Reel Talk

Blade Runner 2049 and Slavery

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It can always be a little awkward when you’re a fan of film, and hold a rather indifferent opinion to a film that’s considered a classic. Honestly, even disliking a movie that most cinephiles love can be easier explained that it just not doing much at all for you. And one of those such films that I’ve always had a hard time mustering any real opinions toward is Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner. I’ve given the film several different shots, but either because I’m not seeing the correct cut out of the multitudes to choose from, or the movie just isn’t or me, it’s never really worked. I see the appeal, having a sci-fi noir with some really fascinating and unique aesthetics, but the film has never clicked for me. Which is probably why I was never that aghast when they announced that they were making a sequel, thirty five years after the fact. Some people saw it as sacrilegious. I felt it was a chance to take the themes and aesthetics of Blade Runner and try to tell them in a new way that would connect with me. And when I heard that the project would be helmed by Denis Villenueve, the mastermind behind some of my favorite films of the last few years that just made things even more interesting. So, I completely understand if you have a problem with this film without even seeing it, but I went it hoping that it would finally make Blade Runner work for me. And guess what? It did.

The film takes place 30 years after Blade Runner and the world has changed. A cataclysmic “blackout” caused global panic sometime between films, and now all replicants have been deemed illegal, while only newer models that have less free-will and shorter lifespans are allowed, such as our protagonist, a Blade Runner who is known only a K. K is living his life, killing older replicants, living with his AI girlfriend Joi, and just generally keeping to himself, until a routine job finds something shocking. After killing  replicant who has been missing for decades, K finds the bones of a fellow replicant on his property. The police do a routine examination, and find that the bones belong to a woman, who died in childbirth. Which shouldn’t be too odd, except for the woman was a replicant, and should therefore be unable to produce life. And this news instantly starts causing problems. K’s superior demands that he track down the offspring of this replicant and destroy it and we learn that the richest and most powerful man in the world, Niander Wallace who owns the replicant technology, wants the child for his own purposes, so that he can start breeding replicants as a perfect slave-race. Wallace then sends out his own replicant hunter, a woman named Luv, to track down the child, getting in a race with K.

K begins investigating, and things quickly start to get strange. Because when going back to the farm that started this whole story, he finds a date carved into a tree, the same date that was carved onto a wooden horse in a memory that he assumed was implanted into his robotic mind. He then goes to meet with a woman who designs memories for replicants, and she confirms that the memory is indeed genuine, which makes K start to fear that he himself may be the missing child. And, after heading to an “orphanage’ which is little more than a child slave-labor operation, he finds the wooden horse, seemingly confirming his suspicions. Luckily he’s able to do some sort of scan on the horse, and confirms that it had to have come from a particularly irradiated area, specifically Las Vegas. So K and Joi head to Vegas, and end up running into the only living person there, Rick Deckard, the protagonist of the first movie. Deckard and K have some trouble trusting one another, but eventually we learn that the replicant who died giving birth was Rachel, Deckard’s love interest in the first film, and that he was the father. However, as they’re reaching these conclusions Luv and some of Wallace’s men arrive, they badly injure K, destroy Joi, and kidnap Deckard so that Wallace can interrogate him and find the true identity of the child so that he can begin breeding his replicants. Luckily K is saved by a group of revolutionary replicants who want to overthrow the human government while also dropping a huge bombshell. K isn’t the child. Deckard’s child was a daughter. But K still won’t let Deckard be killed, so he chases after Luv, and manages to save him, while also piecing together the final puzzle. Deckard’s true child was the woman who build the memories, and all the memories K had of the horse were hers. So K brings Deckard to meet his impossible daughter, and K succumbs to his wounds.

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As I said earlier, I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this film. I’ve been really impressed with the films of Denis Villenueve so far, and Arrival in particular showed that he was capable of delivering some amazing and thought-provoking science fiction. But good creators don’t necessarily lead to quality films, and there was always the chance that Blade Runner 2049 would follow the same path as Blade Runner and take a lot of potential and create a story that falls absolutely flat for me. But that didn’t happen this time. No, this time I loved Blade Runner. I don’t know if it was a better story, if it was Villenueve’s solid direction, if it was Roger Deakins’ spectacular cinematography, or any number of variables that make up a good film, but it came together this time. This was a stunningly beautiful film, completely comfortable with its aesthetic and telling a pretty terrific noir detective story. Ryan Gosling is great in this film, bringing that aloof stoicism that he’s been delivering for Nicolas Winding Refn lately to a major blockbuster, and he carries this film beautifully. It’s nice to see Harrison Ford coming back to this role, adding his loveable gruffness to the film. I wasn’t familiar with Ana de Armas, the actress who played Joi, but she was terrific in the film. Really everyone was. It was an all-around well-crafted film that succeeding in doing something that the original Blade Runner never was able to do. It finally made me realize what these films are about.

There’s an over-arching plot element that both of these films, and that became very apparent in this film. And I kind of struggled with how I should tackle it, but I feel like there’s no sense beating around the bush. This film was about slavery, and humanity’s fixation of finding people who are “beneath them.” Now, I will say, it’s very weird that this film seems to be all about slavery, and yet is essentially top to bottom white folks. That’s super weird and shitty, and I’m not sure how or why that happened. But I don’t feel super qualified to talk about the racial politics of the movie, not that I feel overly qualified to talk about slavery either, but I’m sure smarter folks than me have written about this film’s troubling racial issues. For now I’m just going to focus on how this film seems obsessed with the concept of slavery. The whole purpose of the replicants was the create a race of people who could be forced to do menial and dangerous labor because most people wouldn’t want to. They were disposable people, and when the replicants started showing signs of real sentience, and dissatisfaction with this horrible world they’ve been born into, they would be eliminated. Wallace has a speech in this film, claiming that all great societies are built on the backs of slave labor, and the only way that humanity will continue to spread out among the stars is if they find a new, easily controlled labor force. It’s an obviously disgusting idea, and this film did a great job at showing the lengths that the ruling class will go to in order to keep itself fat and happy, while ignoring the clear signs of misery that the working class go through. Who knows if the replicants will be able to win their freedom and topple the hierarchy, because all that matters is the knowledge that no group of people can be held down forever, without someday rising up. No matter how hard they try to hammer out that spark of life and humanity, it will rise, and people will rise up. It’s just a tad depressing that fiction keeps coming back to the idea that humanity will never stop finding new and innovative ways to be horrible to one another.

 

Blade Runner 2049 was written by Hampton Fancher & Michael Green, directed by Denis Villenueve, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.

 

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2 replies »

  1. I loved this. I touch on some of these issues in some of my own posts about Hollywood borrowing its dystopian narratives from the real life events experienced by PoC, yet having no PoC in any of the films, and when they od in only the most tangential manner.
    You say you’re not qualified to speak on the issue but you said it just fine!

    Liked by 1 person

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