Debra Benita Shaw
‘Tell me what you remember – eveything’. These may be the most significant words in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) evoking, as they do, not only the events of thirty years ago in diagetic time but the central concern of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982/92/2007): memory and its relationship to what makes us human. The original film (which hasn’t yet accrued a distinguishing sub title so I’m going to call it ‘2019’) was a poignant reflection on the ontological insecurity of the human condition, blurring the lines between human and machine to interrogate the substance of memory.
If human analog replicants could believe themselves human on the basis of fabricated memories, it suggested, then how secure could we be in our own sense of identity? If the substance of our lives is equally ephemeral, could it not then be washed away, as the replicant Roy Batty suggests, ‘like tears in rain’?
The premise of 2049 is that, three years after the events of 2019 rebel replicants have engineered a ‘blackout’ which has almost completely wiped the databanks of the world’s computers (Watanabe, 2017), leaving a gap in history and destroying much of the knowledge which enabled Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) to create replicants that were indeed, we now learn, ‘more human than human’. Officer KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), himself a new model replicant, is tasked with tracking down the last of Tyrell’s Nexus 8 models and ‘retiring’ them. In the course of a routine operation he finds clues which lead him to an ageing Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has not only outlived the built-in failsafe of his predecessors (four year life spans) but has fathered a child. Thus 2049, like 2019 asks us to consider how we might distinguish between ‘artificial’ and ‘real’ life and what, if anything, might make that distinction meaningful. And, like 2019, the film is concerned with memory and, perhaps more pertinently, the relationship between personal and cultural memories and the recording devices through which they are constructed.
The poignancy of 2019 is in the ordinariness of the replicants’ attachment to objects as evidence of their identities. Photography is significant here as emblematic of memory and its relationship to representation. A photograph in Leon’s hotel room leads Deckard to Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and provides evidence that the replicants do not only keep the photographs provided for them by the Tyrell Corporation to, as Tyrell says, ‘cushion their emotions’. They, like their human counterparts, are concerned with making new memories; recording what is ephemeral and fleeting and creating images invested with personal and historical significance. And it is photographs, of course, that adorn Deckard’s piano – the first intimation that he himself is likely a replicant. The piano, minus photographs, makes an appearance in 2049. It is yet another repository of memory; an object which connects the past to the diagetic present, a clue for both 2019 fans and Officer K to follow.
Where it leads us is Las Vegas, now reclaimed by the desert, where Deckard lives alone in a crumbling casino with a hive of improbable replicant bees, a dog (likely also a replicant) that seems to live only on whisky and some of the fragments that have survived the blackout; imperfect holograms of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Liberace in their prime, complete with chorus line.
What is interesting here is not just the survival of twentieth century cultural artefacts but the significance of their degraded state: Elvis winks out halfway through a line and re-appears for the next verse; Marilyn flickers and stalls; the chorus line stutters mid-kick. On the surface, this is a representation of the degraded state of historical data in the film’s diagetic present which can also stand as commentary on the unreliable nature of memory. However, I prefer to read it as glitch art, the deliberate use of what Rosa Menkman calls ‘digital noise artifacts’ (2011: 340) to randomly disrupt the smooth transmission of data, to insert a hesitation which draws attention to the machinery of image production. In glitch art, the system, as Menkman points out, exhibits ‘its formations, inner workings and flaws’ (341).
When K’s spinner crashes in the desert, his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), along for the ride thanks to the ‘emanator’ device that K has purchased to free her from the confines of his apartment, glitches in the act of showing proper girl-friendly concern for her injured lover, never quite completing the gesture. As the camera pulls back from the scene, there is real pathos in the exposure of her fragility, the glitch here functioning as proxy for the fragility, artifice and constructedness of gender itself. Joi is mercurial, adaptable to K’s moods as she cycles through a series of feminine archetypes, conforming to her program which promises the perfect girlfriend experience, ‘everything you want to see, everything you want to hear…’.
As glitch art she is a foil for the ‘happy’ ending; the expectation of heterosexual completion in the normatively constituted family scene.
Andy Martin, in an article for The Independent, suggests that ‘Blade Runner 2049 is all about digging things up’ (2017) and, indeed, it honours the film noir conventions of 2019 through its similar depiction of detective work as penetrating below the surface of appearances. Ultimately, what K must dig up is the past. While his own memories, real or constructed, are always in danger of betraying him, it is the memory of Rachel, the replicant who died in childbirth, that Deckard protects and that K must discover. Probably the most poignant scene in the film is K’s discovery that he is not, as he had hoped, Deckard and Rachel’s child. His memories, fabricated like those of all replicants simply provide the clue which leads Deckard to re-unite with his daughter who is, herself, an artist who fabricates memories. ‘All the best memories’, says K, ‘are hers’.
Science fiction, as is well known, is never really about the future. Nevertheless, the best sf functions to lend an aura of pastness to the time of its production; to suggest a future history where the latent potential of the present has been actualised by already existing but barely understood (or denied) forces emerging from what Donna J Haraway calls ‘the social relations of science and technology’ (2016: 33). As we approach the incept date of 2019, it loses nothing of its urgency largely due to the fact that through the period bricolage of its mise en scène it avoids the stylistic anachronisms through which visual media often accrue a temporal location. This was its gift to Denis Villeneuve who uses the device of data corruption to lend 2049 a similar temporal insecurity. Indeed, 2049 is styled to locate it in a similar cultural niche to 2019; the soundtrack evokes Vangelis’s haunting score for 2019 and the clothing and décor similarly recall the original. The effect of this is to suggest the end of history; the triumph of capitalism signalling the end of democracy and the end of planet Earth as a viable habitat for human flourishing. Migration to the off-world colonies has been secured by those lucky enough to qualify. Earth is home only to those humans who are disqualified through illness or disability (in 2049 Deckard’s daughter has a malfunctioning immune system) and, of course, similarly malfunctioning replicants.
It is this theme of malfunction which puts both films in the frame of what I would call promising dystopias. As Menkman suggests, glitches, noise artifacts, suggest something ruined from which something different and wholly unexpected may emerge. ‘[T]hese ruins’, she says, ‘reveal a new opportunity … a spark of creative energy that indicates that something new is about to be created’ (2011: 341). Blade Runner 2049, itself an imperfect artefact which perhaps leaves open more questions than it answers, is art which works to activate a sense of latency, of memory as the repository of discarded fragments which, like glitches, are the incomplete traces of something in the process of becoming.
Both 2019 and 2049 are self-referential films about history. They force us to ask who we would be if our memory devices ceased to provide a record of our pasts and if we ceased to recognise ourselves in the cultural artefacts (film, photographs etc.) that purport to show us who we really are. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who, in 2049 has inherited Tyrell’s legacy, suggests that the human race cannot survive and must therefore create a successor species. He may be right but he is, true to the conventions of cinema, an evil genius and not to be trusted. The enduring appeal of Blade Runner, in all its incarnations, is the promise that in the ruins of what we have created we may find the lost fragments of another way of being.
Bio – Debra Benita Shaw is a Reader in Cultural Theory at the University of East London, UK. She is the author of Women, Science & Fiction (2000), Technoculture: The Key Concepts (2008) and Posthuman urbanism (2017). She is also co-editor (with Maggie Humm) of Radical Space (2016).
Haraway, Donna J. Manifestly Haraway. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Martin, Andy. ‘In space no one will hear you scream, in Blade Runner 2049 the angst comes across loud and clear’. The Independent, 14/10/17. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/blade-runner-2049-the-future-was-already-here-a7996726.html. Accessed 14/10/17.
Menkman, Rosa. ‘Glitch Studies Manifesto’. In Video Vortex Reader II: moving images beyond YouTube, edited by Geert Lovink & Rachel Somers Miles. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011, 336-347.
Scott, Ridley (dir.). Blade Runner. Ladd Company, The Shaw Brothers, Warner Bros., 1982 (see also The Director’s Cut, 1992 and The Final Cut, 2007).
Villeneuve, Denis (dir.). Blade Runner: 2049. 16:14 Entertainment, Alcon Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, 2017.
Watanabe, Shinichirô (dir.). Blade Runner: Black Out 2022. Alcon Entertainment, Cygames, 2017.