Upon its original release in 1982, the film was critically dismissed as an exercise in meditating upon vast emptiness: a series of gazing images, layered under rationalising voiceovers delivered by the film’s protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford). It was not until 1992, after Scott gave his approval, that a director’s cut was released in theatres. The final film print was stripped of both Deckard’s narrative descriptors and its happy ending, an absurd scene in which Deckard and the replicant Rachael (Sean Young) drive into the sunset. When interviewed about the director’s cut, Ford stated that “they haven’t put anything in, so it’s still an exercise in design”. Nevertheless, it was this reduction and conclusive reframing that launched Blade Runner to a level of critical acclaim that allowed it to sit comfortably alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as an exemplary historical work in Hollywood’s extensive sci-fi repertoire.
“If you could only see what I’ve seen through your eyes,” says the replicant Roy Batty in the original Blade Runner, speaking to an engineer at Eye Works, a genetic engineering lab. Blade Runner was as much about the areas that occupy our vision as it was about the inferred spaces out of sight. This has always been apparent in the film’s shifting dynamic between a “centred sense of subjectivity, and an autonomous one”, as argued by the cultural theorist Scott Bukatman. As an audience, we are in a constant state of disorientation, and the legitimacy of the images, objects, places and people we are presented with must be subjected to scrutiny.
Not only is this required by the theme of the film – to distinguish what is real from what is artificial – but it also aligns with the characters’ motivations to determine the reality of their world. Eyes are central: in part because they are the metaphorical “window to the soul”, but also because in an artificially soulless world they are an externally manufactured, commodified object used to identify replicants. They are objects that are given (designed), as if by a deity, by Dr Eldon Tyrell, the head of the corporation responsible for the manufacture and sale of replicants. Eyes are also taken away through brute force by the very replicants Tyrell creates, as in the scene in which Batty cups Tyrell’s head in his hands, plunging his thumbs deep into his eye sockets and crushing his skull.
The film’s recently released sequel, Blade Runner 2049, however, fails to move quite so fluidly between what is seen and what is not. Instead, it presents a more self-referential silhouette of Scott’s original vision – a world so densely cultivated and imaginatively fertile that it will be forever redrawn and reheard, like images permanently burnt onto the retina.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve of Sicario and Arrival fame, Blade Runner 2049 launches us back into the murky elevations of Los Angeles 30 years after the events of the previous film. The plot centres around K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner replicant tasked with “retiring” the Tyrell Corporation’s vestigial android models. These androids still exist after a worldwide “data blackout” that led to the firm’s bankruptcy and subsequent buyout by the Wallace Corporation. Along the way, K learns that a baby was born from a relationship between Deckard and Rachael, a discovery that forces K to question his perception of reality as he receives orders to search, investigate and destroy any evidence of the child’s existence before Wallace (Jared Leto) can exploit it.
Science-fiction has always been predicated upon the idea that a world’s narrative will alter over time. Its films provide a reactive visual correspondence to profound shifts in actual political, philosophical and technological change, grounded in what Fredric Jameson, in his book Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, termed the “estrangement and renewal of our own reading of the present”. But unlike most contemporary examples of the genre, the original Blade Runner was a film that refused to explain itself – the viewer was forced to make constant inferences in order to understand its detailed world. Its brilliance, like that of Alien before it, lay in its dense visual layering – a symptom of postmodernism relayed through an inexhaustible and complex accumulation of surfaces and textures, and a spatial treatment that was both shocking and vast enough to be explored across repeated viewings.
The tour de force of Blade Runner 2049, like that of Scott’s 1982 film, is its howling cityscape. It’s a cacophony of nostalgia and dystopian prophecy that captures a mood of melancholy which is to be endured and perhaps even enjoyed. Scott and Villeneuve may have conjured a vision of hell, but it would be one hell of a place to visit. Although K and Deckard are the chief protagonists of the films, the city itself is the more prominent figure, reducing the two Blade Runners to neon-silhouetted tour guides.
Blade Runner 2049 opens with a tracking shot that tails K’s self-flying car, moving unimpeded over the landscape. We see dead, chalky Los Angeles: now an earthly corpse whose land can only cultivate worms. These worms are the world’s protein source and the visual contrast at work is presumably meant as commentary on the film’s thematic emphasis on biological reproduction. At first, the terrain appears unusually flat – not unlike images from Soylent Green (1973) or Logan’s Run (1976). Then a slight camera shift reveals another dimension that offers possible clarity: the city still exists, but is buried below the crusted surface and compacted into its gridded crevices. The streets, still slick with rain and occasional snow, shimmer under the glow of neon signs, curvaceous billboards (still advertising Coca-Cola and Atari products) proclaim their messages, while giant R-rated VR women tiptoe through the crowds.
What is striking about this “update” to Blade Runner’s cityscape is the visual shift from images of corpocratic techno‑monuments – such as the Tyrell Corporation’s giant Aztec pyramid – that punctuated the landscape in Blade Runner’s vision of 2019 Los Angeles, to one of fractal abundance. The L.A.P.D headquarters, for example, is now located in a helipad tower. Its interiors are white – similar to those in George Lucas’s THX118 (1971) – whereas previously it was shrouded in darkness with nothing but the glow of forensic monitors to light the actors’ faces.
Wallace’s headquarters, meanwhile, echo Tyrell’s, but only vaguely. In a nod to the latter’s Aztec pyramid, Wallace’s walls are constructed of sloped marble, intentionally temple-like and lit with rippling reflections of undulating water. The place also appears to have no windows – unlike the office of Tyrell, which was designed to exaggerate its panoramic views. Perhaps this is simply a way to draw our attention to the fact that Wallace is blind, interlacing his fate with that of Tyrell. But what becomes apparent throughout the film’s exploration of the city’s elevations and its hidden interiors, is Villeneuve’s decision to move away from Scott’s stylistically retrofitted, postmodern facades and towards a more modernist interpretation of slickly rendered zones of light that conceal the sublime fortresses which lie within them.
In a heady contrast to these depictions of a multiplexed future city, 2049’s Las Vegas desert sequence stands out for its blinding alteration of the cinematography that dominates the rest of the film and its symbolic reversal into the memory of a past era, both in its reference to the 1982 original and beyond. We are led cautiously through a burnt-orange smog, at first via the mechanistic viewpoint of a drone. This then cuts to a wide-angle shot that frames K, before trailing him as he proceeds carefully into the toxic landscape to search for his predecessor Deckard. As he advances, K discovers that the region is littered with nude statues of fallen women, protruding over a curious beehive. The statues evoke images of the Korova Milk Bar women from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), as well as the female silhouettes from Bond-film title sequences. The bees perhaps reference a Blade Runner scene in which Deckard asks Rachael what she would do if a wasp were to land on her shoulder: “I’d kill it,” she responds. When a bee lands on K’s hand, he stares at it with curiosity, reinforcing the idea that Rachael blurred the boundaries of what it is to be human, while K does not.
Deckard’s desert refuge similarly echoes the past. It is located in the penthouse of an abandoned casino, one that speaks of Charlton Heston’s luxurious apartment in The Omega Man (1971), furnished with glimmering bottles of vintage whisky, decadent (although modernist) furniture and a strangely “real” pet dog – perhaps a reference to Tyrell’s baroque penthouse, which was also home to his bio-engineered pet owl. “I know what’s real!” Deckard proclaims, but the meaning of this statement dissipates over time and it feels particularly ironic, given that he is not only living in a casino, but is also surrounded by the holographic ghosts of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
While there are a lot of objects to draw out of the film (particularly the endless amount of devices designed for forensic analysis), the two most prominent are undoubtedly Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s holographic AI girlfriend, and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s “best” replicant. These two female characters are treated as objects, both figuratively and literally. We are first introduced to Joi when she is projected from a console that is attached to a moving rail on the ceiling of K’s spartan apartment. Although she’s a commercially available AI product, she is designed to project the needs and fulfilment of “anything you want” (as it states on the various billboards throughout the city). This is demonstrated by Joi’s ability to change her attire from Lauren Bacall to Bond Girl in seconds, while lighting K’s cigarette and projecting a three-dimensional steak onto a bowl of grey jelly – allowing K to imagine that his meal was made by a woman, rather than slid out of a packet. While it’s clear that Joi fulfils the role of servant, housewife and target for K’s sexual desires, she is also to all intents and purposes the loving girlfriend. Joi is both the symbolic promise of technology and its failure. While we are prepared to acknowledge the joylessness of her existence, we must also acknowledge that she is the mirror of K’s own – a man with no soul, genetically engineered out of requirement, who is unable to establish a sense of purpose, other than to obey his superiors.
In a narrative landscape where the boundaries between what is real and what is artificial have been blurred for so long, it is fair to assume that the androids in 2049 have become viable and technologically advanced living beings who harbour feelings, desires and dreams (assuming of course that androids do dream), despite their role as the enslaved labour force on whose backs this civilisation is run. In contrast to Joi as the subservient object, Luv is the more dominant and perhaps the more interesting. She is a replicant who is not only designed to fulfil the role of Wallace’s personal assistant, which is how we are first introduced to her, but also his deadly proxy. As the prime antagonist of the film, Luv is a killing machine whose central motivation is to demonstrate her technological superiority, strength and cunning over others – man, woman or machine. This becomes clear in a fight sequence, from which she emerges as the victor, kissing K’s bloodied lips, while declaring, “I am the best,” in a spritely tone that is both charming and terrifying. Her kills are swift and mechanical; she crushes and breaks her victims with an accuracy and conviction that becomes almost humorous in its speed. Not unlike Batty in the 1982 film, Luv’s brute strength – despite being unmatched – is fraught with neuroses and a sense of fragility. She cries as she watches Wallace slice open the empty womb of a prototype replicant who stands naked and shivering before him. Luv’s existential conflict is intrinsically tethered to her relationship with Wallace, but unlike Batty she betrays her own kind in order to become exceptional.
The original Blade Runner was a visually designed assemblage untainted by Hollywood didacticism – one that was fortunate enough to escape the imaginative shortcomings of today’s big-budget films. Blade Runner 2049, although visually sumptuous – if not over-engineered in terms of plot – has been delivered, however, at a moment when we are facing the material and political consequences of both a moral and climate crisis. Donald Trump is president of the United States. As a result of global warming, hurricanes, floods and droughts threaten our existence, and while it’s not implausible that our food supplies will eventually diminish, nuclear war pings on the periphery. The way ahead seems more uncertain than ever. Blade Runner 2049, although terrifying, offers us nothing but a time to come quarantined in the present. It has no future; there are no cautionary tales left to tell. Preoccupied with its homage to Scott’s 1982 classic, like us it can only look back or stand still, lacking the political and economic vision to construct a world in which we can live.