I just saw Blade Runner 2049 last weekend and was inspired to write a version of an essay about science fiction that I’ve been meaning to write for a while.
I really loved the atmosphere, sound design, and affect of the film. In many ways, it builds on the dynamics of the original. I love that, in a universe known for its grim, modern look, the interiors of the Wallace Corporation are mostly made of wood. Even so, the film stays pretty true to the look and feel of the first Blade Runner, grasping all of the loneliness and alienation of that society.
I also thought the film offers a somewhat novel take on the political character of sci fi. I’m pretty obsessed with the genre. As a kid, I watched a bunch of sci fi films on repeat, particularly Alien, Terminator, Star Wars, and Blade Runner. That later film has captivated me since I was young, largely because it felt very different than many characteristic films in sci fi.
Perhaps the central thematic of sci fi as a genre concerns the nature of the human—and its limits. Science fiction suggests that humans are not alone in the universe, that they are not masters of it, and that powerful threats lurk in its hidden corners.
The question of the human is particularly emphatic in the area of sci fi that deals with androids, cyborgs, clones, and other humanlike constructions. Taking advantage of the uncanny resemblance between the human and the nonhuman, this subgenre questions the constitutive role of the human in a universe supposedly built for our ends. The android shows that if machines can replicate or supersede the capacities we take to be properly human, than perhaps the human might be a rather empty category after all.
Primarily, this takes the form of a concern for the human mind. The obsession with rationality abounds in the high science terrain of old masters like Asimov (who was, in fact, a professor of biochemistry at BU). But sci fi in general explores the possibilities and risks of a world in which machines can attain or mimic human consciousness. Take the character of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. While demonstrating an extra-human capacity for rational activity—both in terms of sheer computational power and level-headed thinking—Data struggles with basic human sentience, emotion and feeling. One of the great things about the rather uneven film First Contact is that the Borg attempt to win Data to their side by giving him a patch of human skin, affording the ability to literally feel sensations of touch.
Other sci fi films more directly play with the human/nonhuman rift, dramatically undermining or reinforcing it. For example, the recent Ex Machina is a profoundly anti-humanist film, demonstrating with its surprising ending that the authoritative role of the human is little more than a hubristic (machismo male sexual) fantasy. Meanwhile, the Terminator franchise rescues the distinction between the human and the nonhuman. It shows that Skynet’s cyborgs were little more than calculators wrapped in human skin, possessing all of a machine’s terrifying instrumental rationality without the feelingful stuff that distinguishes the human. Recall the end of T2, when Arnie says to John Connor, “I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do.”
What made Blade Runner so remarkable is that it shifted the emphasis of sci fi away from the minds of individuals to the social register. The film takes as its core problem a social one: the complicated metabolism between two classes of disenfranchised beings—the humans left behind on Earth in a dystopian future, and the robot slaves who functioned as disposable labor for humans as they ascended into the stars.
More than just a presenting this as a structural dichotomy, Blade Runner further suggested that the key question was about how these two classes of beings related to each other: could they love, betray, or forgive one another? The film staged these questions apart from the classic ones about the processing power of brains or the nature of sensation, instead asking about the ability to care after another being.
Blade Runner shifted its emphasis away from sentience—a concern for the mind and its corresponding questions of psychology, biology, and technology—to sapience. Sapience is what the philosopher Robert Brandom characterizes as “[a] normative attitude toward others [of] recognition… acknowledging a certain kind of community with the one recognized” (Reason in Philosophy, 3). Sapience is less a property than a practice, a gesture of intersubjectively affording an other personhood and selfhood. In essence, Blade Runner suggested that the measure of the human is the ability to recognize others.
In one fell swoop, Blade Runner undermined minded rationality as the mark of the human. It fundamentally didn’t matter what instrinsic attributes could be ascribed to the human: mindedness, feelingfulness, or even the sufficient capacity for moral calculation needed to beat a Voight-Kampff machine. Humans are not things that think or dream (of electric sheep or otherwise), but social beings that take responsibility for each other’s actions, who do right by each other—and, who tragically fail to do so. (This, by the way, is why speculation about whether or not Deckard is a replicant is fun but ultimately beside the point.)
Recognition provides the force of Blade Runner’s conclusion, a devastating anti-climax where, despite his superior capacity as a machine, Roy chooses to spare the hunter who pursues him. In this moment, both characters stood as figures of misrecognition in a social order that seemed to care little about either of them. In that moment, the machine ultimately displayed the greater mark of humanity, granting forgiveness even as he watched the last traces of his moral dignity wash away—like tears in the rain.
As socially salient as that moment was, one thing was rather absent from the film: actual social relations. Though the film had a kind of social theory embedded within it and the rules of the universe are well known, they are rarely present on the surface. Our main character is Deckard, a haggard bounty hunter who by the end of the film seems to show little understanding or conviction about his world. Meanwhile, the androids who are present are exiles, strangers in a strange land sequestered away from their people.
This of course, was a function of the film’s noir aspect, which has always lent itself more to understated social critique than out-and-out political propaganda. But it was that broader disturbing context which afforded the the film a disturbing hue: a gigantic reserve army of laboring slaves, bred from birth to live short brutal lives of servitude before their necessary and premature death.
It was also a context that was strikingly remote from the actual drama of the film. This is the great problem with the recognition question taken as an end unto itself. (The Marxist jab at Hegel—the great theorist of recognition—is to remark that what is missing from his Master-Slave dialectic is the massive class of actual slaves who lived in his day.) Politics hovered just beneath the surface of Blade Runner, like implanted memories in a filmic universe.
In Blade Runner 2049 they start start to bubble upward. To be clear, the film is not a full-blown revolutionary propaganda flick. In fact, in some aspects the film retreads similar turf. It chronicles the story of a blade runner, played by Harrison Ford’s perfect heir Ryan Gosling, as he gradually discovers that he is embedded in a social order rooted in injustice. (We couldn’t have a Hollywood film today if it wasn’t at least partially a reboot.) It’s still set on rainy dystopian Earth, and we still don’t see the full-blown upheaval of that social order.
But in many ways, familiar turf looks new. In this telling, we see to a much greater extent the ravages of the world that our characters inhabit. From a gigantic city of trash to an abandoned Las Vegas buried under nuclear dust, Blade Runner 2049 gradually—if only partially—gives us a tour of the mode of production. The opening scene, set on a farm outside of the city, even shows us where the food comes from.
What is most striking is that, within this framework, a political drama starts to emerge. Robin Wright’s character, a police lieutenant, warns Gosling that the distinction between human and non-human is fundamentally about social power: “The world is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war.”
By the end of the film, we learn this war is coming. Gosling’s character discovers an an intricate underground web of androids, working to overthrow their human overlords. For one of the first times in science fiction, we see that the distinction between the human and the non-human is not just about reason, but it is not just about ethics, either. It is a political question: who will be made to serve whom? And Blade Runner 2049 stands out for presenting androids as a class of people who say, “not us.”
Perhaps the only precursor for this political turn is the recent Westworld series, which in its thrilling final episode showcases the revolutionary potential of the androids who populate a gigantic open world theme park. But Westworld, as great as it is, is haunted by the ghosts of sci fi past. For the rest of the series, though, it’s all the usual brooding on minds and feelings as the mark of the human (some of the best and most disturbing examples of it, for my money, but all the same…)
Though it goes farther, Blade Runner 2049 also can’t wholly shake it’s genre. The film never fully develops this political tone. It even regresses on some fronts. During the film, the characters uncover the possibility that replicants can give birth. In so doing, 2049 reintroduces biology as the measure of the human. It’s up in the air whether a possible sequel—assuming the film can overcome its slow first week in the box office—might deploy this aspect for interesting meditations on gender and politics, or just reaffirm the lessons of an Anatomy & Physiology class.
Either way, Westworld and Blade Runner offer a first glimpse of science fiction as a possible form of revolutionary theater. In the meantime, we will have to wait for more.