We watched Blade Runner 2049 last night and were mystified. It was hard to pin down our overall reactions. Yes, the film was gorgeous, my children and I agreed, but was it any good? What was it getting at? What kind of future did it imagine?
(Yes, spoilers are plentiful ahead.)
One reason for our confusion is that it’s not a narrative movie so much as a tone poem. As Wikipedia puts it today, that’s “music… intended to inspire listeners to imagine or consider scenes, images, specific ideas or moods, and not (necessarily) to focus on following traditional patterns of musical form“. For “musical form” read “plot”, or listen to some exemplary Sibelius:
I was also reminded of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953), where the detective plot slides away in favor of… other concerns. In other words, the movie seems to prefer to generate a mood, a deep sense of aesthetic contemplation, getting us to think about concepts and references, and less to tracing out a developed plot. We are drawn in by carefully crafted style to dwell in exquisite sets, to examine new fashions, carried along by a huge soundtrack, barraged with references, and not so much to solve problems or follow a character arc. It reminded me of Prometheus (2012), which was also less interested in establishing a plausible and compelling plot and more in generating a look, a mood, an aesthetic immersion.
Amidst that lush strategy one theme really stood out. The new movie isn’t just a sequel, but is about sequels. It fastens on the original so intensely that it can’t get very far into the future. It’s very concerned to address the original as a sacred text, almost to the obsessive level of sequels like The Two Jakes (1990), that fallen followup to the very great Chinatown. Echoes of the 1982 film are rampant, from another excessive opening title card to the weird afterlife of brands (Pan Am, Atari) and even nations (there’s an ad for the CCCP) to the final scene’s use of the Roy Baty death scene music.
Los Angeles is well stocked with items from the first film, albeit with upgrades, like the giant ads moving from 2d to 3d. Characters literally track down and listen to clips from the original film. Wallace builds a copy of Rachel in order to influence Deckard. Wallace’s new replicants are supposedly different in being utterly obedient and incapable of lying, but some fall right back to the old Nexus habits of deception and homicide.
The movie is really about sequels and succession, being primarily concerned with the movement from one generation to the next. The story centers on tracking down a “miracle” child (or children) produced by the original film’s main characters. Paternity and maternity are themes, unsurprisingly, alongside Freudian desires and consequences. An older generation is carefully delineated as, well, older, when we visit a retirement home to see one character from the first film. K. fights and interrogates Deckard among projections and music from the mid-20th-century (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra). In contrast, the younger generation appears as vibrant yet inexperienced, vital if largely powerless, deeply engaged with a traumatically present childhood, and technologically more gifted. K. obsesses over a childhood toy, and has “Peter’s Theme” from Peter and the Wolf as a ringtone of sorts.
The final scene shows a representative of the older generation, Deckard, confronting one of the younger, Ana Stelline, his daughter. Deckard has been manipulated and carried to this meeting, forcibly removed from his living space, and losing much of his autonomy and power. He remains separated from Ana by a physical barrier echoing his lifelong emotional distance. In contrast, Ana is physically trapped by her childhood, confined by a disease that struck her while very young, and permanently removed from (physical) adult relationships. Her life now centers on creating virtual content. It is nearly a cartoon of pop culture representations of Boomers and Millennials.
Even more pop-generational is the climactic fight between K. and Luv over Deckard. The two youngsters fight brutally and with tremendous strength in challenging conditions (darkness, an ocean with a rising tide, a sinking aircar). Meanwhile the oldster gets closer to death with every blow, struggling uselessly to escape his trap (wrists bound, anchored to the drowning car). At one point I thought this was the ideal summary of the way Americans think of generations. We have a Baby Boomer that’s the most important person in the scene, but is now powerless and in danger of not having enough attention paid to him. There are Millennials, creatures of technology, somewhat alien, also fascinating, lacking social skills, and not contributing enough to the world. And there’s no Generation X to be seen. It’s ideal, really.
That generational succession is entropic, rather than productive. 2049 has fallen from 2019 in many ways. It is a lesser world. There is plentiful evidence of catastrophe, including a mysterious EMP event called The Blackout (unfolded more in this short). Its most impressive features are ruins. There are fewer people, as the first film’s crowd scenes are now replaced by empty spaces and small groups, perhaps hinting at the post-nuclear-war setting for the 1968 source novel. Some environmental crises have wracked the world, or at least southern California, and it has yet to recover. Ash and/or snow falls from the skies upon formerly sunny LA. The city of San Diego has become an enormous trash dump. Children work there in horrible conditions, possibly as ship breakers. Back in LA, the city is mostly flattened, with several powerful towers looming overhead as stark symbols of power and inequality. The LAPD has its own giant building which looks like a hammerhead, threatening the city with grim authority. As Anthony Lane puts it, “the land is the color of a corpse, and the skies are no better”. Dystopia is in the air, and perhaps the exhaustion following collapse. The world has darkened even beyond the noir of the original film.
Blade Runner 2049 spends much of its running time rummaging through the ruins of the past. That’s where its frequent literary references come in, gleaned from the inherited wreck of time. When K. meets Deckard, the latter chooses to quote Treasure Island, when our hero meets a castaway:
“Marooned three years agone,” he continued, “and lived on goats since then, and berries, and oysters. Wherever a man is, says I, a man can do for himself. But, mate, my heart is sore for Christian diet. You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? No? Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese—toasted, mostly—and woke up again, and here I were.”
“Wherever a man is, says I, a man can do for himself” – a nice phrase for Deckard’s standalone life in isolation, now drawing to a close. The film draws on Stevenson’s terror and brutality, but lacks its energetic adventure. Has the American interior become a stark South Pacific of violence and betrayal? Meanwhile, K.’s name points to a different referential universe, Kafka’s nightmares of bureaucracy and familial cruelty, which is fairly apt for the movie.
Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) actually appears on screen, and the poem is quoted in a rushed and repeated replicant stability test:
Everything I loved was lost
But no aorta could report regret.
A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
(thanks to Dave Cushing for catching that).
The plot’s miracle theme of replicant reproduction echoes the climax of the first text to use the word “robot”, Čapek.’s underappreciated R.U.R. (1920). Pinocchio is present, with a node toward’s Spielberg’s wretched A.I. (2001). And I can’t be the only one that saw K’s relationship with a virtual wife and thought of Archer‘s Krieger and his virtual girlfriend.
We can trace these allusions out in more detail once the DVD becomes available, in part because they come very quickly, and also because the Zimmer track sometimes crashed over the spoken dialogue. But this isn’t that much of an analogical film. The accumulation of references instead suggest a textual ship breaking, telling us that the process of mining the shattered past is what’s important, rather than what’s gleaned from its tailings.
To be fair, not all of Blade Runner 2049 is about the past. Contemporary concerns dot the film, as befits the normal way science fiction always speaks to its present. There’s a nod to today’s progressive politics with descriptions of replicants in terms of slavery, racism (back to the first film’s “skin job”, helpfully explained in the lamentable Hollywod cut’s voiceover) and labor exploitation. Climate change has occurred, apparently, with sea levels having risen (hence the giant walls lining LA, over which the final storyline seeks to escape), snow falling in Southern California (shades of Snowpiercer?), and the abandonment of an unnamed Las Vegas. Russian references (I think the first on-screen text is a cyrillic label on the farmer’s enclosure) crop up, perhaps echoing the original film’s use of Japanese to generate a sense of quiet menace to a contemporary, nervous United States.
As a work of futures imagination, Blade Runner 2049 is a good mix. It carefully reproduces elements of the past (the 1982 movie) while offering new developments – not unlike the way the future actually develops. So we have police air cars (“spinners”) that look pretty much the same as they did in Ridley Scott and Syd Mead‘s original vision, but now they have ceiling-mounted, voice-activated, semi-autonomous drones. Characters use the famous photo analysis tool, but it’s become more widespread and slick.
There are some wholly new ideas about technology and its uses, like the impressive sex scene between K., Joi, and Mariette, a prostitute, where two characters, one virtual, one somatic, “synch” themselves to fondle the third. That synching is uneven, with characters flashing in and out of each other – an interesting step in virtual sexuality. There’s a throwaway bit about data storage through small spheres called “memory bearings”, which could set up a good joke about losing one’s bearings. Weapons of war have become so advanced and ubiquitous that Luv can order in a rolling barrage from her tablet, without the film showing us launch mechanisms. Wallace has a fascinating setup whereby multiple small drones feed data wirelessly to his blind? cyborg? eyes.
But it’s a hard struggle for Blade Runner 2049 to reach the future, as it obsesses with the past to the point of archaeology. The Harrison Ford of Indiana Jones ghosts alongside the Ford of the first Blade Runner, albeit as a much older person staring down at a powerful and strange rising generation.
This is a movie about barriers erected against oceans, disease, civil war, and emotion, most of which remain intact and functional at movie’s end. It is about digging up buried bones and walking among the archives of a disaster-shrouded past. We see few visions of progress.