Appetite for Replication

Published on November 13th, 2017

Alex writes about Blade Runner 2049.

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NOTE: This title is 100% stolen from one of my favourite essays by Chuck Klosterman. Like most of Klosterman’s work, I could never write something 8% as good as his essay, an essay about a Guns N Roses tribute band that still makes me laugh out loud despite having read it probably 15 times. For reasons both personal and stylistic, Appetite for Replication happens to double as the perfect title for my essay here as well. Lucky for me, nobody reads my writing, therefore I should escape sans repercussions. So here we are.

In discussing Blade Runner 2049, the whats and the whys of it all, I have taken to repeating the same thing over and over. The film offers so little in the way of concrete information – be it plot, character, whether or not what we’re currently watching is actually happening even within the reality of the film, etc. – that to the viewer the film becomes pretty much as good as we want to make it. (Editor Joe Walker talked about this recently in the Art of the Cut, saying himself and director Denis Villeneuve tried to pare back the dialogue as far as they possibly could.) If you feel like thinking about your failure to garner a promotion at work, you can find that in this film. Should you prefer to revisit all the things you thought about during Spike Jonze’s Her a few years ago, that is very obviously present as well. If you want to search for an answer as to why Dave Roberts started Yu Darvish in Game 7, you can probably find it here. Blade Runner 2049 never closes doors; it only opens them.

Much like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a sort of Terrence Malick movie for sci-fi heads*: if you want to look for something, the movie never gives you enough information to contradict what you have chosen to believe. But if you want a normal movie, you’re going to walk out saying, “Well that was pretty, but I fucking hated it.” Again, much like Malick’s work, I have never fully accepted Blade Runner as a truly great film, and I don’t know that I ever will. I will likely watch it every few years for the rest of my life, but I will never get past certain elements. I confidently feel as though Blade Runner 2049 is the superior version of the two films, as Blade Runner 2049 is a more precisely captured version of the world Ridley Scott was trying to will into existence back in 1982.

*As an aside, a Terrence Malick science-fiction movie sounds like something I desperately want to see; Song to Song in Space would probably end up being my favourite movie of the decade. (As it stands it looks like Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the closest we have.)

That said, this could all be simply because I saw Blade Runner 2049 on the right day. I was willing to look for what I would eventually find.

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One of the most persistent images of Blade Runner 2049 is the slow, patient walk our lead character K moves about new parts of his world with. When entering a new location alone, K moves slowly, with his shoulders angled, indicating that he is always halfway toward turning around and sprinting in the opposite direction. Most notably, he approaches Deckard’s Las Vegas abode this way, wary of what could be awaiting him. (K approaches the awaiting confirmation of his wooden horse memory the same way.) This is an indication of K’s persistent feeling of being unsure where he belongs – we see him in his apartment seeming almost comfortable, and that’s about it – which is compounded by conflicted feelings he may have about his job as a blade runner (if it is possible for a replicant to have feelings*). He walks comfortably through places he has been before like the police station, or walks confidently to his spinner after setting Sapper Morton’s habitat ablaze, but K is worried about any and all new environments, because he knows how the old ones have treated him.

*See? This movie gives you nothing concrete, leading me to need to qualify almost every element of it as I mention it. This is why there are a billion shitty undergrad essays about Blade Runner bouncing around, and why (if film doesn’t totally recede from academic culture as it continues to recede from popular culture) there will soon be another billion about Blade Runner 2049. And this shitty undergrad-level essay you’re currently reading will surely be as messy as Deckard’s 2019 apartment as a result.

If there is a single feeling K seems to continually project, it is one of the reject. He is a replicant who does the job nobody else wants to do, and the only acceptance we see him gain is from Joshi and Joi. In the former case, K’s acceptance comes seemingly only because he does exactly what Joshi wants pretty much all the time (with the exception of that one time when Joshi wants to finish a bottle of vodka and maybe have sex with K), and K knows any acceptance he gets from Joi comes only because she is programmed to deliver it. Anybody with enough money to buy a Joi from Wallace can get the same acceptance; it is a valueless type of acceptance to K (or at the very least acceptance of a dubious sort). Pretty much everybody else in the movie shuns K entirely, with fellow citizens writing slurs on his apartment door, or causing him to cower in fear walking down the halls of his own workplace. That K is portrayed by Ryan Gosling, a man with a constant case of sadface, only exacerbates this feeling.

There is much to be discussed about this film, much of which I have discussed on a different medium on this same website. But what (eventually – admittedly I came to this conclusion days later) resonated with me this fourth time seeing the picture, the proper time for certain feelings to register, was K’s utter feeling of disillusionment. He is a replicant who believes he is not special, who then captures a glimmer of hope that he is special, only for that to be crushed once again. By feeling any sort of positive way about his own existence, he is able to feel an even more crushing blow than the many blows the world had delivered to him up to this point.

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Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve is certainly no reject in the world of film; he is highly regarded, properly recognized as a deeply skilled auteur. He is a man who toiled away on smaller films for a full decade and a half before being accepted by a world willing to give him more money to make his thoughtful, auteurist pictures. After Incendies was a critical success, Warner Bros. trusted him to make Prisoners*, which begat Sicario, which begat Arrival, which begat Blade Runner 2049 (coincidentally a film about begetting).

*And his brief weekend jaunts with Gyllenhaal making Enemy, a very good but incomparably scaled film.

It is impossible to guess what Villeneuve truly thought about his own career pre-2010, but it’s probably some variation of “I’m just happy to be a working filmmaker,” which is the standard line for independent directors who do not get to work with the budgets they’d like. The growth in scale of Villeneuve’s films has been so gradual and cautious that it’s entirely possible he sort of found his way into Hollywood genre filmmaking more than he ever felt destined to do it. (It is not hard to imagine a version of Prisoners made with a micro-budget, for example.) The Academy nominated Incendies for Best Foreign Language Film, and it broke down a certain wall, the wall standing between Villeneuve and a $50 million budget. And that film’s success allowed Villeneuve to make subsequent successful films, which allowed for an eventual (at least) tripling of his highest budget to make his latest.

Blade Runner 2049 is the first film of Villeneuve’s since he started making English language films to not be an unqualified financial success pretty much immediately upon release. It is the first time he has been rejected by viewers in a long time, and Alcon Entertainment’s* bet on him seems to have been misplaced**. It became another example of the continued degradation of how we see cinema: if it’s not sure to give us the entertainment we desire, it’s not worth leaving our home for.

*Long story short: this is Alcon’s biggest budget to date, three times their typical limit. On the podcast I misspoke about them having financed countless independent films throughout the 2000s, which is simply untrue – they mostly operated in the cinematic middle class, with a distribution deal through Warner Bros., primarily making movies in the budgetary range of $30-50 million. I think I confused my twenty or so basement screenings of Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia through the 2000s as Alcon financing many cool auteurs. I do not exactly regard My Dog Skip as classic cinema.
**Although they must have been aware that a sequel to Blade Runner 2049 was always going to be risky. In my conversations with people I know, most people know of and have seen the original film, but at least half of them do not care for it. 2049 is a sequel to a known property, yes, but it’s a property known to be divisive.

Stepping back from the film itself, my main concern over the non-success of the film – and in modern Hollywood, not quite being a success at a budget of this size will always be viewed as a failure – is what Villeneuve is able to accomplish going forward. The notorious fickleness of Hollywood might bring an end to his run of patient, auteurist genre pictures, simply because this most recent patient, auteurist genre picture is not as successful as its financiers would have hoped. Maybe his version of Dune or Cleopatra never happens; maybe he has to go back to the smaller worlds of Prisoners and Sicario and Arrival. (This, it should be noted, would not necessarily be terrible.) I don’t actually worry about whether or not Blade Runner 2049 will hinder Villeneuve’s confidence as a filmmaker, because most directors who make such confident films have a strong belief in their ability to make another one. But he is a human being, one who has garnered more professional success in a short period of time than most gain in a lifetime, and it is worth pondering what effect a sudden change can have on a psyche.

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One of my favourite (probably accidental) elements of Blade Runner 2049 is the use of Japanese as a secondary language throughout the film, but the utmost absence of minorities in key roles. I proposed this on the podcast, and I shall propose it again: I doubt Villeneuve and company specifically made sure all their main characters were played by white people, but that this happened subconsciously paints an even more bleak vision of the future than I initially realized. In a world where many of the citizens are creations of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the majority of those creations will be made in Wallace’s image. When you have the ability to create a human being, your initial reaction will always be to make a human being who looks kind of like yourself (if only because it’s genetic tradition).

Casting a movie isn’t totally different from that: you are creating a character, and naturally with Denis Villeneuve as a white man, I’m sure it subconsciously leads him to think of casting another white man (and the executives behind the film likely prefer it that way, too). This is not a revolutionary thought, nor do I think it is a damning one; it’s just kind of how it is. It is a non-reaction to a world that has continued to keep the same checks and balances in place, the same checks and balances that help keep the people at the top precisely where they are. There is hope that this can change in Hollywood, that diversity may become more of a rule than an outlier, but it will only happen gradually as more diverse voices are able to get their own films made, casting their actors in their own image of the world.

Smash cut to Blade Runner 2049’s version of 2049, where basically nothing has changed. The most notable minority, Joi, is played by a Cuban woman (and Joi may or may not be Cuban by K’s design, perhaps in his quest to become a semi-woke replicant – the hologram Joi he meets later is not voiced by Ana de Armas, for example) is a technological slave. Wood Harris plays a detective, yes, but he pretty much disappears from the movie as soon as he arrives. Dr. Badger works as a sort of pawnshop owner, again for only one scene, a scene I have (obviously) become obsessed with.

Dr. Badger is played by Barkhad Abdi, an actor whose career has not followed the path one would have anticipated after his first role. As Muse in Captain Phillips, Abdi was spectacular, and was justly nominated for an Academy Award (which he unjustly lost to Jared Leto). Since Captain Phillips, Abdi has had a career that can only be described as “upsetting:” he was cut out of Trainwreck, had a role in Eye in the Sky, played a dismayingly small role as a security guard in Good Time, and has one scene in Blade Runner 2049. When James said on the Blade Runner 2049 podcast as we lamented his lack of roles, “The last time I saw him was at the Oscars,” it was a fabrication of sorts, but only barely*.

*Although in fairness to James, I know he never saw Eye in the Sky or Good Time, nor has he visited Judd Apatow’s edit bay. The man is not a liar.

Barkhad Abdi was so good at playing the role of Muse that he was named as one of the best 10 men at his profession in the year 2013. He was great in the job he was hired to do, and when it came time to do some awards circuit promotion, he was highly likeable at that as well. Barkhad Abdi seems like a cool, normal person, who told the story of an interesting character in an interesting way. But he lost his Oscar to a pretty white man who would eventually somehow get away with sending used condoms to his Suicide Squad costars, because Jared Leto was cast in the image Hollywood had for itself. And then Leto got cast as the man casting the visage of Blade Runner’s version of 2049, because this is how it goes.

Is there a lesson here? Only one we already learned long ago.

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It seems stupid to see part of my own life in Blade Runner 2049, especially since I am awkwardly transitioning into that after having just talked about Hollywood’s systemic issues with race. But this whole essay is remarkably messy, even by my standards, so why stop now? Why not look at this pretty, white male from Southern Ontario and project my less pretty, equally white and equally from Southern Ontario life onto Gosling’s film? Because the ease with which this can happen almost makes me hate the movie, simply because I worry it might be tricking me into thinking it’s smarter than it is. (Again, yet another Terrence Malick situation.) And yet I can’t help it, despite my fears that it is a problematic way to react. When your feelings are continually caught up in projections onto the unreal, you begin to lose track of where your own reality begins, and what you have constructed for yourself. At some point, being consumed with replications of human stories turns you into a replicant.

Two weeks ago, I had seen Blade Runner 2049 three times. James and I had already recorded our podcast on it, so I assumed I had hit my total number of theatrical screenings. In the days after that, certain events transpired, and I met a person, and I made a trip to a different city, and a totally different person there knew me well enough to be confident that I would be more than happy to see Blade Runner 2049 again. So we did. We ate popcorn and enjoyed ourselves and were temporarily annoyed by a talkative Quebecois couple. The next day, certain illusions I had created became evident as I continued to think about the film I had seen the day previous. Later in the week, I wrote this.

Sometimes you sit in a room and think your ideas will be accepted by the audience sitting in front of you. Sometimes your ideas are accepted for a while, so much so that you don’t see that this will not be true of all your forthcoming ideas. Something goes awry. It takes too long to get to Harrison Ford, or your ad campaign guessed wrong on how obtuse it could be, or Hans rocked out on those synths a little too hard. You stay in a wing of Budapest film studio for a year thinking what you’re doing is worth the struggle, because you have become comfortable with the idea that your audience appreciates you.

You finish your cut, you walk home, and you sleep well, satisfied knowing that you have done well, that your words were proper. You have been toiling away in the same hopeless pursuit for so long that you were able to convince yourself that this is what others wanted from you.

Then doubt creeps in, as it does, and you find yourself lying in the snow, looking around for the first time in a long time. You have finally removed yourself far enough to see what others always had. There will always be another person manipulating the snow, always another waiting to let you know that this world was not what you thought.

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