo-noir environment; but its deep, troubling ideas about technology, humanity and identity chimed with postmodern and cyberpunk theory, and launched a thousand PhD theses. Having chosen Frankenstein by Mary Shelley as my Master degree dissertation primary source, I came across a lecture from the French theorist Jean Baudrillard. He stated that nothing is really real anymore. Replicants are superior beings. “More human than human,” as their manufacturer, Eldon Tyrell, puts it. This was the part Baudrillard was so keen to engage with: what was “real” when the copy was better than the original? “The real is not only what can be reproduced but that which is always already reproduced. The hyper-real,” wrote Baudrillard. Human status was no longer a matter of biological or genetic fact. You couldn’t trust your memories, they could just be implants. So how do any of us know we are human?
Beyond Baudrillard thesis, thinking about “how do we know we’re human?”, Blade Runner 2049 asks what it means to be human, and it boldly ventures in some suggestions. It is the ability to form connections, to empathise with others, to love, to have values. It is also the will to act, to resist, to fight for those values. “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do,” says one character. It is a call to revolution. Not tomorrow but now. We’ve got a new set of fears to feed into the dystopian machine nowadays, and Blade Runner 2049 seems to have processed them. For a start, there is the fear of social relations in the digital age. Our new hero is a replicant cop named K, played by Ryan Gosling. He has no friends, partner or family. His only real companion is Joi, played by Ana de Armas, a holographic girlfriend beamed into his cell-like apartment, who can switch from compliant housewife to sexy vamp in a flicker. By the way, this might be in the mid-21st century but gender politics haven’t much moved on since the 19th century, the city seems entirely geared towards pornified male sexual desire. Though, if K had seen Spike Jonze’s Her, he might have realised his personalised dream girl is actually a mass-produced app who is probably simultaneously dating 50,000 other lonely guys around the city. Yet, K’s relationship with Joi is the most sincere and romantic in the movie. he tells her he loves her, and we believe him. He is not “human”, she isn’t even non-human. All that is real is the love.
2049 beautiful images are there to trigger awe or even a kind of ecstatic despair at the idea of a post-human future, and what it means to imagine the wreck of our current form of homo sapiens. Evolution is not over, not any more than it was finished 100,000 years ago. As so often in literature and cinema, we are reminded that science fiction is there to tackle big ideas, and makes realist genres look dreamy. The film’s blend of nostalgia and dystopian prophecy captured a mood of self-conscious melancholy. Maybe the real world never quite achieved the smoky neon-noir glow of Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles, but the map of our collective dream world was permanently redrawn.
These are realms where Hollywood sci-fi does not often venture – although HBO’s Westworld did a fine job of it on TV last year. They are far down the road from movies about dangerous technology, or artificial intelligence or malevolent cyborgs, or even space travel. We are talking beyond the final frontier. Just as Villeneuve did with his previous feature, 2016’s Arrival whose piercingly emotional core elevated its pulp alien-invasion premise, in Blade Runner 2049, he subverts the genre in favour of a rich inquiry into the nature of the soul itself.
The scientific particulars of Blade Runner 2049 are only nominally interesting, whereas its science-fiction framework allows for audiences to interpret the allegory as they see fit. Certainly, there is an obvious parallel to past slave-holding societies; in the first instance the dominant race or class has cited its dubious superiority in order to rationalize the harsh treatment of so-called “sub-humans” and human’s fear of the reproduction of a superior and stronger race. All of which can be summarize by the fact that people are afraid of what they do not know. It is perhaps the central irony of Blade Runner 2049, which depicts a future where humans have gone astray, while new-and-improved androids know precisely what they want: to be human.