Blade Runner 2049 — Of Dystopia and Disappointments
I came out of the cinema yesterday with Blade Runner 2049 lodged in my mind like a splinter that just won't come out. In many ways, it's a magnificent film that gets so many things beautifully right, and yet... and yet.
At first I thought I was reacting to the overwhelming whiteness of the film. There are barely any people of colour we see in Blade Runner 2049. A couple of extras are black. Barkhad Abdi (remember the pirate in Captain Phillips?) and Edward James Olmos have cameos, but then so does the origami unicorn. The film has Cuban actress Ana de Armas playing a significant role, and she looks as white as Ryan Gosling. Hiam Abbass has a part that's critically important, but fleeting in terms of screen presence and time. That's about it as far as skin tones go. You expect Hollywood to do better in 2017.
Especially when there's a character called Lieutenant Joshi. Indians, do not rejoice because I can't think of a single situation in which Robin Wright — blonde, gorgeous and brilliant as she may be — would blend in if there was a gathering of Joshis. Look, I love Robin Wright and I'm happy to see her on screen because she's great even though her role is about as dynamic as her character's wardrobe (Joshi wears black and more black, and more black. But look! Was that a strip of grey on the edge of that collar? Gasp). Still, no matter how awesome Wright is, you can't forget the fact that this is not one of those roles that's written with an actor in mind. It could have been played by anyone who can act. So why not someone who you can imagine has the surname Joshi without suspension of disbelief?
Looking at racial diversity in Blade Runner 2049 isn't just about being politically correct and tokenism. Dystopic fiction takes so many of its cues from the projects of colonisation and slavery. More often than not, the plot is about a mass of people are under an oppressive regime or master. Usually, the divide is on the basis of something other than skin colour, but whatever the 'logic' of this oppressive system, the point is that one set is master and the other is made up subjects who are dehumanised, just like in colonisation and slavery. Yet cinema has struggled with including people of colour in these narratives, which is why to most of us, the different shades of white and white seems normal.
That said, I can't help wondering whether the all-white Blade Runner 2049 isn't a subtle political statement in itself. It's interesting that instead of the Hong Kong-inspired futuristic Los Angeles of the original, we see a Los Angeles in which Russian is spoken on the streets and instead of kimono-clad Asian models, we see a hologram of a giant ballerina who has words in Russian encircling her ("Property of CCCP" no less). At a time when America is faced with the very real possibility that its presidential elections may have seen interference from Russia, is Blade Runner, with its white, Slavic faces, presenting a future where America is firmly in a Russian net?
The thing with science fiction is that it imagines a different future, even if it is a future that's governed by the norms of the present. Star Trek, for example, put forward a vision of the future in which the all-American white guy is the captain, sure, but he's got in his team people from different races and backgrounds, all of them united by a sense of curiosity and valour as they head out into the great unknown. (Keep in mind Star Trek was written in the 1960s.) It was all sorts of idealistic for its time and used the wriggle room that science fiction provided, really cleverly. Perhaps Blade Runner 2049 is using that same wriggle room to comment upon the present.
There's also a lack of newness in Blade Runner 2049 that bothers me. Joi, the hologram girlfriend, is like an updated version of the voice that Theodore Twombly fell in love with in Her. We've seen so many futuristic dystopias since Blade Runner that it's difficult to bring something startlingly new to that arena. Well ahead of its time, the original film felt disturbingly new with its grainy, neon noir. The new one respectfully remembers the old, but it doesn't feel distinctive in most parts. From the junkyard, industrial grunge to the smooth-edged temples of power, it all feels like it's been seen or done before. Blade Runner 2049's soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer also doesn't quite stand out as new. It reminded me a little of Arrival's soundtrack, but Jóhann Jóhannsson's score worked like the joining to the building blocks in Arrival's plot. Wallfisch and Zimmer's score verges on being overwhelming and adds almost a horror-film menace to parts in which absolutely nothing of the sort is going on.
There's a certain reverence for the original that's visible in the sequel. This is why certain characters from the old film come back. The past is not just remembered, but cherished. Many of the shots — the iris! — and the colour palettes act as tiny salutes to the first film. At the same time, this is very much cinematographer Roger Deakins at work and it has nothing of the original's grungy rawness. Blade Runner 2049 is smooth and polished. It's full of breathtaking visuals that are among the film's greatest strengths. Deakins uses slices of light, geometry and solid colour so skilfully that the camera's eye really does become another character and another narrator in Blade Runner 2049. There are stories told and revelations contained in the way the light moves, in the parts that it illuminates, and the rhythm with which it flickers. How perfect is that for a film about the blurred boundaries between human and robot/ replicant? I could frame almost every other shot in Blade Runner 2049 and yet, it falls just a smidgeon short of feeling new.
Speaking of cinematography, remember this video in which cinematographer Ava Berkofsky spoke about lighting black faces? That felt new.
Now let's talk plot.
Once upon a time, in the age of neon, a creature made of flesh, bone and glue roams the lands, hunting for others and seeking himself. An android or "replicant", his name is Officer K. He lives in a world where beings like him are created to populate a workforce, with no identity beyond the tasks they are assigned. They're real, but they're not human even though they have hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; even though when you prick them, they do bleed.
Officer K has a secret: he has a niggling feeling that he is not like other replicants, that he is more than flesh, bone and glue. You see, Officer K has a memory in which he sees himself as a little boy. He's certain it's a real memory of something that actually happened, rather than an implanted memory (replicants are given these in order to make them seem human and make them more emotionally responsive to their jobs). If Officer K has an actual memory of being a boy, then he really was born, rather than manufactured as a full-grown replicant. If that is so, then he represents something new, untested and therefore dangerous. This new world order is structured around the fundamental premise that replicants are not human. If they can reproduce and create life — just like humans — then the neat lines that keep the replicant labour force separate from humans would be blurred and humanity would no longer be a quality that people can hoard for themselves or claim as an exclusive attribute.
When Officer K discovers the remains of a replicant whose bones suggest she had given birth to a baby, he digs deeper to find out more about the replicant who may be his mother. He finds out that this particular replicant's partner was, you guessed it, Rick Deckard, the original blade runner. In the process of figuring out what happened, Blade Runner 2049 offers thought-provoking ruminations upon what makes us human. Is it that we bleed and can't be healed with glue? Is it our ability to love? Can we claim the ability to create life as a human trait when we don't understand how it works or where it comes from? Is what we create a reflection of us, or do we mould our creations to become versions of ourselves? Is it our curiosity that sets us apart from other species? How adaptable is the mind and is that a sign of being human? Do our memories make us human or do our actions? Is there even one thing that we can hold up as a sign of humanity and if there isn't, is the belief that we're different just an elaborate illusion?
IT'S ALL SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT SO REALLY, DON'T READ ANY MORE IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE TWISTS IN THE TALE.
SERIOUSLY. ONLY SPOILERS AHEAD. LITERALLY FROM THE PARAGRAPH AFTER THE ONE BELOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
It's one of the great ironies that while being obsessed with giving birth to a new species (an act that is exclusively a feminine trait, even in the film), Blade Runner 2049 doesn't actually let a woman take charge of the storytelling. Don't get me wrong — the gender politics in Blade Runner 2049 is easier to digest than what we saw in Blade Runner, which had a rape masquerading as a 'love scene' between Deckard and Rachel. In contrast to the testosterone-fuelled adventures of the original film, it's nice to see Luv, Lieutenant Joshi, Joi, Freysa and the other women playing some part in the story. But here's what's frustrating: they may get screen time, but the women exist only as flat characters that carry out either the story or their master's bidding.
So for instance, Luv has tears in her eyes when she witnesses Wallace killing another replicant, but killing Lieutenant Joshi or Officer K? Piece of cake. Why is it easier for her to kill than to watch Wallace killing? Does she feel insecure about her position? How exactly does she see Wallace — her boss? The love of her life? Her master? Could Luv have rebelled? How much of her decisions and actions were her own, and to what extent was she just following orders? Did she want to find the one who was born for her own reasons? We know nothing about her beyond the fact that she will go to any length to carry out Wallace's orders. At the end of a fight, she triumphantly says, "I'm the best one" — it's the only personal sentiment we hear from her and again, it offers little insight into her.
And then there's Dr. Ana Stelline, the film's secret weapon and biggest question mark. See, ultimately, the story of Blade Runner 2049 isn't Officer K's. It's about Dr. Stelline, the memory-maker. Her birth, her survival and the hope she embodies lie at the heart of the film. However, we get almost nothing of her story because Blade Runner 2049 gives Joe the privilege of being both the narrator and hero. Yet the plot demands we discover Dr. Ana Stelline, the woman who refuses to be part of Wallace's staff and preserves her freedom in a glass box. She is the one who makes memories for replicants. Potentially, she could be implanting codes into Wallace's replicants who could all one day turn around and break free the way K does, powered by the intensity of the memories Dr. Stelline has implanted in them.
The biggest spoiler is that Deckard and Rachel did not have a son who grew up to be blade runner. They had a daughter whom no one has ever suspected of being different because she's kept herself in a glass box, claiming she has a condition that has dangerously compromised her immunity. And so it is that the character who should have been the film's hero and who has the most dramatic story arc is reduced to a decorative item, like a figure in a snow globe. Was to be kept in a glass box her idea — a means of keeping herself and her data out of Wallace's reach? — or someone else's? That immunity issue seems to be a lie because really, how did she survive as a child in the scrapyard if she's so fragile? What is her relationship with Freyas? How does she see replicants and what are her hopes for them? What is Dr. Ana Stelline as far as species go?
The real contest should have been between Dr. Stelline and Wallace (who happens to be a terribly half-baked villain), but that doesn't even happen in Blade Runner 2049. Instead, yet we spend all our time following Officer K. It's like Villeneuve, and screenplay writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green are Gosling groupies and determined to see him as the hero no matter what.
Had Dr. Stelline been a male character, I'm certain the script would have found a way to bring the memory-maker forward, tell his story and give him an epic encounter with Wallace. Instead, Dr. Stelline remains in her glass box and on the sidelines of the plot, surrounded by invisible questions that neither Officer K nor the script acknowledge. For instance, did Dr. Stelline choose Officer K for the memory that's from her own childhood? Or is it just serendipity that the replicant who goes off to investigate this whole shebang happens to have a memory from the one who was born? Why, for instance, doesn't Luv have that memory? After all, it's the memory that goads Officer K into digging deeper, finding Deckard and so on. At the end of the film, K's last experience is the exact same thing that Dr. Ana Stelline is crafting as a memory at exactly the same time. This suggests a connection between them, but this remains just a suggestion.
Not only do we not get answers to any of these questions, the final shot of the film is of Deckard's face. It's his victory, rather than Dr. Ana Stelline's. Instead of a film about a remarkable little girl who grew up to become an even more remarkable grown up, Blade Runner 2049 keeps its gaze focused upon an average man with a few delusions of grandeur. The story ignores the one who is exceptional and instead lingers upon finding heroism in the one who is commonplace.
Yeah, it must be a complete coincidence that the one whose story is ignored is a woman and the one who gets glorified is a man.