A system dominated by sinister multinational corporations. Los Angeles as a grim setting of urban alienation, inescapable advertising, marketing and consumerism. A never-ending war on replicants. The original Blade Runner (1979), alongside a slew of films in the 1970s and 80s, predicted a dystopian world, which is fast becoming reality.
The sequel Blade Runner 2049 could not have come along at a more propitious time. President Trump is in the White House. Authoritarianism and nationalism are on the rise across the world. Not to mention that it is becoming increasingly apparent that the ultra-secretive Silicon Valley and big tech corporations are in lockstep with the burgeoning national security surveillance state.
For once, the 5 star reviews are justified and the hype is warranted. Not only does the sequel live up to the original but it genuinely has the lineaments of the epic form. As opposed to bombastic sound and fury signifying nothing that has become standard Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy fare.
Fast forward three decades into the future and the first generation of bio-engineered replicants, produced by Tyrell corporation, have staged a failed rebellion. After the failure of ecosystems in the 2020s, famine has been narrowly averted due to new farming techniques developed by a businessman called Wallace. Wallace takes over the remnants of Tyrell and develops a new generation of obedient replicants. Ryan Gosling is Officer K - a 'blade runner' employed by the LAPD to retire the remaining prototype replicants. After a typical day, K returns to the concrete brutalist architecture of his apartment with only an AI avatar to keep him company.
The ambition of the sequel should be lauded as it takes on the oldest story of them all. Here is the original creation myth updated for the 21st century with man as God having the power to create and to take life. Wallace can mould and sculpt armies of clay humans but, as with all technology, this power can be harnessed either for better or worse.
Wallace represents a sinister breed of tech entrepreneur familiar from recent films such as Ex Machina - with presumably more than a hint of resemblance to one or two real world libertarian Silicon Valley billionaires. He speaks of how mankind has lost its appetite for the slavery that he believes is necessary for the evolution of society. This is, in a nutshell, the Nietzschean paradigm of the superman with inequality necessary for an elite class of innovators to propel progress whilst the remainder of humanity must be left behind.
The visual imagery is resplendently lyrical and poetic. As Gosling travels to a deserted Las Vegas, he stumbles across a landscape of statues with the bust of a giant head on the floor. It is of course a clear allusion to Shelley's poem Ozymandias - "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" - about the hubris of man whereby even antique emperors and empires are reduced to mere ashes and dust.
The epiphany of self-knowledge at the core of the film leads Gosling to ultimately join the replicant resistance against the system. Shelley and for that matter Byron would have applauded such disobedience with the Romanticist interpretation of the Promethean myth as the prototype revolutionary prepared to challenge the authority of the Gods.
In an empty mansion in Vegas, Gosling comes across visual projections of Elvis, Monroe and Sinatra - universal icons of pop culture. It is a splendidly jarring moment of Jungian collective unconscious because these images have been discarded and belong to a lost age.
The Blade Runner franchise owes much to 19th century ideas. There is the kernel of a Marxist critique of capitalism with a world run by corporations inhabited by alienated individuals only able to mediate reality through commodities. Not to mention the motif of replicants rebelling against this system. And like plenty of 20th century culture, the questions presented here around the nature of memory, desire, dreams, illusion and reality would be unthinkable without the work of Freud.
Yet these age-old philosophical inquiries are increasingly transformed by new technologies. Gosling cannot be sure as to whether a critical childhood memory is implanted or real. And of course it was Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, who became the godfather of modern day public relations and propaganda. Bernays realised that he could manipulate the unconscious fears, desire and aggression of the demos through advertising and then transplanted these techniques into the political arena through the concept of managed democracy.
We have become accustomed to television box set thrillers designed for micro attention spans in which every scene is edge of the seat stuff. Blade Runner 2049 makes no concessions to a 21st century audience. It is often slow, arduous and ponderous hence perhaps the disappointing box office returns. But like much great art, this inaccessibility rewards those who are prepared to persevere.
The basic premise of the sequel - that of real world civilizational decay and collapse - is no longer hypothetical. Neoliberalism appears to have broken down and 21st century capitalism is in a state of permanent crisis. It is increasingly economically, socially and ecologically unsustainable suggesting that we are either headed for authoritarian dystopia in order to maintain social order or progressive transformational change. The choice will be up to all of us if we are to avert a Blade Runner world.