Science fiction often looks forward, predicting the way our future might turn out. Back in 1982, Blade Runner offered a vision set in 2019. Only two years out from that vision, it's fair to say we lack flying cars and replicants, but what this dystopian brand of science fiction really does is project back the possible result of present fears.
Blade Runner 2049 shifts further in time, but it's more than just a new story set in a popular world. It's also more than the completion of the old one. It's a chance to refine and update the concerns that weighed heavily back in 1982, a chance to track our progress by showing how it can improve tomorrow, or fail to do so if we haven't made any.
It's no great shock to find the future of a fictional world that was itself a depiction of our own possible future cleaves close to the core tenet driving the original film. The open-ended question asked twice now without definitive answer is what does it mean to be human? This can be viewed through the narrower prism of organic versus synthetic life, but a strong fear of "the other" courses through the veins of the Blade Runner universe.
It's the same fear dividing humanity throughout our existence. In this instance, the replicants created to do the toil humans no longer wish to do are marginalised, treated as something less than their owners. It's a classic approach applied across civilisations: from those lined up to build pyramids, to dislocated people forced into Southern cotton fields, to the ostensibly free individuals churning out cheap products in appalling factory conditions across the world. All are welcome to give and not receive.
These groups are needed and despised, creating a stratified society in which the application of enough pressure can explode everything in unpredictable ways. Thus, in Blade Runner an entire sub-group of state workers are tasked with hunting down those that go rogue for fear of where it may lead. They don't kill replicants either, and they certainly don't murder them. A replicant is "retired", because to call it anything else is to bestow rights actively being withheld.
Blade Runner 2049 still finds a role for these workers, using what those in power consider to be more pliable members of the same mistreated group to do their dirty work. The narrative hinges on the fear of any event that could upturn the current system.
The implication here is that we'll keep treating whole sections of the population with disdain, and it will keep storing up problems that won't go away. Both cinematic outings openly attack this kind of division, portraying many of the humans--particularly the corporate elite--as cold, ruthlessly rationalising machines in the face of emotionally-charged replicants who literally find their property inscribed with the kind of abusive epithets thrown at too many in our world today. The ones denied a place at the table seem to behave more like humans than the humans denying them that place.
This feels like a prescient concern in an America governed by the appalling divide and conquer regime of Donald Trump, but in truth it's always been a concern. We fear the other because it's not us, and when this fear is acted on, it rarely leads to positive results.
If we're still grappling with the same soul-searching questions in 2017 as we were in 1982, there are some differences. When it comes to the environment, it's a difference of kind. The original film plays up the extinction of whole species. Fast forward and its broader climatic change jumping to the forefront. While parts of America have turned into dusty radioactive no-go areas, and the space surrounding major urban conurbations seems to have developed into giant rubbish dumps, the climate itself has gone haywire. Storms are referenced early in Blade Runner 2049 and snow seems to be bathing much of the area.
Then there are the issues partially opened up in ways that reveal our inability to deal with them fully. An unease accompanies the sex scene between Harrison Ford's Deckard and Sean Young's Rachael in the original. It starts as a hostile encounter, Deckard cornering her and forcing her to repeat back words of desire and consent. This would be ok if male domination rather than romance and love is the point, but it isn't. Not that casual disdain for women was unusual in a decade where a raunchy comedy like Revenge of the Nerds effectively turned rape into an amusingly harmless hijink.
Blade Runner 2049 at least attempts to be different. Director Denis Villeneuve is on record proclaiming his passion for the screenplay on the basis it provides strong female roles. That these roles still seem to involve either stoic, ass-kicking women, or sex workers also shows we haven't exactly overcome the deep gender imbalances in society. The way women are treated as sex objects, paraded around wearing little to nothing is approached mainly by treating key characters as sex objects while parading them around wearing little to nothing. Agency in Blade Runner 2049 remains very much a male preserve, with efforts to alter this, just as in our world, still needing to go an awful lot further.
Films like these imagine a future based on the present around us now. Explicit attempts to flag the way society might go if we don't stop behaving in certain ways mingle with subconscious prejudice. By looking forward, what we really do is stare into our own souls. The Blade Runner films are not happy examples of this, choosing to paint a negative picture of where we might end up if we carry on in the same way.
What's fascinating about returning to a visionary world is the scope it provides to reassess that initial vision. What's depressing about the new vision is how familiar it feels to the old one. It stands as a wake-up call to rouse a new generation after the last wake-up call failed to do just that. Odds are we'll continue down the same path anyway, moving forward in some areas while creating unbearable tensions via the marginalisation of great swathes of people.
If Blade Runner 2079 were to come out in another 35 years, what might it look like? Will it be a society with better technology and the same old problems, or might real progressive change occur? The answer is unknowable but it's also in our hands. By imagining the future in this way, we really attack the present and the past. One day that future will be the present, and then the past. Some of our problems will alter, hopefully for the better. Others are likely to remain stubbornly familiar.