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Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049 and its futurism

As the film hobbled to yet another slow and beautiful yet painfully obvious sequence, I wondered to myself,

“What is it with remakes?”

(Not my image, sourced from Goog Img for noncommercial use)

I just finished watching the Blade Runner reboot yesterday and am still processing how disappointed I was about it. I am not sure what I went in expecting from a sleeper cult classic’s remake but I even chose to watch it in Imax. The cinema student in me was definitely excited to figure out what the remake even intended to – pay homage to the original, refresh generational memories lest we might forget Dick or maybe update all the techno-futuristic visions since we’ve come so far since the last one.

Since the film has already done poorly on its opening weekend and received its fair share of criticism (it really is spectacular and stunning to look at, every frame is so beautiful but it’s terribly slow, indulgent and inconsistent in many ways), I won’t go into details as such. But I think why I was really disappointed was because the film seemed like it had no soul of its own (it was well, a replicant). The first time I encountered Blade Runner, set in its own time, I didn’t have to worry about it as it was not a temporal or geographic future I could ever share. One of the key things they teach you while studying science fiction texts is that the future portrayed is in fact the future of our present, that most futuristic fiction builds on, negates, resists and responds to the pasts and presents that might exist. That makes the giant Japanese megacorp landscape of sci-fi seem more purposeful, makes you pay attention to set design, costume design, references to popular culture and political events. It doesn’t always have to be so, I am not sure one can ready Jodorowsky’s films with equal confidence, but Blade Runner isn’t meant to be absurdist. Especially the reboot takes itself so seriously, it is littered with Renaissance bodies, nostalgia about paper records and a general resigned acceptance of not-real beings (mostly women) as a part of our times.

Since I didn’t watch the original Blade Runner in its time, it was perhaps easier to look back at its vision of futurity as a symptom of its present. But the new Blade Runner is in my time, also very close to my place (Los Angeles) and I just had such a hard time enrolling into the vision of an always raining Los Angeles that looks like the most generic Japan/Chinatowns of Hollywood, neon, bilingual in all its public signage but also where non-white actors were doing most of the speaking. And I don’t mean it in a representational way only but it made me wonder – if, according to the film’s cityscape, the LA of the future has been conquered by Asians, if most women characters in the film look extremely techno-orientalistic, then what are the Asians of the future doing? Where do they live, how did they let the future get so grimy, does the squalor and decay of the place speak of its new owners? And why do these Asians never make a real appearance in the film? Now, that’s the temporal/technological update that I would’ve loved to see in the new BR. Technology isn’t only about changing the way drones look. I personally also think that the film forgot to update its notions of how data flows, how surveillance happens and what that might mean for human/machine relationships.

In short, by the last sequence, I was thoroughly confused and irritated. Since I am not a fan of Star Wars, Star Trek or don’t actively participate in Marvel vs DC discussions, I didn’t think too much of their constant reboots. It also made me mad for a split second because between netflix/hbo and movie studios, science-fiction production has become a recursive saga of Americanism – an endless stream that produces and contains all futures of US techno-power and imperalism, occasionally adapts stories from elsewhere but continues to loop them back into familiar sci-fi formats with mostly white characters as protagonists. I am no expert on sci-fi consumption per se but I had to write this because I remember being thrown off by Skyfall (why was Bond going retro, where were the cool gadgets?!) But as the New Inquiry review beautifully sums it up, and I think this holds for a lot of other mainstream franchises,

Star Trek and Star Wars are now backward-looking reruns, and the future recedes into the distance; science fiction is about how the present continues forever. The biggest change between 1982 and 2017 is that we don’t even remember what the future used to look like.

In fact, imagine if future LA is indeed an Asian-dominated urban sprawl and they watch this film with the same amusement and irony with which we approach Disneyland today? The fact that thew new Blade Runner has no future of its own, largely borrows the past-future of the original and still tries to veer away from its logical conclusions (a cop who can join the revolution, a woman with less than 10 minutes of screen time who is the real hero of the film), was disorienting in the least. I still feel that while one can remake a cult classic film, the *cult* wasn’t in content or story but rather the intersection of storytelling and its own present. I am also sure that those who haven’t watched the first might actually leave wondering what was so radical about the first one to begin with.

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