Fangirl Friday: Blade Runner 2049 and what it means to be human

Greetings, friends!

I hope everyone had a decent week in these perilous times. Try to find your joy where you can.

So last week I went to see Blade Runner 2049. I’d been looking forward to this movie because I’ve been fascinated by the original Blade Runner (1982), starring Harrison Ford.

SPOILERS!!!!!!! THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW!

Here’s the premise of the first Blade Runner, which is based on a 1968 novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, retitled in some later printings Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco after a nuclear war. Rick Deckard is a “Blade Runner” — a bounty hunter charged with “retiring” (killing) androids of a specific line. It’s a grim exploration of what it means to be human and the nature of empathy, and those themes carry over into the 1982 movie, directed by Ridley Scott (of Alien fame)

Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard in this neo-noir cult classic, that bounty hunter. Set in 2019 Los Angeles, Deckard is charged with killing “replicants,” which are bioengineered humans created by the powerful Tyrell Corporation to work basically as slaves on off-world colonies. They generally have memory implants — either manufactured or from someone else — to give them a sense of actually having grown from children (though they’re not).

Six of these escape and go back to Los Angeles and burnt-out Deckard agrees to take this last assignment and hunt them down for “retirement.” But as Deckard undertakes his assignment, he starts to question the nature of his mission, and realizes that replicants can be just as human as humans, though some of them do come with “expiration dates.” That is, a failsafe built into their genetic coding by the corporation to give them a set number of years in their lifespans, and it’s often not much.

Here’s the 30th (JFC) anniversary trailer:

The original — considered “neo-noir science ficton” — had a stellar cast. Ford, Rutger Hauer as the leader of the escaped replicants, Daryl Hannah as another of them, Sean Young as the replicant Rachael, and Brion James and Joanna Cassidy as other replicants.

The brilliance of the original Blade Runner was its exploration of the nature of what it means to be human set against a dark, dystopic backdrop of megacity Los Angeles. Things run because of corporate power and monopolies and the environment has gone haywire, so LA is in a perpetual state of gloom and rain; animals are scarce and if you have them, you’re considered part of the monied elite.

It’s grim and tense and strangely quiet in its reveals, as it pushes you unrelentingly toward the showdown scenes and ultimately, Deckard’s realizations about the work he does, the man he is, and the role he’s been playing in a system in which nobody ever wins. All they can do is survive, surrounded by the vacuous temptations of capitalism, with its lurid advertising and continued objectification of female bodies (JFC when will that ever end) and, in this case, the tokenization of Asian cultures in this interpretation of dystopia. You’ll see it in the films as you watch.

I saw the original Blade Runner in the theater. It was the first “R”-rated movie I’d seen in a theater, and it stayed with me for years. Visually compelling and filled with pathos, I found myself identifying more with the replicants than with Deckard and perhaps that’s because even then — I was in high school — I knew I was “different” and on the margins of society as I started to realize my inner queerness, if you will. So I related strongly to these six bioengineered people who just wanted to live, who just wanted to be the agents of their own lives, but yet were subjected to being hunted down and denigrated as “skin jobs” and “skinners.”

I recently saw the original again, and parts of it still hold up. The effects, the grim overtones, the unrelenting tension of living in a world like that. But others don’t, like the very uncomfortable nonconsensual scene between Deckard and replicant Rachael, in which he pretty much coerces her into physical intimacy in that classic “your mouth says no but your eyes say yes” trope that is used to justify a forced “convincing” of a woman. And because Rachael is a replicant, she’s considered “not fully human,” so that element of forced sex on a being that is considered “less than human” (like Africans brought to this country as slaves) absolves a man of responsibility for it.

Nevertheless, these two form a relationship (though it sort of made me think Rachael might have been Stockholm syndromed), and the 1982 version leaves us with a sliver of hope that the two of them manage to escape law enforcement and corporate power. Deckard is a Blade Runner gone rogue, after all, and leaving replicants from this line alive is something that is far more dangerous than even he knows.

Bladerunner 2049, to its credit, continues the dark, grim feeling of the original. Not entirely surprising, given that Hampton Fancher is one of the writers, and he worked on the first. Denis Villenueve directed it (he also directed 2016’s Arrival).

Trailer:

In this dystopic/post-apocalyptic noir-ish Los Angeles, Tyrell Corporation is gone, replaced by the Wallace Corporation, which also makes replicants. It takes place 30 years after the first Blade Runner.

The opening scene reveals Ryan Gosling in what seems to be a police vehicle on his way to a farm that manufactures protein (i.e. edible grubs). There’s very little usable open land available any longer, so farming basically involves genetic engineering. The farm has one tree outside its buildings, a long-dead reminder of what it once was. Gosling is a blade runner, and he comes here to retire a replicant from the old lines, and it turns out the one he retires runs the farm. There’s a fight scene and the replicant pounds Gosling’s head into a wall then they crash through the wall and at that point, when Gosling just gets up and keeps fighting, you realize Gosling himself is most likely a replicant, because they were engineered to be stronger than humans.

He completes the mission — to “retire” the replicant — and takes the dead man’s eye for ID purposes. But he also notices something at the foot of the dead tree. A single flower, placed there by someone. It’s so out of whack for the setting that he has his drone that comes as part of his vehicle scan the ground to a certain depth and detects something there. He’ll take that info back to the station, and once he’s there, it’s confirmed that he’s a replicant as he passes other cops who say to him, “fuck you, skin job.” He goes by “K”, which is the first letter in his serial number.

Gosling as “K” inspecting the base of the tree on the farm

We find out that there was a box buried beneath the tree, and it contains the skeletal remains of a woman who they determine died during child birth. Nothing completely unremarkable about that until closer examination reveals that there’s a serial number on one of the woman’s bones. She was a replicant, and somehow, she gave birth to a child that survived.

This, of course, has HUGE repercussions for the way things are, because as K’s boss points out (Robin Wright, who I totes have a crush on after seeing her as an Amazon in Wonder Woman), the world is ordered and structured along “us vs. them” lines, with replicants the lowest of the low. The fact that a replicant gave birth changes everything in terms of the caste system that has been created. So K is assigned to find the child and his investigation will eventually send him to find Deckard (Harrison Ford again) to determine who the woman who was buried was and where the child is (who would be an adult by now).

Utterly gratuitous photo of Robin Wright (Lt. Joshi)

In the process, he will embark on a journey of his own self-discovery and we as the viewers will explore, as we did in the first, what it means to be human. Truly, what makes us human?

Gosling plays K with a patient acceptance, his expression always neutral and placid, but we identify with him. We feel the oppressiveness of his job and mission weighing on him, and the gloomy, dispassionate and bureaucratic world in which he lives. We see his desire for connection, even though he’s just a “skin job.”

In a strangely poignant twist, we realize that he HAS forged a connection, but with an AI girlfriend program, which also serves as an indictment of the disconnect that comes when we divorce ourselves from each other and allow tech to provide a replacement. In a really intriguing scene, K ends up being able to actually be physically intimate with the AI (named Joi, played by Ana de Armas) but there’s a catch — the AI projects herself onto another woman’s body (a replicant who is a prostitute). So basically, you have a threesome, with 3 beings that aren’t considered human, but yet K loves Joi, and she loves him, as we see during the course of the movie. It’s oddly moving, that Joi contacts this woman so that she can express herself physically with K and he with her, through another body. And as far as the other woman’s concerned, she’s engaging in physical intimacy with a guy who genuinely cares about the woman he’s imagining himself with, and maybe that’s a little weird for her, to find human connection (that theme again!) via perceived non-human means.

In another telling scene, Wright’s character comes to his apartment to discuss the case. She’s brittle but respectful of him, somehow, and we see that she may be trying to seduce him, but he seems to sense it and tells her he needs to get back to work. She leaves, and we’re both relieved but also empty because in her brittle demeanor, we see that she, too, seeks connection and that a constant undercurrent in this world is a repressed, desperate search for it, for meaning in the dark gloom of the weather, the constrained urban spaces, and the social hierarchy imposed on the population by amorphous corporate entities colluding as both business and overlords.

K’s investigation ends up triggering memories that he thought were implants, and it drives him to search even harder for the child and for Deckard, but we see that the mission may have shifted in K’s mind. He’s searching not necessarily to kill, but to find something about himself, to try to understand what role he might play in the panoply of the human condition.

As we find out, it’s a role he never expected.

And as his motivations shift, the Wallace Corporation has also realized what K has found, and they want the child, too, so K becomes the hunted, and this will drive the final third of the film after a tense, slow build.

I left the theater thinking about this film and here it is a week later and I’m still pondering it and dissecting all the different layers. It’s visually stunning and emotionally wrenching; kudos to Gosling for portraying a character who isn’t considered fully human with such tightly wound pathos that we want to know his story, and we want to join him on his journey. We feel his search for true connection and he finds it, to an extent, through AI but is that really a connection? How human can AI be? Then again, he’s not considered fully human but we relate to him and the AI as if they are.

The scenes at the Wallace Corporation (which appears to be modeled on the Tyrell Corporation) are some of the creepiest. It’s a sparse, sterile, but clearly monied space and Wallace (Jared Leto) wears his evil emo/hipster self with aplomb, and affects a weird Jesus vibe. He doesn’t have working eyes — instead, he “sees” through a series of small drone-like things that are constantly flying around clicking and whirring and hovering around the things Wallace wants to examine via a sensor on his neck.

HAI! I am creepy Jesus replicant-maker! (Wallace, portrayed by Jared Leto)

He considers himself a creator — a god — and in one telling scene in which a replicant is “born” (she slides down a tube and lands on a mat amidst whatever fluid she grew in) we get the sense that Wallace is trying to harness the power of creation through birth, but not just growing human-ish people in tubes. He wants the child K seeks because Wallace, too, knows that if it’s proven that replicants can have children, then replicants are basically human and in this dystopic world, think of the profit, in making humans but also, philosophically for him, he will have thus harnessed the very power of human-ness.

Wallace unleashes his special replicant, “Luv” (Sylvia Hoeks), to find the child and hunt K down, and she is coldly brutal but also really intense, and watching her as she seems to cower around Wallace then go medieval on other people’s asses makes you wonder about the nature of the relationship she has with Wallace, which seems abusive, since he thinks nothing of killing replicants he feels don’t meet his standards. So Luv carries all this hidden fear but when she’s out of Wallace’s presence, she oozes suppressed rage and opens it up on her targets, some of whom are collateral damage. And, antithetical to what her name suggests, she destroys connections through violence, as if she resents that others might have them.

I look good AND I can f*ck you up: Luv (Sylvia Hoeks)

But even in Luv we see a search for identity, for some sense of self. She was created to serve Wallace, subject to whatever his whims are, and beneath her brutality and rage, we understand why she might feel these things, trapped as she is by not only her biology (her bioengineered body), but also by her megalomaniacal creator.

And this is what stays with you after the film ends, is a sense of unease about identity and agency, about a bleak future at the whim of corporations and unfettered capitalism, and questions about what it means, essentially, to live.

You will feel empty and disjointed as you watch these films, but buried within, you will find slivers of hope that will embed themselves in your skin and in these times, we need them. In these times, perhaps we SHOULD question who we are and where we’re going.

In terms of structure, Blade Runner 2049 isn’t perfect. Some of you may find the pacing in the first half of the movie slow, though I liked it because it contributed to a growing sense of unease that drives the character arcs. It also felt like a throwback, with the objectification of the female body and the fetishization of not only women in general, but Asian women, reminiscent of the first movie.

I would have liked to have seen less of that, but perhaps in an authoritarian, corporate dystopia run mostly by men, it seems, I suppose we shouldn’t expect anything else.

There are also some plot lines that don’t resolve, but perhaps that’s creative license in preparation for another movie in this franchise.

But the themes stay with you and like the original Blade Runner (which I still think about), this one will also stay with me.

Happy Friday and may The Force be with you.

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