Blade Runner: 2049
Reviewed by John David Ebert
In a way, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel takes the theme of Ridley Scott’s original film–the quest of the replicants to break free of their four year life span and to attain Transcendence from the temporal flow–and inverts it, for now the quest is for the replicants to attain the ability to reproduce sexually, and therefore to attain immanence rather than Transcendence. It is biology that is now becoming the extinct species as the planet is encased inside the brittle exoskeletal shell of exurban satellized technology. (The film, in imitation of Pollock’s action paintings, often takes the point of view of drones scanning abstract techno-landscapes).
Blade Runner: 2049 crawls with shots of a planet that has disappeared into the World Interior of the global ecumene: the opening images of bone-white radial agro-farms and the striated spaces of an exploded planet-wide polisphere suggest a certain comparison with the photographs of contemporary artist Edward Burtynsky. And indeed the film–alas, an outmoded word for a medium that has now become entirely digitized–draws its imagery from the works of such contemporary artists as Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Christian Boltanski and even Odd Nerdrum. It also draws equally upon an image paleography from such films as Logan’s Run, Minority Report and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. (His vision of Las Vegas, with its colossal buildings in the shape of female bodies, is a direct grafting of image storyboards drawn up by Kubrick for his abortive version of A.I.’s Rouge City, a set design that was ultimately watered down by Spielberg [although the hologrammatic icons and advertisements of Spielberg’s Rouge City have now fed back into the techno-scape of Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, with all its 3D avatars, not present in Scott’s urban landscape). Blade Runner: 2049 is cinema as a work of “total” contemporary art.
The story concerns the quest of a new generation of replicants who have been specifically designed to obey rather than revolt: the protagonist, one “Joe K.” (in allusion of course to Kafka’s Joseph K.), while routinely retiring a Nexus 8 replicant finds a strange metallic storage box filled with bones as it is scanned by his drone unit at the base of a dead white tree. (The bones later turn out to be those of the replicant named Rachel from the original film). Every noir narrative begins with a corpse, and in Blade Runner: 2049, the corpse is, on the literal level Rachel, but on the symbolic plane she is “Lucy,” the evolutionary mutation that marks a fork in the road of biological sapiens evolution. (The skull of Adam at the base of the world tree of the Crucifixion, from out of which, like a seed, that tree has grown, has now become the bones of a Neo-Lucy hominid who is a replicant capable of actually reproducing and giving live birth to another replicant). The film concerns the quest for Rachel’s child, and Joe K. proceeds like a paleo-anthropologist piecing the bones together that mark the evolutionary bifurcation at the fork in the road. (Rachel’s bones are even laid out in such a way as to suggest the popularized photographs of the bones of Lucy).
The Tyrell Corporation, meanwhile, has been taken over by a master genetic engineer named Niander Wallace–i.e. “neanderthal” and “wallace” after Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-inventor of the theory of evolution by natural selection–who, as it turns out, is blind–although, like the three Graea who passed around a single eye to take turns seeing, he has a shoal of electronic eyes that do the seeing for him as they swim fish-like around him–a motif which is an indirect allusion to his forebear’s death–Eldon Tyrell–when Roy Batty pushes his eyes out–and Wallace, though he can create replicants, cannot seem to fathom the mystery of how to get them to reproduce. He too, like Joe K., is searching for Rachel’s daughter, in hopes of discovering the secret of biological procreation through sexuality.
In one scene, we witness the birth of a replicant as she slides down from an open hole in the ceiling of Wallace’s liquid gold room: a perfect image of the paternal vulva of the metaphysical age that has appropriated the powers of the maternal vulva of the pre-metaphysical age. As Peter Sloterdijk put it, being-in-the-world in the pre-metaphysical, or mythical, age meant being in the body of the Great Mother and her watery abyss; being-in-the-world in the metaphysical age that Heidegger demarcated as emerging with Plato and Aristotle, meant being in the mind of the Father, who appropriated the powers of the goddess in order to give birth to the Word, or the Logos that erupted from his mind, like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus, or Eve being born from the vaginal cleft in the side of Adam. Birth “from above” means birth by the Sky Father, whether Zeus or Yahweh, in opposition to the vulvic powers of the earth mother, such as Gaia, who gives birth from below. Niander Wallace sitting on his throne in the watery abyss would once have been pictured, perhaps in the days of Egyptian cosmology, as Nun, the female watery abyss that gave rise to all forms.
Father Science is a product of the metaphysical age that extended from Plato and Yahweh down to Husserl and Heidegger. Niander Wallace is a perfect iconic transform of this metaphysical age archetype. The quest for the product of an unintended Immaculate Conception by Tyrell’s experiment in designing a new generation of replicants without fixed lifespans is the quest for biological corporeality in a world in which the City has become planetary in scale. The human frontal lobe, in other words, now seeks to become the force of biological creation itself.
Ever since the 1950s, with the rise of electronic technology as a by-product of WWII, an Avataric Clearing has opened up in the Western Mind, a clearing (or space of encounter between entities) in which entities unconceal themselves in this new Clearing in the mode of not-beings, that is to say, as phantasmal entities without substance. To be in such an age means to be as a digital entity. Being thus now means “being unreal,” and unless one attains to the status of this anti-reality, one, paradoxically, is considered in such an age to have no being at all. Thus, as I wrote in my book Dead Celebrities, Living Icons, the first generation of mega-famous avatars that emerged in the 1950s as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean marked the gigantification of the billboard-sized human being in opposition to the diminishment of his status as an entity during the age of colossal engineering of the 1930s, when the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam announced his dwarfing. (There is a scene in the film that wonderfully alludes to this gigantification of the human through his magnification via electronic avatar when the hologram of a giant naked woman attempts to seduce the tiny figure of Joe. K, an image that alludes to such 1950s films as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman). The billboard-sized human being, that is, emerged in the 1950s as the drive-in theater was achieving its apotheosis and in direct compensation for the diminishment in his / her ontological status as an entity by the pervasive environment of Monstrous Technologies.
In my book The Age of Catastrophe, I discussed the disappearance of “Nature” with the building of a planetary exoskeleton in which catastrophes have become the new norm, and Blade Runner: 2049 builds catastrophes into its narrative as a matter of course: San Diego is a ruined midden heap of twisted metal and rusting gantries; Las Vegas has been hit by a radioactive dirty bomb that has transformed it into a faded yellowing photograph of its own evanescence; and an electronic black out has wiped out all data banks from about the year 2021, thus establishing a sort of informational Dark Age that separates the generations of Deckard and Rachel from their offspring. Indeed, the film is almost an image archaeology of the material that I have spent the past three decades analyzing in my books The New Media Invasion, Dead Celebrities Living Icons, Art After Metaphysics and The Age of Catastrophe.
Villeneuve alludes to the birth of the Avataric Clearing in the 1950s with his decaying Las Vegas era glitch appearance of the virtual holograms of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, simultaneously folding in allusions to the Pop Art of Andy Warhol. The image vocabulary of Villeneuve’s film is a quite sophisticated summing up of nearly all the main themes of our contemporary situation. (The film even alludes to the end-phase Universal State phenomenon of revolting internal proletariats, such as the Spartacus slave revolt, or the revolts of the Egyptian fellaheen who were conscripted into the ranks of the Ptolemies’ wars against the Seleucids in another age of cosmopolitan gigantism).
Just as McLuhan said that the cast off environment is retrieved as a work of art in the new environment–since the content of every new medium is an older medium, i.e. the illuminated manuscript is the content of the printed book just as film became the content of television in the 1960s–so Harrison Ford’s character Deckard appears in the film as a sort of coveted “antique” from a bygone era of replicants of another age. He has taken up residence in the mauseoleum of all (now) ancient electric avatars known as Las Vegas, a city that is not even a real city but the Vatican of contemporary hyperreality. Indeed, most of the action heroes played by Ford in the 1970s and 1980s, from Han Solo to Indiana Jones, have become the first generation of electronic “antiques” that are coveted in just the way that antiques from previous epochs which were once the basis of entire sensoria are now hunted in the thriving industry of antique stores.
Harrison Ford has thus become the “content” of the new age of completely digital cinema, and the quest for his icon is a quest that is sort of like hunting for rare and valuable LPs in an age dominated by iTunes. Rachel becomes the Mother, whose bones at the base of the tree of human evolution mark the point of its arborescent ramification into human speciation. And indeed, Villeneuve’s film suggests that the replicants are on the verge of a mass speciation Event, the kinds of sudden phyletic proliferations that follow such ecological Dark Ages as the Permo-Triassic extinction event or the Cretaceous boundary, ages both followed by massive forms of planetary speciation. Villeneuve’s replicants, having failed, in the “original” film to attain immortality, are now in quest of the secret of biological reproduction through the powers of the Maternal Vulva, a kind of immunological stress reaction to the attempt to trap the planet inside of metallic urbo-scapes.
Philip K. Dick, in such works as Time Out of Joint (1958), Ubik (1964) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1966), was the pioneer of the ontology of the Age of Avataric Clearing, in which to “be” means to be “not-real.” A strange turning of events in the co-history of homo-technologicus with the planetary biosphere.
Villeneuve’s film is, I think, a sort of masterpiece–not of cinema, since that is a dying, Post-Classic medium–but of what the poet Michael Aaron Kamins has termed “hypermodernism,” that is to say an age in which the art of unreality is an artform unto itself. All ancient historical epochs are now contemporary, and all exist in a simultaneous phase space in which the human brain attempts to outsmart the Gaian Overmind with its cleverness as it transforms the ontologically “real” into the digitally “unreal.”
However, Villeneuve’s images of a ruined San Diego swarming with a nomadology of refugees who thrive by marauding and attacking wayward craft very much suggests the likely outcome. The scene in which Joe K., using a drone to scout through the ruins of Las Vegas for any signs of life, eerily evokes similar videos which can be found on YouTube of drones that have been sent scanning through the ghostly shells of radioactive Pripyat in the Ukraine. Las Vegas, in Villeneuve’s film, has become a sort of Chernobyl of all evanescent avatars, clones and icons that are piling up behind us like Benjamin’s famous angel of history in whose passage wrecks simply proliferate as he moves forward.
The film is a work of visual poetry and stands in a class all by itself as a work of contemporary art to be placed alongside the vitrines of Damien Hirst, or the puzzling anti-objects of Anish Kapoor, or even the strange plasticene corpses of Gunther Hagens. It is an anomaly in an age of the dying cinematic medium that simultaneously captures both its history and the situation of our contemporary “plague of fantasies.”
It is one of the best sequels ever made, and I look forward to the next one.
Great stuff… Great movie, and great, classic-Ebert review.
Greg Desilet says
John, you touch on dozens of mythological allusions to be found in the film while offering no discussion of the philosophical questions the film raises concerning the boundary between life and non-life, which is the gorilla in this cinematic room. I think much needs to be said about what the film may be saying about this boundary and what its erosion might mean for the future of humanity. Is “human” biological or is “human” some other essence simply passing through the bodies of homo sapiens at one point in evolution? As a commentator fluent in myth as well as philosophy, please also give us some philosophical commentary on a film that is screaming out for it.
Daniel Nyari says
I wonder if you’ve come across Jonathan Pageu’s essay on the film. He’s a symbolist (and friend of Jordan Peterson) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPOQPkQCJoA&t=22s