Wednesday, 11 October 2017

More Human Than Human

Some have wondered if Blade Runner 2049 has a "woman problem", on the grounds that it objectifies the female form (it does, but it's far from gratuitous), or that it lacks female characters with real agency (it doesn't, though it raises a wry smile to remember that the Bechdel Test arrived shortly after the Voight-Kampff Test of the 1982 film). Perhaps a better question might be, Is this a film that addresses female concerns? I think the answer is yes, though the results are ambiguous. The notional theme of the series is what it means to be human, but the new generation of empathetic replicants are so close to human that the distinction is irrelevant, hence their otherwise pointless sex drives (do not dwell on the incongruities - this is SciFi). Though these androids are presented as a mirror image of humanity, and the new film makes clear references to the artificial divisions of race and class, the fundamental dichotomy is that of gender, hence the central importance of childbirth and the control of the means of reproduction. The "problematic" is a woman's right to choose. A major difference between Philip K Dick's 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and the first film is that the novel's Rick Deckard is not only human but has a wife, Iran, depressed by her post-apocalyptic life. In Blade Runner Deckard's wife is an off-screen ex-wife, and perhaps only an implanted memory. The decision to cut the character, along with the book's concept of Mercerism, a quasi-religion that focuses on the importance of empathy, seemed questionable in the first film, but these absences are cleverly addressed in the second.

Much of the criticism of the sequel centres on the relationship of the blade runner K, played by Ryan Gosling, and his holographic PA cum emotional support, played by Ana de Armas. After a hard day retiring early-model replicants, K returns home to be greeted by Joi who flits, at the touch of a button, between the visual but insubstantial roles of housewife and sex kitten. I don't think this sad scene is about the satisfaction of male fantasies but the all-too-obvious gap between sexist cliché and reality. From K pouring two glasses of booze and drinking both to the visual overlay of steak and chips on a bowl of grubs, what we see is an attempt to assuage despair rather than a guy living a 1950s suburban ideal. This role-play is softened by Joi and K's mutual consideration - he clearly needs someone or something to care about - which may be synthetic but is emotionally convincing. In a later scene, Joi employs Mariette, a "basic pleasure model" played by Mackenzie Davis, to provide a physical presence so she can take her and K's relationship to the next level, giving a whole new meaning to "threesome". This is not simply a satisfaction of physical desire but an uncertain encounter in which identity is fluid, which oddly reminded me of the film Performance. It's closer to psychosis than troilism. As will become apparent, K's identity is no more stable than Joi's.

Though both the original film and the sequel reduce women to their instrumental value as sex-bots or breeders, much the same approach applies to the men, who are either mere muscle or killers. In this context, the iconic "I've seen things you people would never believe" speech by Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty in the first film was an act of rebellion, albeit a Luciferian expression of pride by a psychopath. In the new film the equivalent is Sapper Morton, played by Dave Bautista, an older generation replicant hiding-out as a farmer of protein grubs, saying "You've never seen a miracle" before he is retired with extreme prejudice by K. The discovery of the buried bones of a woman who died in childbirth on Morton's farm many years ago explains his meaning and provides the engine of the plot when K and Joshi realise that she was a replicant and thus supposedly incapable of bearing a child. This turns out to be Rachael, played by Sean Young in the original film as a new model of replicant with implanted human memories and empathy, while the father of the child is subsequently revealed to be Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford in both films. While the sex of the child is uncertain, we can now see the Holy Family coming into focus. The French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is on record as pro-choice, but much of his work displays a Catholic concern with the emblematic role of birth.

The bad guy of the new film is the industrialist Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, who is assisted by his replicant henchwoman Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. She appears to have retained some of the psychopathic traits of the older generation, while occasionally squeezing out a tear. Wallace is motivated by the dream of birth (he's definitely "pro-life" and not in favour of anyone else's right to choose), specifically rediscovering the secret of self-reproducing replicants that Eldon Tyrell had (perhaps accidentally) achieved with Rachael, but which was lost in the "blackout" that creates a convenient disjuncture between 2019 (the year of the first film's setting) and 2049. Wallace's goal is a "disposable labour force" for the expansion of the off-world colonies. Though the newer generations of replicants are not limited to the 4-year lifespan of the first film's models, and there doesn't appear to be any shortage of them, self-reproduction offers the potential of exponential growth in their number. While this is standard megalomania, with top notes of Miltonic hubris ("storming Eden") and Silicon Valley transhumanism, there's also an echo here of the historic shift of the plantation economy of the US South from imported black slaves who were worked to death (on average after 7 years) to the reproduction of slaves through breeding following the abolition of the slave trade in the early nineteenth century.

The two characters who instrumentally pursue the death of others, i.e. killing for what they imagine to be the greater good, rather than just doing a job, are both women: the police lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright, and the replicant rebel leader Freysa, played by Hiam Abbass. Joshi wants Rachael's child terminated as she fears a war would be triggered if replicants suspect their destiny is not fixed, while Freysa is prepared to sacrifice Deckard to preserve the security of his and Rachael's offspring and thereby maintain the hope of future independence for the replicants (there's a bit of The Matrix in this focus on the saviour child). Joshi sees the relationship of replicants ("skin-jobs") and humans in terms of segregation, which echoes old race politics: "The world is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell each side there's no wall, you bought a war or a slaughter". The social importance placed on empathy has led to newer androids that are near-indistinguishable from humans and thus paradoxically more dangerous than the older models. Freysa sees the relationship more in terms of class, the new generation of replicants having been uneasily integrated into terrestrial society as workers rather than kept off-world as helots. She seeks to raise the consciousness of these "proles", who are supposedly programmed to obey but appear more than capable of autonomous thought and action. The "new hope" of this film is the replicants' emergent ability to choose.

Though set in our relative future, the film reflects an alternate historical timeline that appears to start in 1948, the year that George Orwell wrote 1984. The choice of future date may have something to do with 1948 + 101 (the interrogation scene between Wallace and Deckard, with Luv in attendance, echoes that between O'Brien and Smith in room 101 of the Ministry of Love, while the manufacture and unreliability of memory is central to both stories). Though some thought the prominence of the Atari brand in the first film reflected early-80s US anxieties over Japanese economic strength, rather than just commercial product placement, which would prove prescient when Sony acquired Columbia Pictures (co-producers of the sequel), another theory is that the first film resides in the alternate timeline of Dick's The Man in the High Castle in which the Axis powers won the Second World War, hence the Asiatic flavour of Los Angeles. The new film includes some pointed Russian references, not only the Cyrillic script on Sapper Morton's farm buildings but a "CCCP Soviet Happy" holographic advert. I think this is less about contemporary concerns over Russian meddling in US politics, or even an attempt to scotch the earlier alternate history theory, and more a harking back to the Cold War. This is a film that at times recalls a chilly East Berlin as much as the arid Nevada desert.

Blade Runner 2049 is a literate film. The scene of Mister Cotton (played by Lennie James) and his sweatshop kids owes more to Dickens than Dick, while Deckard, isolated in a ruined Las Vegas, quotes Treasure Island explicitly and Robinson Crusoe implicitly. We even get a cameo appearance by Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, a book about gestation and uncertain identity, as a discussion topic for K and Joi. The film's art direction, which is surely Oscar-bound, includes nods to Tarkovsky's Stalker, Kubrick's The Shining and Gilliam's Brazil, as well as Ridley Scott's original, which went meta with its subsequent "generations". Villeneuve's vision of the Wallace Corporation owes a stylistic debt to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, as did the 1982 film's Tyrell Corporation, but he adds to the layers by additionally citing Welles' adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial. In a separate scene, Joi decides to give K the name Joe, i.e. Joseph K, after he suspects that he may, like Pinnochio, have become a "real boy". This occurs after K discovers the whittled wooden horse that featured in his memory, which he had hitherto assumed to be implanted, leading him to imagine he might be the lost child. K finds it buried among the ashes of an old furnace, like a reverse Rosebud.

Though the film plays with religious themes, formal religion remains an absence in its universe. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Mercerism was a technologically-enabled quasi-religion with near-universal adherence. It was centred on empathy with living things, having arisen after World War Terminus made both humans and animals a rarity on Earth. Though there were elements of parody in this, notably of Christian suffering and tele-evangelism (the "empathy box"), Dick's point was that empathy was the characteristic that distinguished the human from the replicant (or the dehumanised human), hence the Voight-Kampff test. The novel's emphasis on animals as the ultimate status symbol, both artificial (those electric sheep) and real, which only survived in the first film's mechanical owl, is revived in the second film. This is not just in the incidental detail of Deckard's old dog or the offer of a goat by the trader Doc Badger (played by Barkhad Abdi), but in the very concept of Joi. That might appear to support the claim that the film is sexist - placing a synthetic woman on a par with a pet - but the point is that animals provide existential meaning in the original story - someone, or something, to care about - not just a means of personal gratification. This emotional investment in mainly artificial animals reflected the absence of terrestrial human childbirth, due to radiation poisoning, and the reluctance to invest emotionally in androids (in the film's radiocative Las Vegas, Deckard plays Frank Sinatra on a jukebox singing "One For My Baby").

If there is a contemporary relevance in this it might be the performative empathy (and anger) of social media. Consider the fun we all now have trying to distinguish bots from humans on Twitter and Facebook (and consider also whether Donald Trump or Katie Hopkins could pass the Voight-Kampff test). Significantly, the future envisaged in Blade Runner 2049 does not feature smartphones, and I don't think that's just because it's a projection of 1948 or 1982 vintage Sci-Fi. Its world is technologically implausible (if we ever make androids, they'll be easily distinguishable as such), which is why the objectification that clutters the surface of the film should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it is one in which emotional contact is enormously powerful, a point made concrete in the physical isolation of Rachael and Deckard's now-adult child, Ana Stelline, played by Carla Juri. Ana spends her life in a large glass womb, a sterile environment necessary to protect her inadequate immune system, passing her time manufacturing memories to be implanted into replicants. She is eternal child, virgin and mother all rolled into one. The penultimate scene sees Deckard, who has made being an absent father a lifelong mission, reunited with his daughter, though they remain separated by glass. As K dies outside in the snow, having sacrificed his "life" but perhaps found his "soul", we're still not sure whether Ana represents a dead-end or the start of a revolution. What is sure is that the future is female.


  1. Beautifully expressed. I did enjoy it but there was the notion of diminishing returns in its decision to elevate the subtext of its predecessor into the main narrative of this one. This creates a strange myopia, not unlike Star Wars, where a supposedly consuming narrative is actually little more than a family drama.

    The original film is remarkable in its lack of affect, and always left me cold. It would be unlikely to pass a Voight-Kampff test either. A replicant of the noir it tried to emulate you might say. At the time it was thought to have been deliberate, but the continual inability of Ridley Scott to create emotional investment in anything much since makes me seriously doubt that.

    2049's references to a technology blackout recalled Dune, of course, where all computers are outlawed after the Butlerian Jihad.

    Every time Sean Young comes up I am reminded with the time that she conducted her Joe Queenan interview simultaneously with a lesson from her algebra tutor in an effort to make her seem more human.

  2. Was the score as heavy in the first film? I can't remember. It's like it's screaming, don't worry about all the ambiguities and questions raised by the visuals, herein lies the emotional core, its sympathies always predictable and traditional, whatever the replacement of strings with synths.

    1. The Vangelis score in the first film wasn't quite as heavy as Zimmer's, but it was pretty heavy for its time. What sticks in the memory is the yearning wonder, as much as the noirish alienation. The new film's score seems to emphasise loss and dread more. I think the intensity is meant to suggest imminent danger, which makes sense re the plot. Yes, it's manipulative, but that's usually the job of a flim score.

    2. True, but most film scores are a bit like when they say good referees are ones you don't notice. This one feels like a statement score, demands to be noticed, but it swells in the same emotional places you'd get in a western, promises more intrigue than it delivers - similar point to JH's about the family drama angle.