Do We Dream of Electric Sheep Like Blade Runner's Corporate-produced Replicants?
The isolation of Blade Runner 2049's inhabitants continually reinforces and enlivens their deep need for genuine connection, communal relationships, which the divisive effects of global capitalism actively undermines.
The original Blade Runner (1982) was a practical effects masterpiece whose world deeply influenced the visual development of cyberpunk. Scott (along with Hampton Francher and David Peoples) managed to adapt Philip K. Dick's tremendous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) while deviating from it rather famously, eschewing all mention of Mercerism (Dick's techo-transcendental religion founded in an all-consuming empathy for life in a dying world) and Pennfield mood-organs (fantastic devices which allow one to change their emotional state at the dial of a few numbers), transposing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep's obsession with social-status granting animals both real and electric with more recognizable pop-consumerist themes. What was born of these changes is a spectacular neon-noir police caper to the chagrin of none, thanks to Scott's masterful execution.
For would-be director Denis Villenueve, it certainly presented challenge proportioned to the opportunity; while four of his previous films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016) where critically well-received and carry solid followings of admirers (I among them), handling a film property as influential and revered as Blade Runner carried with it new burdens. Adapting a relatively little-known short science fiction story (as was the case for Arrival) was one thing – directing a sequel not everyone was sure they wanted for one of the best science fiction films ever made was another. If he failed, people would remember it, and for all his talent and previous successes, Villenueve still had a popular name to establish.
What's remarkable, then, is the depth of his success. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) encapsulates all of what has made Villenueve's previous work (particularly Sicario and Arrival) so captivating, so visually striking, and so thematically rich, developing upon those talents to a notable degree; one can only remark on how relatively unprecedented it is for such a widely celebrated film to receive a sequel so long after the fact -- a sequel that not only lives up to its predecessor, but establishes itself as a new classic. No doubt Scott's involvement as an executive producer is essential here, but credit could not be reasonably taken from Villenueve, a well-proven director who has helmed some of the best recent films. Immense credit must also go to the film's writers, the returning Hampton Francher along with Michael Green, who penned a script so thematically rich that it will no doubt be the subject of years of discussion.
Indeed, if any doubt was left, Villeneuve no longer has to prove to anyone that he is one of the most confident, visually stunning, and performance-effective working directors in Hollywood.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Blade Runner 2049 carries several similarities to Villenueve's most recent, Arrival (while infused with Ridley Scott's rather clear preoccupation with themes of creation and godhood). Like Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 carries strong sociopolitical themes which are infused into its environment and inextricable from the challenges the characters face. These themes, however, do not deter Villenueve and company from a clear, decisive focus on the emotional and existential dimensions of its cast of largely disillusioned, disassociated, and exploited characters. In other words, the heart is not sacrificed for the intellect in a style now common to Villenueve. Even in the midst of a ruined world, which sweeps us away with a visual and auditory grandeur (with Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer's fantastic score), the journey is well seated within the circuits of a synthetic slave caste.
While unraveling the full variety and depth of these themes between the original work and its two adaptations is beyond the scope of a single article, a discussion of Blade Runner 2049's themes can be serviced by some categorization: proceeding in a sense from the film's progression, we can begin first with its environment (the desolation of its post-ecological collapse), secondly its politics (and the exploitation and alienation therein), and lastly, the pervasive isolation of Blade Runner 2049's inhabitants and the existential journeys of those electric dreamers to find what constitutes 'real human responses'.
"First, strangely, the owls had died."
Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture - © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. (IMDB)
Between the films and their source material, one of the clearest and most straightforward adaptations lies in the world's desolation and ecological ruin. In Dick's novel, the world suffers a last, great war (aptly named World War Terminus), following which an eerie, pervasive, radioactive dust falls. With it comes the silence: "First, strangely, the owls had died... After the owls, of course, other birds followed." (pg. 12). Once understood that an unknown fallout was enveloping the world from an unknown source, 'previously underway' colonization efforts become redoubled via what were known as 'Synthetic Freedom Fighters'. During the war, there were androids that could work and live in the dire radioactive conditions of the outer colonies. Those humans left on Earth, for whatever reason they chose (or had no choice) to live on a dust
Indeed, throughout Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, both of the protagonists (Deckard and particularly Isidore) remark often on their sense of tremendous, terrifying loneliness and the deafening, maddening silence which at times seems to envelop their lives: "Isidore strode into the living room and shut off the TV... Silence... it assailed not only his ears but his eyes… he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive... The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won." (pg. 16). Both characters frequently experience a visceral sense of the world's entropy, of the decay of all things, a theme so endlessly reinforced by the decay seen all around them. Isidore, in his odd way, refers to it as the 'kipple-ization' of the universe, wherein the detritus and junk that surrounds them will inevitably win out against all life -- a great, swirling tide of degeneration: "No one can win against kipple... It's a universal principle operating throughout the universe." (pg. 57). Whether you might agree with Isidore on some objective (or spiritual) principle is perhaps beside the point; for these characters, all they see is their sorld dusting away.
Clearly, such environmental devastation is no longer an alien concept. Staring down the barrel of ecological devastation, the ongoing advances of neoliberalist capitalism, and the failure of nuclear non-proliferation efforts, people deeply concerned about the state of the world often find themselves frustrated at an apparent total lack of representation. The consequences of this are, in fact, generally understated: whether depressed resignation, nihilistic political indifference, naked despair and anxiety, or the kind of confusion and anger which demagogues shamelessly exploit, the consequences of not having a voice within your own society are dire.
This sense of isolation and total ecological devastation arguably finds greater emphasis in Villenueve's Blade Runner 2049, if perhaps only because decades have passed; while Scott's film opens with an eye beholding an industrial landscape, Blade Runner 2049 opens with the image of an eye beholding tremendous solar energy installations which don't seem to have any light to capture, installations surrounded by seemingly endless granite-like slates of long dead Earth (as we will later see, eyes serve as significant visual metaphors. What dust there was in the film 30 years prior is thicker now, laid heavier, the air at times seemingly more acrid and dense with smog, the buildings more dilapidated and collapsed, the silence more frequent, and only relieved by the mesmerizing Vangelis-inspired score.
Indeed, the impression of an effectively dead world bears plainly throughout. Our lead, a replicant Blade Runner designated 'K' (Ryan Gosling), soars in his dusty, worn-out hovercar over miles of lifeless dirt, tech, and slate to eventually arrive at a protein farm where a lone farmer cultivates maggots under rows of white-gray plastic containment areas. Interior shots of K's hovercar look distinctly filthy in the way you might find an old CRT monitor, which has collected dust and grime for a decade. Soon after, shots of K flying into the greater metropolitan Los Angeles are so profoundly thick with smog (and dim of light) that the only things that seem to puncture it are a handful of neon-lit signs that designate corporations and their ads (or else the LAPD headquarters, a towering structure so dominating that it might vaguely remind one of the 2012 film, Dredd's Hall of Justice).
When K later finds a picture that prominently features a dead tree, a Los Angeles' resident who sees the photo (the later significant 'Mariette' played by Mackenzie Davis) has to ask what it is, and upon remarking on its 'beauty', has to be told that it's dead. In a following scene, K travels to San Diego, apparently now reduced to nothing more than a tremendous garbage heap of unprecedented proportions, a junk-world for desperate people who can scarcely even be described as an underclass, their exploitation and alienation is so complete. Tremendous concrete-looking walls appear to keep the ocean at bay, with 'vents' (potentially giant filters) that allow water to spill into reserves presumably for some variety of metropolitan use. A later trip to what appears to be an old Las Vegas resort contains glimmers of what was a nostalgia-laden reminder of plenty surrounded by a seemingly endless sky of sand, dust, and trace radiation. This is a society whose denizens are in a state of near utter alienation from the natural world, most plainly because there is effectively little to no natural world to engage with.
Of the many potential detrimental effects of climate change, it is ecosystem collapse that remains in many ways the most frightening threat. Ecosystems are supremely delicate and, in the context of rapid changes to our environment brought on by human consumption and production, could precipitously decline into virtual extinction within entire regions inside the next several decades (a process already well underway in the form of what is being called the 6th mass extinction). This is not something we can simply reverse; it took billions of years to create the stunning biodiversity of the Earth's forests and oceans. Films like Blade Runner 2049 can serve an important function in depicting just what such a future world might look like, in trying to communicate how horrifyingly high the stakes actually are. Make no mistake: Blade Runner 2049's environment is in many ways our world on its current course, and no amount of well-wishing will change that.
"We've lost our stomach for slaves."
Summarily, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner 2049 is a bleak, smog ridden cyber-metropolitan nightmare, a concrete jungle full of people who don't remember what a jungle looks like. Color is found in the streaking red-and-blue flashes of police vehicles, the neon phantasmagoric glow of advertisements and company logos from the very same corporations that helped precipitate the collapse of the environmental world. When the only light and color of note comes from the familiar, 'comfortable' logos of titans such as Coca-Cola paired with the flashing alarms of their public enforcers, the story of which socioeconomic forces won predominance in human society can't be any clearer.
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