Blade Runner 2049: Can't SF point to better futures, as well as warn against worse ones?
In a recent workshop meeting of some of the Alternative UK's advisers, nearly half the room chose Blade Runner as their all-time favourite movie. Why? "It's about what it means to be human, in a technological age", said one.
The new sequel, Blade Runner 2049, picks up that theme and intensifies it - with the emotional dilemmas for humans, replicants and now virtual A.I.s every more acute and entangled.
The new movie’s strongest emotional chord is the same as the last one: the love that emerges between two entities, one (or maybe both?) of them artificial. It turns out that the new movie's main character Joe K, a replicant policeman who hunts his own kind, has “a preference for the virtual girls”, as one artificial prostitute puts it.
And indeed, Joe does share his grimy home life with Joi, an artificially-intelligent holographic projection. She is every women he needs her to be – homemaker, bohemian hipster, geisha girl. And even physical lover, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in movie SF.
There are even deeper tugs of love and identity in Blade Runner 2049. But what Joe and Joi’s relationship extrapolates is a feature of what we’re currently undergoing with our social media. Which is the ability of the info-corporations to read our character and anticipate our motivations – and this based on the vast amounts of data that our interactions with the likes of Facebook and Google generate.
As Yuval Noah Harari outlines in his still-bestselling Homo Deus, what happens when you are known by these super-surveillant machines better than you know yourself? Better even than your loved ones know you? Might you begin to entrust responsibility for major decisions in your life to these intelligences?
One of the comforts of both Blade Runner movies is that they push back on this entanglement of emotion and machines, seeking some separate ground between them. The historian Edward Luttwak once quipped that “everything that we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency – love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfortable old shoes”.
Blade Runner has a winning nostalgia for such old, good, analogue things. That leery old tenor sax from the 1982 movie soundtrack is playing in my mind right now. And delighting me to my core, Frank Sinatra appears twice in this new movie - once as soundtrack, once as hologram. Hard whisky is drunk, carved wooden horses are treasured by moody replicants. There is talk of how souls come to be born.
Even this move - where we cling onto the dusty artefacts of the past, as powerful technologies make everything potentially mutable – is completely of our times (and not deserving of contempt, either). What might the middle position be? Where the potentials of the future are harnessed to the consistencies of history, by a conscious and empowered human community?
There's not much of a "middle-position", one that sees the future steadily occupied by the resonant aspirations of the present, in Blade Runner 2049. The opening credits make clear that various ecological and technological calamities have occurred since the first movie (set in 2019) - and that the denizens of a snow-covered, murk-laden Los Angeles are generally hanging on by their fingertips.
We won't plot-spoil, but there are some vague signs of a more collective, even civic response to this oppressive system - and the question of what is most "human" in this rebellion is directly addressed.
Yet we yearn for mass-media SF - as you can see previously on the Daily Alternative - which explores some of the more subtle and intriguing (let alone funny, romantic or inspiring) possible futures on offer. Maybe it'll have to happen off the big screen (or expensive console), and take place closer to where it's needed in communities who feel oppressed by our currently dominant stories of the future.
Watch this space.