6th October, 8.05pm – Congested main roads, oil-slick wet pedestrian streets and pavements primed by a fast downpour of heavy, autumnal rain that reflects a dozen shades of tungsten and halogen light. Like camera flashes taking snapshots of the darkest urban corners, decayed buildings crumbling from the outside, are momentarily pulled from the darkness, the mark of past graffiti, its colourful spores indicative to the severity of dilapidation, of how much time the structures will continue to stand for.
Panning across the city, the first wave of the winter air pollution barrel-rolls in, suspended half-a-dozen feet from the ground, looming over the heads of the populace, providing them with their own dirty halos.
The scene above could have been a realisation-in-progress of the earliest of concept sketches for a film which possesses the most dominant of sci-fi DNA strains. 35 years ago, Ridley Scot’s Blade Runner, a film loosely adapted from Philip. K . Dick’s short novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ made its debut. The DNA metaphor is a helpful way to see how the vision of this masterpiece would mutate and spread to almost all sci-fi films that followed thereafter. You could take a scalpel to any present-day futuristic sci-fi and it would inevitably bleed Blade Runner. That’s how strong the film carries on influencing the minds of novelists and filmmakers alike.
But the aforementioned intro is not an extract from a film, it is the start of my journey, the sweeping back of the theatre curtain as it were, my commute to see the sequel to the 1982 original. With a mixed feeling of trepidation and adrenaline, I swap the drab city environment for the unremarkable interior of Krakow’s Cinema City, a chain of cinemas, which like most cinema franchises, carries the identikit of the banal, of the featureless. I tell myself that aside from watching the debut of Bladerunner 2049 in an art-deco rich setting, (somewhere close to the iconic fusion of 1930’s futurism, depicted in the original film) this probably comes a close second.
As I take my seat and peer into the darkness of the screen, I have one thought that keeps swirling in my mind. In the last few years, Hollywood, unable to or unwilling to explore the risk of releasing unique films, have turned to the past titles. This period will no doubt be summarised as the decade of the reboot.
From the latest Star Wars offerings to Robocop, Alien Covenant, Kong Skull Island, Ghost in the Shell, Steven King’s IT, Jacob’s Ladder, Spiderman, a forthcoming Scarface, to elements of the reimagined Star Trek trilogy; all are effectively reboots rather than sequels. Their success lies in the fondness we hold in our memories of their muses, the originals. The cinema-going public’s eagerness to chow-down reboot after reboot is, in part an excuse to walk down memory lane, while still expecting the odd deviation from the well-known and the well-loved.
But Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel, this is what I remind myself, having ignored teaser trailers and spoilers (although the former was more difficult to do, the film’s very announcement was embedded with video). Speaking of which, my experience will avoid divulging specific plot details as much as possible, I write for myself and for those who have seen the film and wish to examine how it stands next to our expectations and hopes.
Back to my narrow, deep cinema seat – sitting as close to the centre of a fairly large, but not overly huge screen. Roll-on 40 minutes of reboot film trailers and TV ads and the mind-numbing traits of being forced to see these helps me to forget my fears…
In many ways, the start of the film is a cinematic shadow of the original, but there is a sense of the unheimlich present and at work, the fear that comes from the familiar, unfamiliar. If Scott’s original was set in a golden age, affluent, positive-dreariness, fused with the oriental design and fashion clothing and apparel of 1920-30’s decadence, then 2049 is the dying embers of that age, more grim, colder, utilitarian – the hangover of the last epoch.
I kept thinking of how, as the story unfolds, the reputation of Decker (ford) has become the stuff of legends, of myth. The repercussions of his interaction with the world, of going on the run with Rachel and of the former hunter becoming the hunted after having his life spared by his last assignment- has left a blur or ghostly trace on a world far more brutal and removed from the one he once inhabited.
Bladerunner Agent K (Gosling), whose character name I couldn’t shake from Kafka’s novels, draws parallels with the modern day snitch, if only for how he is hated by both police and despised by state-deemed criminals alike. As in his breakthrough movie, Drive, Gosling plays the silent type, allowing those around him to frame themselves with their evil and self-serving priorities. K walks a fine line between trying to not show the toll his duties take on him, while occasionally revealing his thoughts, revealing a more human-than-human side, that slides from beneath the shadows just long enough to register with the audience.
Enslaved, rather than employed by his female LAPD boss, who passionately directs him to eliminate those of his kind on the state’s wanted list, those older models of replicants whose crime being that they ran, rather than accept an earlier death sentence. K must retire those and show his loyalty to his commander by being tested after every mission to ensure that the nature of his job hasn’t compromised him, in other words, that he will not start empathising with those he hunts. As we know, through Decker’s story, it is always a possibility. K’s whole identity relies on his obedience in servitude, his being his master’s lapdog is the only thing that keeps him alive, while providing him with purpose.
The Kafka symbology becomes something of a recurring theme, just as the author wrote of man’s isolation from his fellow man, so is Agent K divorced from all of those around him, human and ‘skin job’ alike. His ‘special romantic relationship’ is a tragic affair of trying to express love in a world which doesn’t attach any value to it. The dark hand of manipulation is at work during all character encounters, most are unaware that they are pawns in a complex game. Even when they deviate from their own ‘norm’ of behaviour, there always remains doubt over whether this shift has been engineered in some manner. From street level to corporate elite, LA of 2049 is knotted-web where all the puppet-strings lead back to. Following a historic incident which affected all replicants, LA has become a tomb, with many discarded areas left barren and uninhabitable, enshrined in the irradiated dust that we believe to be the fallout from a dirty bomb, though such specifics are never elaborated upon.
As with the first film, where anything organic, (other than human) was an engineered copy, so remains the persistent question of whether anything can be considered real in 2049, a question that continues to stab at the audience. Does a genuine moment ever really take place? Even during periods of private, character downtime, what is there that can be considered, real? Perhaps K’s romantic relationship and Decker’s love of Rachel are the only things in BR 2049 that can come close to the definition.
As I watch, shoehorned in my seat experiencing the usual aggressive AC induced chills that accompany any cinema visit I undertake that elapses the 1.5-hour milestone (BR 2049 clocks-in at over 2.5 hours), I find a part of my brain overlapping my reality with K’s world, seeing how they measure up. I don’t mean the tech side of things, though for the lonely and the overly busy, AI in the future, will likely pose more of a solution than a distraction. My mind wanders to the philosophical. Of our own need to be special, to be individuals, to define us as different from our peers, but also how this pursuit leads to further alienation from our kind, our ability to relate to one another. The connection which the replicants have with one another is that they are either all slaves, or all criminals, not aspirational roles granted- but they know the true price of freedom. As with the original BR, the nexus models were hyper-aware of their implanted mortality of limited lifespans. Decker’s nemesis, Roy – was informed by his creator, that any: “…star that burns twice as bright, burns half as long, and [that Roy had] burned so very brightly.”.
If the first BR epitomised the desire to live, then BR 2049 is about the desire to have a connection with others while also maintaining an identity. The latter is a fluid subject in the film, memories for replicants are implants as the original BR informed us, so lies the challenge in hitting the apex to the truth, how is reality defined, by what you can see, or by what you feel? How much control over life can you have when you cannot rely on these senses and the lines of reality start to blur?
I find myself still in that cinema seat, long after my body got up and left screen 8. I am glad that BR 2049 was made, thankful that it was not a reboot with different faces filling known shoes. I, like many, am pleased to be reunited with Decker. On countless occasions, I have expressed that sci-fi, when done properly is always concerned with the human condition. The technologies or magical elements exist only so as to explore areas already present and deeply rooted in our nature, within the fabric of our societies.
BR 2049 is a good example of this. As for how it stands in relation to the original, the answer is heavily subjective. Personally, the first BR still shows humanity a wider spectrum for hope, that we as a species, as a society stand a greater distance from the darkness beyond the precipice, despite our flawed world. However, it dawned on me today, over a week after the screening of the sequel, that BR 2049 continues to haunt me with a very different vision. Hailing the death knell to the possible end-game options laid out by the original film, the sequel has dramatically pared down our possible options and simultaneously holds a mirror to the destination of these scaled-back decision trees.
Perhaps it is not so much that 2049 has leapt forward, but that it was made after we took some significant leaps of our own during the last three decades. The way in which our desire to manipulate technology to change the dynamics for how we think, feel and interact with one other and our environment may be the true element in motion.
2049 successfully brings the horizon of a likely future human destiny to the foreground and the results make for uncomfortable viewing. In sci-fi terms this makes the lens which can zoom in so closely, essential.
The first Blade Runner film took years before it was highly revered and had its genetic make-up spliced into future works. Blade Runner 2049, as a film sharing the same lineage by token, is unable to create the same sensation, but it is too early to comment on how it will shape audiences of the future. What is certain is that it is a film which must be seen and there really exists no higher accolade than this.