- Dystopia fatigue doesn't cut it, or, Blade Runner 2049's utopian longings
A short symposium piece on Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve US/UK/Hungary/ Canada/Spain 2017) is hardly the place to rehash the question that concerns many in sf studies, utopian studies and political activism–what is utopia?– and yet here we are. We have arrived here because 2049 and its predecessor, Blade Runner (Scott US 1982), not to mention that film's literary progenitor, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, are all overwhelmingly seen as expressions of a neoliberal dystopianism that symptomatises itself through pseudocyberpunk aesthetics: gritty urban design, bleak lighting, bleaker narrative trajectories and a noir sense of futility in the face of humanity's injustices against those it oppresses (minus the women, who are not really people in either Blade Runner or its sequel).
Surely there is nothing positive in the Blade Runner (dare I say it) franchise, no glimmer of better worlds promised by utopian thinking. After all, if Blade Runner delivered on the urban grit of the hardboiled detective's dark alleys lit by neon signs imported from Japan (along with half the sartorial and set design), 2049 promised vast landscapes of urban decay wrought by capitalist expansion and climate catastrophe. The nostalgic remnants of the past–a grizzled Han Sol-, I mean, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), emerging not to hoots and cheers as the nudge-nudge-wink-wink fulfilment of fan desire but as its antithesis, an acerbic old man uninterested in his legacy–are obscured or obliterated by terrible but beautiful sandstorms, massive ocean swells and even more neon. And within this even more circumscribed capitalist-realist landscape, a detective yet again stalks representatives of the android underclass, questions his ontological status as android and/or human, and explores uneven power relationships with women. What is emancipatory in all of this; what thin vapours cling to the hopes for something better?
If the general tenor of critics' responses tells us anything, it is that 2049 is pure dystopia–bleak yet beautiful, maybe even brilliant (at least cinematographically) and definitely problematic. It took me two years to see 2049, despite being impressed by the visuals in the trailer; I have never liked [End Page 143] Blade Runner, and I am bored by the reboots and sequels spewing out of Hollywood. But in the intervening years between its release and my first viewing, I followed the critical conversation with interest, curious how Denis Villeneuve, an often impressive filmmaker, had handled the sequel to a classic sf movie and how it fared as a blockbuster successor to a film that had initially been poorly received by popular audiences but had grown in stature through later re-evaluations and releases of multiple recuts. 2049 certainly 'failed' at the box office, netting barely 60 per cent of its production cost. Critics seemed split, however, almost all impressed by the visual phenomenon of 2049 but most finding it a shallow, overlong parade of problematic scenes.
To be sure, many of the critiques that emerged both from trusted colleagues on social media and in private conversations and among popular critics in venues such as Vox, Slate, Vice, Los Angeles Review of Books and others are convincing, especially with regard to the film's treatment of gender, women's bodies and the Orientalist residuals of cyberpunk's early years (much more prominent in Blade Runner).1 As Sarah Emerson argued, 2049 follows a trend common in American cyberpunk: the traces of Asian techno-futurism are everywhere, but Asians are not. Julie Muncy put the film's sexist veneer plainly: 'Women in Blade Runner 2049 are constantly objectified by the world around them, turned into automated helpers, puppets, and sex toys', largely referring to Lt Joshi (Robin Wright) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who are thugsfor-hire for people with more social, political and economic capital, and Joi (Ana de Armas) and Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who variously provide sexual pleasure for or pine after the film's android protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling).2 Most of these women die either at K's hands or trying to protect him. Moreover, as Casey Cipriani notes, 2049 troublingly rewrites Deckard's...