Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Same but Different: Vision and Revision in Blade Runner 2049

It was director Denis Villeneuve’s intent to create something fresh with the highly anticipated sequel to the 1982 film Blade Runner, and it’s fair to say he accomplished that goal. 

Also true, however, is the assertion that Blade Runner 2049 is not as much a departure from the original picture as some claim. There are many tonal and thematic similarities between the films.

Viewers knew to expect something of the original aesthetic. The score – augmented considerably by 21st century sound design – is homage to the music Vangelis composed for the first film, yet has its own unique aural character. 

The milieu – grey, irradiated, punctuated with neon incandescence, and buried beneath depressed haze – is also familiar. These nods to the original movie maintain the fantasy that both films take place in the same imagined world.  

But the acid-rain vision of post-modern urban blight conceived for the first Blade Runner is noticeably transformed in the sequel. Changes in climate have left Los Angeles under constant siege by winter storms and the advancing Pacific, which is held at bay by massive coastal levees.       

Villeneuve also borrowed many implicit themes from the first movie, making them more explicit for 21st century viewers whose lives are regularly impacted by pervasive use of technology.

When the original movie was released, artificial intelligence and gene-splicing were not topics of common parlance, but in 2017, it’s a different story. Villeneuve takes full advantage of the paradigm-shift in public consciousness to explore the meaning of memory, of sentience, and the consequences of enslaving technology to corporate-capitalist ends. 

Spoiler alert – many humans end-up as slaves, too, doomed to scratch out a miserable existence in a dilapidated industrial landscape, or among huddled urban masses. Elite sapiens – known as ‘off-worlders’ – live on other planets, in settlements built by replicants, while humans left on Earth are either very wealthy or very unlucky.

The experience of memory – the act of remembering and the memories themselves – are essential aspects of both films.

In the original, memories are given to replicants in order to ensure behavioral compliance and to allow for safe integration of their mimicked sentience; a ‘cushion’ is the term used in the movie.

But it's the lived experience of renegade ‘skin job’ Roy Batty that demonstrates the human-like behavior of replicants, as Batty dies and his remembrances are “lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Memory, and its role in identity, is an important component of the sequel as well. 

Agent K, the film’s blade runner protagonist, finds he is connected by childhood memory to the only known instance of replicant pregnancy, and comes to believe he is the sole offspring of homo sapien and homo androīdē (my term).

But it’s not to be. The child of man and machine is, in fact, a melancholy ‘bubble girl’, who lives in a hermetically-sealed capsule due to auto-immune deficiencies. She designs memories for replicants – including Agent K.

The Tyrell Corporation in the original film is updated as the Wallace Corporation in the latest picture. Both businesses profit from replicants and their exploitation; however, it is the recent incarnation that most represents one logical extreme of techno-capitalist enterprises.

Where Dr. Tyrell shows paternal admiration for Roy Batty in the original film, the Machiavellian Wallace sees replicants as a slave class, essential for humanity’s colonization of the solar system. 

In this future, it isn’t enough that Wallace has tamed extraterrestrial environments; his corporation is creating a new consciousness as well. Agent K is enamored with a holographic artificial intelligence, Joi – created by Wallace Corp. - with whom he comes to share a close bond. 

Joi, however, is commodity – all algorithms and tricks of light – and while ‘she’ feeds Agent K’s growing sense of purpose by affirming his belief that he is the child of human and replicant, a later scene suggests the tendency to encouragement is a quality shared by all ‘Jois’. 

‘She’ is, in the end, a product manufactured for mass consumption, and not just for one individual.

The relationship between father and child is another shared aspect of the two films, providing the essential impetus that advances both plots. 

Roy Batty’s quest to extend his life in the original film leads him to Dr. Tyrell - the man who created the replicant’s brain. Like a post-modern Frankenstein’s Monster, Batty kills Tyrell, gruesomely murdering both ‘father’ and ‘god’ in the same terrible act. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker,” Batty says just before the bloody display.

The latest film puts the parent-child drama front and center, re-introducing Rachael and Rick Deckard from the first movie. 

When the pair is revealed as parents of the new progeny, Agent K finds himself in a race of time to discover Deckard’s location and the secrets of his own identity, before he and the retired blade runner are killed or captured.

One interpretation of the original film posits Deckard himself as a replicant, which is not confirmed or denied in the sequel; that said, since Agent K is a replicant, it could be considered a directorial conceit to that perspective (although K knows he’s not human). 

If Deckard is a replicant, the interpretation doesn’t negate the importance of his offspring. 

Wallace is obsessed with finding the means by which replicants might reproduce. If the machines can ‘make themselves’ instead of having to be made, he reasons that he will have a ready and available source of slaves to realize his colonialist ambitions. 

The best to be expected from any movie sequel is that it has qualities that recall novel aspects of the original film, while transfiguring what was previously made. 

Villeneuve’s cinematic vision (or revision), brilliantly realized in Blade Runner 2049, admirably satisfies that criteria.