Perhaps one of the most difficult moments for a film director is to receive an offer from an established Hollywood studio to make a movie based on a classic. It does not matter whether the project in question is a remake, a sequel, a spin-off, or a prequel; it puts one in an unenviable position. It is nearly impossible to satisfy the audience no matter what one manages to do with the material at hand. To face this challenge successfully, one must strike a perfect balance between asserting one’s unique aesthetics and observing numerous parameters and restrictions set by the predecessor. And we all know one thing about perfection: It is categorically impossible to achieve it. Hence we must send a hearty congratulation to Denis Villeneuve for having managed to nearly pull it off with his sequel to Ridley Scott’s landmark achievement, Blade Runner (1982).
Whilst Villeneuve’s version should be appreciated independently on its merit alone, there is no denying that the movie would not have seen the light of day without Scott’s original. However, exploring the rich and complex world of Blade Runner requires some in-depth analysis: One must examine each film independently, but also as a part of the expanded universe created by both. Since this article is meant to be an immediate response to Villeneuve’s film, I wish to restrict myself to discussing it without performing a detailed analysis, which should be followed at the right moment. I shall also refrain from disclosing the details of the plot just in case you might not have had a chance to experience this cinema. In fact, on this occasion, I am going to pursue a one and only argument: Blade Runner 2049 is not a mere sequel to Scott’s masterpiece. It is a ‘follow-up’ that should have been the original, yet has never been conceived, that is, until now.
I am fully aware that by committing myself to such a claim I am putting myself in an unpopular position. Being a devoted follower of the ‘original’, I have my doubts. Still, there is one reason that forces me to accept my position: the outlook and the tone of Blade Runner 2049. The first five minutes of the movie made me realise that 2049 is the Blade Runner I always wanted to see. I have to be clear: My judgment is not based on some particulars about the plot, design, or CGI; it is impossible to judge these elements in the first five minutes of the movie. 2049 immediately struck the right chord because of its outlook and the tone with which it is expressed. As great as the ‘original’ Blade Runner is, I always have had some reservations about its outlook and the tone. And thus, in what follows, I shall elaborate on the reason why Blade Runner 2049 should be considered the standard-bearer instead of Scott’s version.
The ‘original’ Blade Runner was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The story features post-apocalyptic San Francisco wherein surviving humans are struggling to distinguish themselves from androids called replicants by ‘cultivating’ and ‘expressing’ empathy, for androids are said to have none. The story follows two characters: Dickard, a bounty hunter who is tasked to ‘retire’ rogue androids who came to Earth; and John, who offers a helping hand to fugitive androids. The novel challenges the assumptions about what makes ‘us’ human, and what separates humans from ‘machines’ who look and behave like humans. (I shall refrain from offering a detailed analysis regarding these matters, for I have already done so in my article on Alex Garland’s Ex Machina)..
Scott’s version is known for a few alterations to Dick’s vision: 1) Dickard is now a part of government law enforcement called Blade Runner, the name borrowed from the title of William S. Burroughs’ novel; 2) The story now unfolds in a future Los Angels, instead of San Francisco; and 3) The story now focuses on Dickard (Harrison Ford), and one can only find a trace of John in the character, Sebastian (William Sanderson), who falls victim to two replicants, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), due to his naïvité. Despite the changes, Dick loved the movie. He loved that the future landscape was exactly what he imagined for the novel. If anyone has explored Dick’s world prior to the exposure to the movie, it comes as no surprise to see how darkly psychedelic the world of Blade Runner is. The post-apocalyptic LA is constantly drenched with acid rain, and the glittering urban landscape wherein exotic characters dwell is strangely alluring in its decay. It is at once chaotic, exotic, sexy, and darkly romantic. The aesthetic impact of Blade Runner was such that Scott’s vision firmly established the standard against which every work in Sci-Fi is judged.
Villeneuve’s LA, set 30 years posterior to the ‘original’, is also fascinatingly dark, yet without the seductive allure of the ‘original’: It forces us to look straight into the abyss. The LA in 2049 offers awe-inspiring landscape from a great distance, yet, once up-close, it reveals the numbing bleakness. This is not to say that Villeneuve’s LA is not ‘smart’ and ‘sexy’. The main protagonist K (Ryan Gosling) lives in a smart accommodation with a companion named Joi (Ana de Armas) who instantaneously adopts to K’s mood and desire. It is clear that she is no comparison to the sex doll who belongs to another protagonist performed by Gosling for Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007). Joi ‘exists’ in the world of AR (Augmented Reality), and is stunning to look at and to interact with. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Joi is that she is not merely reactive; she actively augments K’s ‘reality’ according to what she sees as his needs, and, gradually, she begins to implement ‘her own desire’ to ‘their reality’. She can even ‘synchronise’ with a ‘real woman’ called Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to have a ‘physical interaction’ with K. Yet, unlike the world of Virtual Reality as seen in Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999), in the AR of 2049, one can still retain some sense of ‘objective reality’, albeit it is visually and affectively altered to the point that one finds oneself more at home with this dynamically curated ‘reality’ than with the world existing independently from it.
And who would be so holy as to blame K for his attitude? In the world to which he is condemned, there is no way for a replicant like K to feel some semblance of solace from the punishing grind that is invented only for the likes of Sisyphus and Prometheus. It is not that there is no opportunity for self-indulgence and pleasure; in fact the street is over-saturated with it. This is a world wherein pleasure and pain reign supreme, and human sentiments such as ‘joy’ and ‘love’ have no place to survive. Unmoved by the overabundance of pleasure, K longs to build a genuine relationship with his beautiful companion, whose name, Joi, is incidentally a quirky variant of the name of one of the extinct emotions mentioned above. To add to this troubling predicament, K is confronted by Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a super-replicant. She is the present right-hand of Neander Wallace (Jared Leto), the God of Industrial Materialism (to get the sense of this term, please read my review of The Big Short) who has been producing every replicant since the ‘Black Out’, a bloody plot involving a handful of replicants and a rogue human agent that destroyed all records of existing replicants, allowing them to go underground ( ‘Black Out’). After the official prohibition of producing replicants, Wallace took over the assets of Tyrell Corporation, founded by the inventor of replicant technology, Dr. Tyrell, and gained permission to produce new models that allegedly follow human commands to the letter without exception (‘New Dawn’). He not only develops replicants; his company controls the design and production of all synthetic form of life with which humans survive. Since Luv is given a special status within Wallace’s universe, as K rightly guessed, she is designed to be a cut above the rest. Luv is visually stunning and intellectually far superior than just about anyone, yet, despite her pleasing manners and appearances, she shows no love at critical moments. Luv first presents herself as an elegant assistant/representative of Neander Wallace just as Rachael (Sean Young) did for Dr. Tyrell, yet she soon proves herself to be a deadly force to be reckoned with: She is a ruthless operator, and terrifyingly effective as a solitary assassin, a special commando captain, and a cold-blooded tormentor, who carefully conceals shockingly deep and complex emotions, which erupts in a rare moment of outburst with earth-shattering ferocity. The intensity concealed beneath the tranquil exterieur makes her a truly remarkable creature. As a result she renders her predecessor, Rachael, lamentably ordinary. Luv is elegantly conflicted yet fiercely effective, and in that, she embodies the Zeitgeist of 2049: Even in its most serene moments, the future presented by Villeneuve is starkly unforgiving.
Again, Villeneuve’s vision is not without smart and beauty; if anything, it is the opposite. Yet, the overwhelming impression of 2049 is that of abysmal bleakness and cold despair. Sexuality is overflowing the city, yet there is nothing sexy and sensual about the world of 2049. In this, Villeneuve might get a nod from Steve McQueen who once stated that he aimed to direct a movie about sex (Shame, 2011) without making it sexy. Whilst it might not be initially obvious, it is not difficult to see the link between Shame and 2049. Whilst Shame is situated in present day New York City, Villeneuve’s LA is a natural habitat for the likes of Brandon (Michael Fassbender); we won’t be surprised at all to see him stumbling out of one of the orgy parlours on street. Like McQueen’s NYC, 2049 is sexual without being sexy. The difference between the two worlds is that, in 2049, everyone is turned inside-out and the very concept of ‘privacy’ is annihilated. This condition is due to the loss of humane sensibility that originates from: 1) the series of bloody struggles that began with nuclear apocalypse followed by the violence between humans and replicants; 2) the technological advancement that enabled the dystopian synthesis of humans and replicants; and 3) the disorienting conflation of ‘objective reality’ and the augmented one. The combined effect of dehumanisation at all fronts destroys every possibility for sociality. In this warped and self-absorbing world of uninhibited desiring, there ceases to be a need to impose any prohibitive measure to the expression and the enactment of desire. And thus, in 2049, we won’t recognise Brandon since he no longer has to safeguard his respectability in any way. It is a world devoid of guilt and shame. It is a social imperative that every fantasy and desire must be instantaneously satisfied, and every possible fantasy and desire must be induced into the mind of everyone. The result is the endless loop of activities that stimulate the reward circuit without a moment of rest. And the LA of 2049 is flooding with powerful stimulus, and one continues a repeated course of action out of inertia. It is the world wherein nobody remembers how to will. Law is upheld and enforced, yet only for the sake of its own preservation.
K cuts a solitary figure in 2049. As a replicant, he has no past or future. He is nothing but one of a countless ‘disposable workforce’. He may live longer than his predecessors such as Nexus 6, yet the extended lifespan, once so longed by the likes of Roy and Pris, does not offer any meaningfulness. As everyone else thinks nothing of grabbing whatever life might offer to stimulate one’s already tortured reward circuit, K’s muted response to the hollowness of his own existence and the world that produced his kind darkens the already sombre mood. In 2049, there is no longer a safe haven from the system, even in the shadiest of corners. Legal or illegal, pleasure and pain are the currency of the day, and this reductive paradigm is the direct result of the scheme advanced by Wallace: Since the majority of the populace is entirely disposable, they must have nothing but pleasure and pain to occupy themselves. Yet such a repetition should always result in an overpowering numbness; one can only go so far by feeding the reward circuit with whatever one might fancy at any given moment. After a prolonged sensory overload, like Brandon in the opening scene of Shame, one finds oneself eternally suspended in a shuddering emptiness. And it is where Villeneuve demonstrates his best asset: the remarkable adeptness with multi-temporal storytelling. Unlike Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016), this aspect of his talent is not obvious in 2049. Yet, through K, Villeneuve makes it clear that his story is as much about the present as about the possible future. The soul-crushing emptiness thus is not only about the post-apocalyptic future. It is also about here and now.
It is from this perspective that Scott’s vision falls short. Blade Runner is known for its exotic and colourful representation of the post-apocalyptic future, and its darkly psychedelic world is embraced by none other than Philip K. Dick himself. It is chaotic and disorienting, yet glittering with promise of pleasure and brimming with sexuality. Yet, ironically, these are the qualities that make Scott’s Blade Runner betray the premise of being the movie about the Götterdämmerung wherein one faces a question: What does make us human in a world which is founded upon paralysing nihilism? Is there any meaningful way to affirm and restore one’s humanity when one’s world is reduced to pleasure and pain? Sadly Scott’s answer is only half-right. His response consists of two elements: a traditional Hollywood fairy tale and the Eastern influence which began to find a foothold in the American popular culture in the 1970s. The influence of Eastern philosophy was superficially, and most lamentably, popularised by The Star Wars franchise in Hollywood, yet it has found a sublime expression in Roy, who comes to accept his mortality and transcends his desire to avenge Deckard’s murder of his lover, Pris, and saves his nemesis from a certain death. Whilst the notion of ‘Letting Go’ nearly always rings hollow as an abstract punch line of wanton philosophy, ironically, it finally finds a perfect representation in a tortured android. Delivered by Rutger Hauer, a poetic monologue which likens our existence to ‘tears in the rain’ transforms our perception of mortality. Death is no longer the subject of dread and fear: By surrendering to it, paradoxically, one can no longer be touched by it. This scene is the defining moment of Blade Runner. If not for Hauer’s Roy, Scott’s version cannot be held with the same regard; its importance would be strictly historical.
Whilst Scott’s response contains a genuine breakthrough, it is only half a story, and sadly, the rest is an abject failure. In searching of the meaning to be human, Scott also resorts to the notion of ‘love’ between mortals. It is the same concept that rendered Arrival so unforgettable, though Scott’s interpretation of ‘love’ is far too narrow: It is restricted to a love between adults of opposite genders. And the narrowness is not the only problem. The very nature of the above mentioned engagement between genders is abysmal in Blade Runner. Whilst the relationship between Roy and Pris represents the acute poignancy of genuine love between mortals, the same cannot say about Deckard and Rachael. The way in which they engage one another is oft considered ‘sexy’ and ‘romantic’, yet one would only tolerate this view if one is also willing to live with the Geist of ‘simpler times’ when the dance of attraction was exclusively played by ‘divas’ and ‘tough guys’. This point is most evident in the scene wherein Deckard dominates Rachael and feeds her speech line by line to dictate the terms of their engagement. The scheme is a tested and proven Hollywood fairy tale format borrowed from the Western films and the urban noir of 1950s wherein a belle falls for a tough guy who breaks down all resistance to win his way to her bed chamber. The scene in question induced a cringe back then, and it still does. What should be considered a proper date-rape passes as something ‘sexy’ and ‘romantic’ only because of Scott’s, and the audience’s, compliance to a still undying social convention about gender relations.
There are social and aesthetic implications to Scott’s adherence to such a norm. The former is unambiguous: Cinema acts as an enforcement of a standard of correctness, however abhorrent it might be. The latter point requires a little elaboration, for it forms a part of my contention, that is, Scott’s outlook of our future-past and the tone with which it was expressed are completely off the mark. One of the problems with Blade Runner is its stunning visuals: The LA reimagined by Scott is ‘colourful’, ‘intriguing’, ‘exotic’, and ‘sexy’. As iconic as it is, however, given the bleakness of the human condition, the cinema should have adopted much darker and muted tone. The world which submits to the tyranny of pleasure principle should not appear alluring at all. The reason why it appears so seductive in the ‘original’ is simple: Scott himself was seduced by it. After all, it is only as alluring as he wanted it to be. Yet, as we have seen, the constant surrender to the reward circuit does not provide joy. Sadly, we had to wait the arrival of Steve McQueen’s masterclass in Shame to fully realise the depth and the extent of nihilism in a industrially materialistic world. And thus, we must consider ourselves fortunate to see what Villeneuve has done with 2049; his is the perspective that does justice to our time when we finally begin to seriously question the ruthless and systematic exploitation of the ‘Other’. It is only through the eyes of K that we begin to find a way within the darkness of our future-past. As Wallace likes to remind us, every civilisation is built on the back of ‘disposable labourers’, and ours is no different. And, like K, we must find this world unliveable.
Scott’s ‘original’ has another fundamental problem: the absurd revelation toward the end. After constructing a darkly fascinating dystopia, out of the blue, Scott reveals that there is a place to run and live free. True, the escape involves extreme risks and the freedom earned is always going to be short-lived due to the fixed lifespan of replicants. Still, the very notion of the outside world, or a Frontier, if you will, neutralises the existential angst under which the main protagonists were placed in the rain drenched LA. This ending makes one ask: Why didn’t anyone escape from this hell in the first place? Thus, the ‘original’ ends with a suspenseful yet hopeful note, for a story must always end with the customary ‘Happily Ever After’. Given what we should have learnt about the predicaments of our civilisation, such a routine enforcement of a ‘happy ending’ strikes one as simply heinous. And thus, one must conclude that Scott made another serious misstep. Unfortunately, this is not the only shortcoming of the film. As we have already seen, Scott also indulged himself far too much with the allure of his ‘future’ wonderland. Whilst its aesthetic is impressive, given the premise of the story, the much applauded vision full of exorcism and sexuality is seriously misapplied: Blade Runner must be simply far above such a candy fest. As Villeneuve and McQueen demonstrated, there is a way to represent pleasures without fascination. Whilst I can see why Dick and many others love Scott’s psychedelia, the outlook and the tone of his film is simply too goofy considering the background of the story.
Still, the main problem with the existence of Frontier is not the poorly executed narrative. By introducing an escape route, Scott betrays the very premise of the story, that is, protagonists’ struggles to come to terms with the universal human condition, such as mortality and the arbitrariness of our identities. To be fair, one must note that Scott made it clear that Frontier is no Heaven, and thus it does not provide the freedom from the human condition itself. Yet, by shifting the focus of the story by setting up an escape of Deckard and Rachael, Scott distracts himself and the audience from the fact that there is no place to run. This is the point where Villeneuve distinguished himself from his predecessor despite Scott’s involvement: The Canadian strictly prohibited any sense of possible escape not only for Gosling’s K, but for every single character. The bleakness of the outlook of our future-past as well as the tone through which the story is told might be difficult to bear for some. Yet, given what we can responsibly judge from all we can see at present moment, this seems to be the only way to truthfully and sincerely represent our possible ‘future’. It is the world which we must find insufferable. It is the world saturated with pleasure and pain, yet without joy or love. It is the world where life and living have lost meaning. It is the world without guilt and shame. Then the question must be asked: What makes us human in the world like this? Remarkably, K has found an answer of his own. In this, Villeneuve and Gosling both achieved something of vital importance. It is something which is as sublime as Hauer’s Roy discovered, yet with Gosling’s understatement, much harder to gain the audience. Yet such a condition has its own virtue: It is not going to be as ‘iconic’ as Roy’s scene, yet it will be less exploited by the talking heads. Therefore, despite my admiration for the ‘original’ Blade Runner, a dose of shuddering sobriety and philosophical depth expressed in 2049 forces me to admit: Blade Runner 2049 is no sequel in an ordinary sense; this is how it should have been done in the first place.