|Blade Runners, models 2019 and 2049 (Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling)|
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer recently gave his reaction to Blade Runner 2049. Hauer was one of the principals of Ridley Scott's 1982 film who was absent from the sequel. His answer perhaps reflects why he never joined the reunion, and is worth quoting in full:
I scratch and sniff at it. It looks great but I struggle to see why that film was necessary. I just think if something is so beautiful, you should just leave it alone and make another film. Don't lean with one elbow on the success that was earned 30 years ago in the underground. In many ways, Blade Runner wasn't about the replicants, it was about what does it mean to be human? It's like E.T.. But I'm not certain what the question was in the second Blade Runner. It's not a character-driven movie and there's no humor, there's no love, there's no soul. You can see the homage to the original. But that's not enough to me. I knew it wasn't going to work. But I think it's not important what I think.
Hauer was never alone in his doubts. When plans for the sequel were confirmed in 2015, social media wasn't altogether jazzed about the prospect; the evidence of Ridley Scott's uneven Alien prequels left many fans skeptical that a new Blade Runner would succeed. Reverence for the original prompted a kind of dread. Like Hauer, they wondered "why is this necessary?"--an anxiety only partly resolved by Denis (Arrival, Incendies) Villeneuve's attachment to the project.
For most, the arrival of 2049 has retired that discussion. The critical response has handily exceeded the new Alien films. In retrospect, Hauer's appraisal has the rare rhetorical distinction of being absolutely true in all its parts, yet wholly false (including the proposition "It doesn't matter what I think"). Demanding that films be "necessary" is of course a category error--no movie is "necessary", strictly speaking. But along with a look and a vibe, Blade Runner 2049 does have a "question". It is admittedly less explicit than the original's, though, and needs some archaeology to uncover it.
The original Blade Runner emerged from the cultural context of the late 1970's--a time that, in the "one week seems like a year" climate of the Trumpian era, feels as remote as bardic Greece. America was deep in the throes of its post-Vietnam, post-Watergate funk, with stagflation, gasoline crises, and a cardigan-wearing President who came to personify an age of diminished expectations. There was an efflorescence of "national declinism", prompted by the brute military muscle of the Soviet Union (having invaded Afghanistan in 1979), and the emergence of Japan as a serious industrial and technological rival of the US. Science fiction was exploring the territory lying between the progressivism of the Arthur C. Clarke-Isaac Asimov mainstream, and the Frankensteinian nightmares of pulp. The synthesis, soon to be called “cyberpunk," envisioned a future where (at risk of oversimplification) neither the wonders nor the nightmares predominated, but existed simultaneously. In that sense, our futures very much resembled our checkered present--or any other era.
Blade Runner precisely embodied all these developments and anxieties. While harkening back to familiar tropes of movie sci-fi (towering cities, flying cars, homicidal robots), it presented a future that was thoroughly Asian in culture and person, and in a way so incidental that it requires no remark. Of course Asia will colonize the future, it seemed to shrug. Isn't that writing already on the wall?
The urbanization of the world well underway by 1982, so Scott's vision of 2019 is all about the city. Though ostensibly set in Los Angeles, there is nothing plausibly LA about the place. It is really post-war New York. It is Metropolis, and Gotham City, with some London weather too. It is dense and glowering, but it also glitters with a Tokyo-esque affinity for neon. In its density, in the way its towers reach up and out of the darkness, there is an element of glamor.
Like much of what is now called film noir, it presents a twilit world, a place of compromised ideals, that nonetheless gestures at a lighter, purer sphere that still exists somewhere, offscreen, "off-world". In 2019, we hardly see beyond city limits, so it's still possible to imagine there's a normal landscape beyond them. We get an accidental evocation of it at the end of the film, in a scene reportedly tacked on at the insistence of the studio: there, like a just-married couple on the highway to suburbia, Deckard and Rachel drive into a sun-dappled countryside somewhere "up north".
2049 punctures that hope irrevocably. In K's flyover on his way back to the police station, we see the only hints of the glitter of 2019. The flashy avenues are just thin facades between vast, low-rise blocks with barely a light burning. We imagine either thousands of people shivering in the dark, or swathes of depopulated cityscape haunted by vagrants and scavengers. What lies beyond city limits isn't left to the imagination: to the south, there's a garbage dump that was once San Diego. To the west, a dead ocean. And to the east, the bones of nuked Las Vegas, choked by conspicuously unnatural orange dust.
Villeneuve's world is colder, more brutal. That sheen of drizzle has frozen to snow. The Asian patina is muted; there's an element of Russian too--and not just Russian but Soviet (evidenced by the film's use of Budapest locations, and the "Soviet Happy" holographic ballerina pirouetting above BiBi's Bar). It's as if Villeneuve conceives future California to resemble Siberia, or some kind of ticky-tacky Russian research outpost. If the world is on a knife edge in 2019, by 2049 it has been shoved over.
The films' respective anti-heroes mirror the cosmic decline. Rick Deckard is a conscious evocation of the gumshoe literature of the mid-20th century. His name vaults off the tongue like “Phillip Marlow”, “Sam Spade”, “Joe Friday”. Despite years of debate in the fandom, there's no firm evidence in any of the various versions of the film that he is anything but human. (For argument's sake: if he is a replicant why is he tossed around by every other replicant in the film? Are we to believe the cops assigned a particularly puny replicant to the dangerous task of hunting down other 'skin-jobs'?) Deckard, the flesh-and-blood private dick in a trench coat, is clearly a figure out of the past, a fulcrum of familiarity in a jarring setting.
“Officer K”, on the other hand, doesn’t even get a real name. Like most of the film's 'synthetic' characters (“Joi”, “Luv”), he get only a truncated name, as if bits of orthography are a luxury resource, to be dribbled out sparingly.
Instead of the classic gumshoe, K's literary antecedent is the character “K” from Kafka's novel The Castle—a character who does not inhabit his environment as much as he endures it. In direct inverse to Deckard, he is physically unbeatable but submissive in temperament, meekly submitting to the taunts of the other (human) cops. In what passes for the "love scene" in 2019, Deckard bullies Rachel into confronting the reality of her desires. In 2049, K is propositioned in his apartment by Joshi, his female boss—and barely summons a response.
At the end of the film, K dies alone on the steps of Ana Stelline's lab as Deckard rushes inside. Unlike Roy Batty, K gets no one to watch his tears wash away. We wonder, would it have killed Deckard to pause a moment to bear witness to the death of the guy who saved his life? It seems like a prime opportunity to give the film the "heart" Hauer and others complain is missing. But Villeneuve declines it.
The films are also at odds in visual language. 2019, as captured by Jordan Cronenweth, was as close to black and white as a color film could be. Deep blacks were split by a livid, god-like spears of light. Lens-flare was not just used expressively, but almost as a sacrament, as when it sanctified Rachel's tears after the fatal encounter with Leon. The look was so distinctive that NYU film students in the 1980'a spoke reverently of achieving "Blade Runner light" in their theses.
The light in 2049 isn't livid and it isn't sanctifying. It always seems tea-like, tainted, like used dishwater. Even in Niander Wallace's eyrie, Roger Deakins makes the light indirect, baroque in its busy refraction. Some suggest that, in this future, access to clean light and air are matters of privilege, as if only rich people can afford them. But this light isn't just dirty--it is dissolving. Everything and everyone, rich and poor, human and replicant, seems to be fading, disintegrating.
2019 is about how the future is like the past. 2049 says the past is dead and will never return. 2019 is cultural nostalgia. 2049 is a more profound savoring--not just painful, not just pleasure--of people and things permanently lost. Cognates of this yearning have been felt and named in cultures all over the world. In Portugal and Brazil, it is saudade, a melancholic state variously described as "the presence of absence", and "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy" (Manuel de Melo). In Japan, it is mujo-kan, a heightened sense of the world's impermanence. In Bosnia, the folk musical genre of sevdah is characterized by such "missingness". In Istanbul, it is huzun, a sense of longing for something one cannot exactly name. Appearing five times in the Koran, the word was taken by the Sufis to connote remoteness from God. Orhan Pamuk likens it to "the emotion of a child might feel while looking through a steamy window." There's more than a little 2049 in the way he evokes it:
To feel this huzun is to see the scenes, evoke the memories, in which the city itself becomes the very illustration, the very essence of huzun. I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early; of fathers under street lamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags. Of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter...of the simit vendors on the pier who gaze at the view as they wait for customers; of everything being broken, worn out, past its prime; I speak of them all.
In a future marred by cataclysmic climate change, and the conflicts and dislocations that will inevitably attend it, what will humans' collective sadness be called? What obscure sorrows will be coined to describe our feelings when we remember a gentler, more normal world we may never regain?
2049 has no answer, but it poses the question.
The dream-like quality Pamuk describes, "like looking through a steamy window", at last gets us to the biggest "question" Hauer misses about 2049. Where 2019 asks "What is human?", the sequel is haunted by the fear that reality itself is lost, or unknowable. Deckard and K both insist "I know what's real," the former when confronted with the replica of Rachel, the latter with the truth of his "memory" of the furnace. At Bibi's, Mariette realizes that K "doesn't like real girls"; when Joi is downloaded to the Emanator, she understands that she risks deletion, "just like a real girl".
Perhaps the most ominous hint comes after the menage between K, Joi, and Mariette; before she is dismissed, the replicant Mariette disparages the holographic Joi, saying "I've been inside you. There's not so much there as you think." On the question of what qualifies as a "real" person, we'd think that replicants would be more broadly accepting than the humans who discounted them. Joi may lack a physical body, but her programming almost certainly shares much with the software that runs the bio-mechanical replicants. Yet Mariette doesn't think there's much to Joi's humanity--a prejudice that fairly gushes with epistemic irony. If Joi overestimates her own "realness", who's to say the replicants don't also, or the humans too?
The closest analog to 2049's questioning of lived reality is probably the Matrix films. When Morpheus speaks of the "desert of the real" with its "scorched sky", he might as well be describing 2049’s slow planetary unwinding. Yet while Villeneuve's treatment of this theme is more subtle, it is arguably more radical. The Matrix, after all, is a deliberate construct, a tool of political control. It has an architect, an eminence grise patterned on the "father" of the internet, Vint Cerf, who by appearance might as well be God. Unlike Los Angeles in 2049, the Matrix is designed to be more or less a livable place. Moreover, Morpheus offers a way out of the illusion--a "red pill" that enables the hero to see the Matrix as a kind of game, with rules that can be bent.
The sense of unreality in 2049 isn't the consequence of some game. It can't be "won". When Joshi speaks of "keeping order" in a world about to spin apart, she is not giving voice to any architect, implicit or otherwise. In this, Villeneuve raises a prospect that is arguably more frightening than being at the whims of hidden puppet-masters: the terror that there is no one in control at all.
© 2018 Nicholas Nicastro