- We, the people of Blade Runner 2049
In the time I was working on this essay, a news story broke concerning a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the police department in the Memphis suburb of Southaven, Mississippi, for the 2017 shooting of Ismael Lopez, an undocumented immigrant who had resided in the city for the previous 16 years. The lawyers for the defence argued that because Lopez was in the country illegally, he had no claim of equal protection under the law. Their court filing asserts: 'Ismael Lopez may have been a person on American soil but he was not one of the "We, the People of the United States" entitled to the civil rights invoked in this lawsuit' (Conley n.p.). I have no doubt that the readers of this essay are already painfully aware of how increasingly common such disturbing arguments have become since the selection in 2016 by the Electoral College of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Indeed, one of the few consistent planks in Trump's wildly oscillating ethno-nationalist agenda has been the dehumanisation and demonisation of immigrants, especially those from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and other crisis spots in the global neoliberal order.
The grim realities of Trump's re-made America are at the heart of director Denis Villeneuve's film Blade Runner 2049 (US/UK/Hungary/Canada/Spain 2017), a sequel to Ridley Scott's landmark Blade Runner (US 1982). That the actions and policies of the Trump administration are of interest to Villeneuve should come as no surprise to viewers of his previous sf film, autumn 2016's highly lauded first contact narrative Arrival (US/Canada/India), an adaptation of one of the greatest works of sf published in the late twentieth century, Ted Chiang's 'Story of Your Life' (1998). Arrival diverges dramatically from Chiang's story in its addition of national and geopolitical allegorical narrative strands. The situation into which the alien 'heptapods' arrive is portrayed in the film as quite similar to our own, where the promise of global unity that seemed to be on the table in the first years following the end of the Cold War (and then again, in a darker fashion, after 11 September 2001) has given way to mutual suspicion and destructive competition between the planet's major powers, especially the US and China, as well as a resurgent populist neo-nationalism. The latter is signalled early in the film when following the arrival of the alien ships, the central protagonist, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is seen [End Page 135] speaking on the phone with her anxious mother. In the midst of their conversation Louise says, in a not subtle reference to the Fox News network that would turn out to be instrumental in Trump's electoral college victory, 'Mom, please don't bother with that channel. How many times do I have to tell you those people are idiots?'
Even more dramatically, later in the film we get a brief glimpse of a solider watching an online broadcast of a far-right commentator who complains about the 'government that ruined our health care and bankrupted our military' before opining, 'We could be facing a full-scale invasion and our president is just willing to sit back and let them take our country'. This incendiary language inspires the soldier to take part in a failed attempt to blow up the alien ship. However, Arrival ends happily after Louise's conversation with a Chinese general narrowly averts war and the 'gift' of the heptapod language– and with it the even more magical ability to see indefinitely into the future (another major change from Chiang's original)–result in a new global comity.
One of the significant transformations that occurs in Blade Runner 2049 is the expansion of the film's spatial tableau. All of the action in the first film (with the exception of a final shot in the original theatrical release that Scott removed from his various director's cuts) takes place in a near future Los Angeles that feels at once stiflingly claustrophobic and extending to infinity...