As the sequel to the 80’s blockbuster hits the big screens, Sean Ledwith analyses the politics behind the influential sci-fi film.

Thirty-five years after the theatrical release of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, its long-awaited sequel has finally arrived in cinemas around the world. The original movie, released in 1982, became one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time with its dystopian depiction of a future for humanity in 2019 that is now only two years away. Aside from the pioneering visualisation of pollution-ridden mega-cities and rampant commodification, Blade Runner became a powerful vehicle for thedemocratic power of ordinary fans who rescued the film from both the crass meddling of the big studios and consequent initial commercial failure, and turned it into a cult classic that belatedly attained mainstream recognition.

Many who love the first film will be understandably anxious that a sequel might struggle to repeat the impact of the original and either re-tread the same ground in slavish deference or reduce its power with over-reliance on formulaic CGI gloss. The good news is Blade Runner 2049 successfully finds its own path through these two possibilities and develops the themes and ideas of the original in ways that should please most fans of Ridley Scott’s original. As we are now only two years away from the premise of the first film, the sequel also provides a timely opportunity to analyse why Blade Runner became such a powerful influence on popular culture. The 1982 film was widely perceived as one of the important cinematic critiques of contemporary capitalist society-can the same be said for the new version?

Neoliberal future

The 1982 film appeared as the capitalist elites of the world were embarking on the strategy of neoliberalism that has gone on to ravage societies in every corner of the planet. Reagan and Thatcher became the twin figureheads of an economic and political doctrine that represented class war on the behalf of the global rich who were determined to roll back the social democratic advances of the postwar era. Sectors of society such as education, health and welfare provision that had become primarily the responsibility of the state since 1945 were about to be mercilessly exposed the cold blade of capitalist logic with new priorities based on competition and profitability. The jaw-dropping spectacle in the original film of giant advertising vehicles floating through the cavernous and neon-saturated streets of Los Angeles with messages of a better life off-world became the portents of insatiable consumerism and commodification invading all aspects of our lives.

Under Reagan and Thatcher, the significant reduction of the gap between rich and poor that had occurred since World War Two would be thrust into reverse and take us towards the polarised levels of inequality that now blight the world. Blade Runner anticipated this 21st century phenomenon with its visionary scenario of a society divided between a complacent elite residing in gargantuan and luxurious hi-techs pyramids and the mass of swirling humanity below, struggling to survive in rubbish-strewn and crime-ridden poverty. The environmentalist agenda that all bourgeois politicians now pay lip service to had barely registered in the early 1980s, yet Scott’s visualisation of an urban metropolis in 2019 managed to strikingly convey the ruination of the Earth’s ecology due to an unspecified natural or political calamity.

Replicant rebellion

The central storyline of the 1982 film revolved around the characters of the replicants: essentially a hybrid robo-orgamic race that outwardly resembled human beings but which are genetically programmed to expire after a short life span. In the first film, Rick Deckard, played with rugged charisma, by Harrison Ford, serves as a Blade Runner for the LAPD; in other words, an assassin hired to retire replicants that refuse to comply with the wishes of their creator, the sinister Tyrell Corporation. The replicants are physically superior to human beings but have been designed without an emotional capacity that is supposed to make them incapable of empathy with each other. They have been dispatched to the most dangerous locations in the solar system as part of a colonisation project.  The first film recounts the attempt by Ford’s character to track down and eliminate six replicants who have escaped their off-world drudgery and returned to Earth in search of Tyrell who they hope will prolong their existence.

The film raises profound questions about the nature of artificial intelligence and human identity which have become even more prescient today as cyberspace and digitalisation embed themselves in our way of life. The replicants, however, are also emblematic of the world’s increasingly immeserated human working class which has grown to an unprecedented size in the 21st century but most of which spend their alienated lives in squalor and soul-sucking drudgery. The iconic climax in which replicant leader, RoyBatty, laments his imminent demise is an unforgettable expression of anguish (brilliantlyadlibbed by Dutch actor, Rutger Hauer) by a sentient mind confronting extinction at the hands of an oppressive and uncaring hierarchy:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to die.

The callous refusal of the Tyrell Corporation to recognise the rights of Roy Batty and his comrades echoes Henry Ford’s infamous comment regarding the insubordination of his employees: “Why is it every time I hire a pair of hands I get a human being?

Feel-good fabrications

Infamously, the Warner Brothers Company that distributed the film rejected its downbeat conclusion and forced Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford to concoct an absurdly anachronistic happy ending featuring Deckard and his female replicant lover disappearing into the sunset amid leftover footage from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining! As the phoney feel-good mentality of Reaganism began to take a grip on American culture, Blade Runner‘s unsparing imagining of a world grimly clinging onto survival was jettisoned by most critics in favour of the Spielbergian schmaltz of ET. The revival of the film’s reputation over the intervening quarter of a century is partly due to the similarly belated recognition acquired by the author whose novel the film was based on. Philip K. Dick tragically died in the same year as Blade Runner was released and spent most of his life producing sci-fi novels and short stories that were enthusiastically devoured by a loyal fan-base but largely ignored by America’s literary establishment.

The slow-burn success of Ridley Scott’s however, has since persuaded numerous film and television producers to mine the author’s output and create commercial and critical successes such as Amazon’s Man in the High Castle and Channel 4’s Electric Dreams. PKD was never an explicitly political writer and eschewed any overt parallels between his fiction and contemporary events but, at the same time, he occasionally acknowledged how a growing sense of dislocation and dissatisfaction with the trajectory of US culture influenced his prodigious imagination.

As the country experienced the upheavals of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests in the 1960s he wrote:

I may not have been/am CP [Communist Party], but the basic Marxist sociological view of capitalism—negative—is there. Good.

In the following decade, he commented on how the alienation and sense of living in a simulacrum experienced by many of his characters were becoming ubiquitous aspects of everyday life in the US:

It seems to me that by subtle but real degrees the world has come to resemble a PKD novel; or, put another way, subjectively I sense my actual world as resembling the kind of typical universe which I used to merely create as fiction, and which I left, often happily, when I was done with writing.

Successful Sequel

In Blade Runner 2049 French director, Denis Villeneuve, has successfully recaptured both the sense of a reality founded on fabrications that permeates the world of PKD, and the evocation of a near-future characterised by ecological collapse and social iniquity that marked out the Ridley Scott film.  The main protagonist in the sequel is a new – supposedly emotion free – brand of replicant known as a Nexus-9 played by Canadian actor, Ryan Gosling.  His character, labelled simply as K is on the trail of Deckard and the replicant he absconded with thirty years ago, known as Rachael. Gosling’s performance initially appears flat and underwhelming but becomes moreappropriate as the film unfolds and it is revealed that K may actually be the miraculous child of Deckard and Rachael. As K grapples with the implications of his semi-human status, Gosling’s performance becomes more nuanced and multi-layered.  K adopts the name Joe as symbolic of his desire to locate a new sense of his own identity. His journey into the aftermath of Deckard’s exploits in the first film brings him into contact with Niander Wallace, a megalomaniacal  tycoon of uncertain human/replicant status who has succeeded the Tyrell Corporation as the most powerful utiliser of new technology.

One of the few false notes of the film is a one-dimensional portrayal of Wallace, played by Jared Leto, as little more than a sadistic sociopath. This character is a poor substitute for Rutger Hauer’s magnetic performance as the villain-turned-saviour in the 1982 film. Viewers hoping the sequel would upgrade the depiction of gender politics will also be disappointed that most of the female characters are still defined mostly by their relation to men and generally lack any sense of agency.

The 21st century zeitgeist of mass rebellion from below, however, is effectively evoked when Joe meets an underground band of replicant freedom fighters, determined to claim their status as autonomous beings once and for all. As Joe guides Deckard to the location of a crucial character who offers the prospect of emancipation for humans and replicants at the film’s climax, the words of Freysa, the rebel leader echo in his brain: A revolution is coming!

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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