This review contains major spoilers!
When Joi – AI hologram and lover of K (Ryan Gosling) – peers into hydroponic jars belonging to Deckard, we briefly hear a low oscillating hum; the same hum heard in Deckard’s apartment in the original 1982 Blade Runner. One of the joys of revisiting Ridley Scott’s early masterpieces Alien and Blade Runner lies in noticing the detailed textures of the worlds he realised, one layer of which is the subtle sound design that makes their technological or artificial environments breathe. The reappearance of this sound shows the meticulous artistry of Blade Runner 2049.
Another aspect of Scott’s organic style in Blade Runner is his use of reflected or mobile light across walls, floors and through windows, notably in Tyrell’s apartment, where Rachel is introduced – a scene echoed and replayed in 2049. Denis Villeneuve amplifies Scott’s technique to almost ridiculous proportions, in Wallace’s water-filled room and in other parts of the Tyrell headquarters, most conspicuously. The monumental Tyrell pyramid now belongs to Niander Wallace, the blind genius who acquired the Tyrell Corporation upon its collapse, using it as the base for his new generation of slavishly obedient replicants. But Villeneuve’s pulls it off, and his bold stylistic choices make 2049 a marvel of light, colour, design and epic cinematography.
The music (Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch stepped in after Villeneuve’s go-to guy Jóhann Jóhannsson was replaced, himself having replaced rapper-producer El-P) achieves the impossible. It references Vangelis’ peerless, somnolent score without lazy pastiche, adding deeper strata of darker industrial rasp and orchestral swell. When the elegiac ‘tears in rain’ theme surfaced toward the end, I was close to shedding a tear myself, thankful that my cherished memories of Blade Runner (memory being as important in 2049 as it is in the original) had not been abused, and relieved to be watching a sequel I could celebrate and contemplate on its own terms for a long time to come.
The movie contains too many themes to discuss in a single review but, like its predecessor, 2049 asks the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ – or sentient, putting it in its broadest terms. The world of Blade Runner – in 2019 as in 2049 – walks the knife-edge between human and artificial life (organic and digital).
Issues of memory, reality, authenticity in a world where nearly every ‘natural’ thing has disappeared or been destroyed, freedom of the body, the will and the spirit, desire, the search for meaning: are all raised by the script. Hampton Fancher, who co-scripted the original (ably joined by Michael Green here), shows once again that he understands the world of Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was Blade Runner’s source). In fact, he inhabits it to such a degree that 2049 is no pale imitation. It is a continuation of Dick’s themes, an extension that feels like part of an ongoing enquiry. These questions are urgent and up-to-the-minute, even as they sit within the genre frame of dystopian sci-fi noir that was definitively crystallised in Blade Runner.
And as with its predecessor, 2049 lends itself to a Marxist/Adornian reading effortlessly. Thirty years may have passed since Deckard’s ordeal with the Nexus 6 replicants, but society remains saturated, administered and degraded by capitalism. Corporations control everything, consumption in all its forms constitutes the sum total of human activity; sex, desire and intimacy are mediated by technology owned, in large part, by Wallace, the pre-eminent oligarch. Capital has destroyed all but the last few traces of ‘authentic’ life, leaving society’s inhabitants adrift in a world that might pay lip-service to the distinction between human and replicant, between individuals invested with a soul and nameless labour units manufactured only to serve, but all meaningful difference between the two has long since evaporated.
This loss of the ‘human’ is the end result of capitalism’s domination of ‘nature’. If all natural things are usurped, overwritten by facsimiles whose only value lies in their exchangeability and profit potential, then ultimately the human being succumbs to its own commodification, becoming indistinguishable from the units of consumption it used to treat as materially inferior. Spirit and individuality dissolve.
Like Tyrell before him, Niander Wallace manufactures replicant slaves, but his are now fully under his control. Wallace is not happy with the limited number of workers his production line is able to bring forth, however, and dreams of owning the means to control replicant-to-replicant procreation. He dreams of commodifying and administering life itself. A male protagonist seeking the means to control organic creation is a theme close to Ridley Scott’s heart, found in Alien (skewed by the lens of horror), Blade Runner, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Wallace’s moral and ethical blindness is signalled by his actual blindness, as Dr Eldon Tyrell’s was by his thick-lensed glasses that symbolised his inability to see the suffering his business practices were rooted in.
But there are other replicants in 2049, older models with less built-in constraints, who have slipped through the cracks and are organising in the shadows. They too seek the means to procreate, but freely. They crave a kind of ‘nature’ that would prove their spiritual value and put them on equal footing with humans. Deckard, and his past love for the replicant Rachel, hold the key to Wallace’s and the rebel replicants’ dreams.
Unfortunately, inevitably perhaps, all this pondering the nature of humanity is the preserve of men. Although the movie contains several female characters in authority, women are almost exclusively the product of the objectifying male gaze. 2049 barely scrapes through the Bechdel test (two female characters must exchange a few lines on a subject other than the male protagonists). Three characters have some degree of power, which isn’t bad for a mainstream movie: Joshi, the police lieutenant (Robin Wright), Freysa, the replicant revolutionary (Hiam Abbass) and Marriette, the fabricator of memories who lives in a sealed dome due to illness (Mackenzie Davis). Joshi dresses asexually, an honorary man, the other two are, for different reasons, pariahs or exiles. Most women in the movie are replicants, holograms or sex-workers (replicant sex-workers in many cases). In other words, they are commodified expressions of male fantasy.
In this, 2049 bears out Jaques Lacan’s largely misunderstood statement ‘woman does not exist’. In a society – a symbolic order – under the administering control of patriarchy, female subjectivity is illegitimate, denied, robbed of signifying power. The only thing allowed to occupy its place is the overlay of male fantasy. So, in the ‘real’ world of 2049, woman does not signify, and so does not exist within the symbolic order. This overlay is what makes the only sex scene of the movie so haunting and unsettling. K – as a replicant who earlier refused the advances of an apparently human prostitute – is persuaded by Joi to make love with the same prostitute as she is ‘synced’ with Joi’s holographic emanation. As the body of Joi merges imperfectly with the physical body she has commanded to act as her real-world avatar, we witness a disturbing threesome of sorts, within which Joi is a manufactured digital companion (who does seem to be sentient while remaining proprietary technology) and the prostitute is an exploited sex-worker dressed as a Pris-lookalike (Blade Runner’s pleasure model), who we later discover is herself a replicant. Both are victims of 2049’s culture of numb obscenity and male domination. All are artificial beings enganging in intimacies that the scene depicts as conveying genuine tenderness, authentic love, despite or because of its paradoxes.
The real arises out of the unreal. Replicants have produced offspring (either fully or partially, depending upon where you stand on Deckard’s humanity), and the ‘natural’ has a chance of returning by this ‘miracle’ (as Dave Bautista’s Sapper calls it).
As K approaches Deckard’s hideout, he comes upon teeming beehives. Where have they come from? Medieval thinkers believed that bees were born spontaneously from rotting corpses. In 2049, a dying world, destroyed by joyless consumption, lingering in the graveyard of its own pleasures, begins to show signs of regeneration and innocence, nurtured by those who will apparently cause the final collapse of humankind if they are allowed to survive.
But this innocence is fragile and threatened, and may perish before it finds its strength. It must be hidden, protected, nurtured under domes like the life inside Deckard’s hydroponic jars. Interestingly, this innocent ‘nature’ is synonymous with the (expelled) genuine female subject. Mariette, we learn, is Deckard’s daughter, progeny of a replicant. She is the great miracle, the new thing, but she suffers from a condition that means she cannot survive in the outside world. Exposure would destroy her innate purity, just as exposure to the brutalities of patriarchal capitalism would erase her self-possessed, non-objectified selfhood.
Wallace – as exemplar of the capitalist mind-set – is significantly blind to this dimension of the feminine as ‘nature’ promising a renewal that is perceived as a mortal threat. In this the feminine also stands as the irredeemable otherness of the ‘real’. The hovering machines that Wallace uses to scrutinize the world are shaped like electronic fish. They swim through the air in Wallace’s apartments that are illuminated with golden aquatic reflections. Water has traditionally been associated with femininity (the oceans and their moon-governed tides). It is as if Wallace exists in the feminine element, unable to comprehend it, craving ownership of and authority over it, but unable to comprehend or appreciate its true value.
These threads extend Blade Runner’s themes in ways that qualify it as one of the most successful and provocative sequels in many years. In fact, I am struggling to think of a sequel, made so long after its original, that stands with such assurance on its own merits while connecting so intimately with its progenitor. The incoherent and pointless 2010 (dir. Peter Hyams, 1984), sequel to 2001 (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968), shows how easy it is to get it wrong. 2049 gets so much right that its reputation as a classic, and as an object lesson, is assured.
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