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Low Culture 13: Blade Runner 2049 & The Afterlife Of Culture
Gordon Moakes , July 23rd, 2020 07:48

Gordon Moakes has only just got round to watching Blade Runner 2049, but that's OK, he says, as clearly time has stopped working like it should

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“It’s like wasting everything/ On someone else’s dream”
Sebadoh - ‘Dramamine’

In the future, there is no future.

I finally sat down to watch Blade Runner 2049 this week. Coming to it two and a half years late doesn’t feel like the critical oversight it might once have been, given these scattershot times of permanent content, whereby the great leaps of technical storytelling we used to expect from year to year no longer seem to materialise. Besides, 2049 doesn’t offer some great insight into the passing of time one might assume from its title. Rather, it seems to be an unintended admission of the failure of Hollywood to foretell anything like a vision of the future anymore — even a dystopian vision of the future. And it even fails in this admission, just as it admits its failure. What Blade Runner 2049 really says is: we’re not trying to make films about the future anymore; our films about the future exist only as of the past. Still, while I suspect my opinions (much like the film itself) may have been better extrapolated ahead of my own attempts, it gave me pause to think about time, about temporality, about what no longer feels possible in 2020.

Having grown up as a fan of Blade Runner through its different iterations — the wilderness years of Ridley Scott’s first, forsaken version, his tinkered Director’s Cut, through to the elaborate repackaging of his Final Cut in 2007 — I was predictably squeamish about the liberties Denis Villeneuve’s sequel might take with the canon and whether or not it might lead me to disown its predecessor. This is how I feel about Star Wars now, which, after years of being flogged into a cadaverous mush, finally embodies the piece of cultural crap I used to think it wasn’t.

But it’s 2020 and everything is sequel now. Like Star Wars: Return Of The Force (or whatever it’s called), Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel everyone/no one wanted, but we all got regardless. Because of, well, the technologies of late capitalism in the 20-teens, we’ve learnt to hate what we love and love what we hate anyway, our very reactions now coming woven into culture’s meta-commentary — as long for the most part we’re still prepared to part with the dough. Interestingly though, Blade Runner 2049 manages to do what most of these kinds of sequels do at the same time as what most of them don’t, which is to be genuinely evocative of its own milieu, but at the same time repudiate it in the very act of staying true to it. Think of it as a film made by loyal replicants, ignorant to their own mechanical plight (but more of Jared Leto later); or rather, a field of convincingly ovine electric sheep dreamed by a team of androids.

Of course the major advantage of the original Blade Runner in the knotty business of retro-futurism is that it came, in 1982, preloaded with its own retrograde gloom, a tipped wink to the yesteryear glamour and grime of classic American noir. Like the Philip K. Dick book it’s based on, Blade Runner takes claustrophobic visions of our world’s possibilities and projects them both forward and backward in order to circumscribe them with the authenticity of knowing. It understands, much as Dick did, that our dreams of the future are nightmares, believable precisely because they are so firmly rooted in our own pasts. Watching the documentary footage included in the Final Cut package, I came to the conclusion that Blade Runner was perhaps the last great innovative leap in the modernist imaginary of the pre-digital age. Its painstaking use of analogue film-matte techniques would be considered clunky and a waste of time now, and yet it is precisely these methods that deliver the analogue warmth and heart that give the film such resonance. It can claim a degree of uniqueness as a result, but in rehabilitating a mysterious stylistic bygone, it has become cliché: our last genuinely speculative vision of the future, frozen in cinematic aspic. And, as is increasingly the case with such one-offs of film history, the long taboo on sequelising it now seems merely quaint: it’s a wonder it wasn’t cashed in on years ago. 2049 takes what is really just an illusion of temporal distance — thirty-five years of time that digital technologies can now simply negate — and combines it with the perfect narrative symmetry of its appearance in 2017 (two years before Blade Runner was set) as broad excuse to live happily, enthusiastically, in the former film’s shadow.

2049 is therefore jammed to the gills with self-acknowledging self-pastiche, one tiny badge of which is the Ready Player One barrage of corporate logos from 1982. Pan Am and Atari are behemoths on the branded skyline of 2049, much as they were in the future-dream of 1982: in pretending to stop time along this corporate axis, the film comes to represent a kind of meta-world, a peeled-off single multiverse of capitalist realism which in the end (since this is the point of capitalist realism, its sheer irrefutable inevitability) is exactly the same as ours. It is an authenticity of the world as both is and will be that makes Blade Runner ambitiously believable, yet falls flat in 2049 as all too believably unambitious.

The template of Star Wars: The Force Strikes Again (or whatever it’s called) is practically hard-grafted onto 2049. The template is to be brashly, unapologetically regurgitative in the name of recreating the experience it’s intended to be instantiating. In other words, in order to leave you feeling like you’ve watched something new, it must be as near as possible the same film again. So, in 2049, every trope, every character, every set-piece and narrative arc is an analogue of another in Blade Runner. World-weary gun-toting Deckard becomes world-weary gun-toting K, another blade runner ‘retiring’ replicants, only this time as a self-aware replicant (albeit plagued by the same is-he-isn’t-he dialectics of memory as his predecessor); he too has a flying car sweeping over the same apocalyptic LA, in the same shots set to the same music. He has the same foes and grievances, the same rebel streak, if not quite, let’s be honest, the same chiselled jaw. Since Blade Runner’s Tyrell is dead (and apparently didn’t think to create a replicant of himself) in 2049 he becomes Wallace, successor to the earlier roboticist’s dynasty and, of course, his hubristic ego. We see prostitute droids, transparent plastic coats, neon-lit market stalls and hovering billboards, all familiarly plotted across scenes that apparently include some dropped from the original screenplay. Much like K’s first physical sexual experience with his holographic girlfriend Joi, the film overlays itself, a phantom in duplicate, upon another more substantial rendering. It doesn’t even pretend to be different, just another.

Those actors in 2049 not simply reprising archetypes actually get to sequelise themselves. The most vividly demented reprisal of all is that of Rachael, Sean Young’s icy-cool, impossibly alluring replicant, returning from the original film. The digital re-rendering of Rachael as eminently revivifiable through the wonders of digital cinematography, is in fact the film’s most striking failure. Ironically, Rachael now looks clunky, inhuman, inanimate: the opposite of the breathlessly sensuous, ineffably (not quite) human character she embodied in 1982. She is dead, and there is no possibility of eliciting anything approaching warmth towards her, which is exactly everything that Tyrell—or rather, Ridley Scott—managed to overcome in his initial creation of her*. The flipside of Rachael’s return is that of Harrison Ford’s Deckard, the is-he-or-isn’t-he human cipher at the centre of Blade Runner: only now, just like all the old favourites returning in Star Wars Part 15 (including Ford himself), old enough to know better. If Deckard is still a replicant, we must conclude he’s been designed to age much as a human would have in the interim—exactly as much as Harrison Ford has, in fact (which, given his continuing chiselled features, isn’t as much as you might like). Two characters running in different directions then: one inevitably through age towards expiry, the other backwards through technology towards immortal agelessness; twin knells of the film’s failure to reach beyond its legacy, leaving it instead only to fold in upon itself.

The thing is, there’s a lot to like about Blade Runner 2049. It’s evocative, often beautiful, at times hauntingly well-crafted. But how much of what I like is its evocation of the spirit of Blade Runner, its inhabiting of a world already created, rather than any scintilla of newness or originality? How much of it is itself a replicant, a Rachael in cinematic form? Certainly there are set-pieces that do manage to tread deftly into new territory. Some of the interiors, rippled with shimmering watery shadows, feel unique and different: a shudder of the possible breathed momentarily upon the film’s canvas. The film’s central idea, even, of the possibility of replicant procreation, is a tantalising what-if rich with potential. But the idea is never examined in anything other than broad, simplistic strokes. We are never given the chance to fully consider to what extent such a being might be human: in terms of the film, the repercussions are discussed mostly in economic terms. Yet a quick skim over the first chapter of Marx’s Capital or Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto are reminders that even that lens of viewpoint could be itself be vibrantly rich with thought-provoking possibility.** In fact, let’s remember Blade Runner’s Roy Batty for a moment, and reflect on how his fragile understanding of his fate—not just as mortal, but as an endlessly exploitable drudge of economic power—marks the violent break with false consciousness that underpins the first film’s comeuppance, one that Marx himself might have applauded.

The clunkiest misstep of the film, though, lies in the shape of Jared Leto. Perhaps the most replicant-y actor to ever scythe a career through film (and for that matter music, bringing much the same colour-by-numbers ‘humanity’ to his band Thirty Seconds To Mars as he has to his acting) Leto is supposed to embody the heir apparent to both Tyrell’s monomaniacal wizardry and, more importantly, his evil intent. Such devilish hubris should be the film’s great counterpoint: here is the most human trait of all writ large—greedy, selfish arrogance. And yet Leto supplies a wooden, robotic quality to the role, all millennial beard and slithery lurking. It’s partly him, partly the corny quality of the regurgitated baddie, that results in Wallace coming over as this film’s flimsy Kylo Ren, with a side-order of Silicon Valley’s Gavin Belson. Wallace is to Blade Runner’s Tyrell what Rachael comes to be to herself: a pale imitation, stripped of weight and believability. And yet, I can’t help but think how much more successful the character could have been if portrayed by Villeneuve’s first choice, David Bowie — the latter altogether expired by the time the film went into production.

Blade Runner 2049, a film released in 2017 about a film set in 2019 made in 1982, is where we are at in cultural history. Not just in film, in music, in pop culture, but in time itself. We are now in the afterlife, where things are not about themselves anymore but about other things that have already happened or been made. Our television and cinema viewing is stacked up with remakes, reboots, bell-ringing pastiches like Stranger Things or out-and-out self-immolating nostalgia trips like Ready Player One, all of which plink out all those satisfyingly familiar notes of the tunes of our memory-experience, in a slightly different order than we remember no doubt, but close enough as to be identical. Such critical gripes with Hollywood’s obsession with its own past are already pretty old themselves: the theorist Fredric Jameson noted as long ago as 1984 the phenomenon in film culture, noting how flimsy the word ‘remake’ was for the constant re-birthing churn of Hollywood ideas, a term “anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions… is now a constitutive and essential part of the film's structure.” Writing in the early 1980s, sometime between the releases of Blade Runner and Back To The Future, Jameson notes a shared nudge-nudge between film-maker and audience, a subtle metatextual meaning both implied and inferred. Now, the implication is stripped of any subtlety: the past must scream at the audience from the screen, expecting us to whoop along in a performative re-experiencing of what came before. We are dreaming ourselves, and our memories of the great stories and cinematic moments of the bygone are just implants.

The deep irony of Blade Runner 2049 is that it actually does embody the thorny subject at the heart of its own script: can something mechanical birth something organic, beautiful and free? Can the caged automaton be set loose from its android origins, to hover untethered, like discarded Kubrick footage, across the Montana mountainsides?

The answer, apparently, is no.

(* The discussion about the success or otherwise of technologically conjured humanity hinges often around the notion of the uncanny valley: the marked dip in emotional response the closer a technology comes to mimicking, or passing off, human characteristics. It is the uncanny valley that Rachael version 2.0 falls spectacularly, flat-faced, to the bottom of.)

(** As Haraway notes, writing in 1985, "The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism.")