Slavery and white-on-white crime in the science-fiction film, 'Blade Runner 2049'

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October 8th 2017

Blade Runner 2049 is a film as deeply flawed as its predecessor, Blade Runner (1982).  While the flaws of the previous film were revealed upon each subsequent revision that followed the theatrical domestic release version (e.g., the uncut version, the director’s cut, the final cut), the flaws of the new sequel are well on display and one can only hope that any subsequent revisions to this film will help it in gaining a modicum of the critical reputation of the original.  Of the many problems within the film is that fact that French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve does not have the spiritual insight and cinematic talent of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) and therefore instead of “sculpting in time” with contemplatively paced poetic image compositions and long take sequence shots, Villeneuve ends up wasting our time for 2 hours and 20 minutes of an excruciatingly slow paced 2 hour and 43 minute film with beautifully designed sets that have little to no dramatic content or conflict within them.  By the time the film comes to life with the rediscovery of the Deckard character played again by Harrison Ford from the original, your own dreams for a better film will have taken over you. Another problem is the script, because it never really goes anywhere and there is little within the characters (android or otherwise) or their circumstances to make you care for what is not happening for 2 hours and 20 minutes before the film actually gets going in its last 20 minutes with its cat and mouse hunt sequence that is supposed to be the finale.  



Ironically, what could have salvaged some – but certainly not all of the entire effort – was the same thing that actually salvaged most of the effort of the original 1982 film: an engaging and deceptive voice over. Villeneuve falls into the same trap of artistic hubris as Ridley Scott did in 1982, by believing that the dense and rich visuals of their films would sustain what has to be a dramatic work hinged upon human and non-human conflicts instead of simply providing a compelling dramatic story of human and non-human conflicts that would then be placed within the dense and rich visuals of their films. In short, there is just too much bathwater for the baby bathe in; an over-reliance on dense and layered visuals that drown out the story rather than support it.

For example, it was the voice over on the original theatrical release of Blade Runner that allowed just the right amount of ambiguity concerning whether or not Deckard was android or a human that made this character interesting and inscrutable for 30 decades since the film’s release. The voiceover also gave some necessary human context to that new future dystopian world of 2019 that we were seeing in 1982. Particularly, the voice over line that Deckard uses to describe an official who calls him in for questioning when he says,” He was the kinda guy who used to call black men, niggers.” It might be the future, but racism still exists.  Yet, both Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott hated the voiceover from the original 1982 theatrical release of Blade Runner and it was removed from subsequent versions of the film.  A voice over in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 could have potentially added a layer of emotional complexity to Ryan Gosling’s otherwise comatose performance and teased out many of the weighty philosophical questions the film glosses over without the depth the film’s 2 hour and 43 minute running time should have amply provided.

But the intention of this piece is not solely to give a negative review of Blade Runner 2049, but also to discuss the difficulty white filmmakers like Ridley Scott, and now, Denis Villeneuve, have in dealing with issues of slavery and race within their visions of the future.  A few years ago while discussing the science-fiction work of black author Octavia Butler, I noted that there is an, “…overarching and obsessive need to see all science fiction by African-Americans as a metaphor or commentary on slavery or racial inequities tends to make the question of race a central theme within the work (whether it is actually there or not) to the exclusion of all the other prominent themes as Butler pointed out in her afterword to BLOODCHILD.  In placing the racial frame upon the science fiction/fantasy/or futurist work of African-Americans we too hastily discard the genuine scientific, fantasy or futurist aspects of the work, which in turn, weakens and /or perverts the author’s original intent.  In fact, many African-Americans use race as a default critique when we approach science-fiction solely as a means of side-stepping the science within the fiction no matter what the race of the author.”  Yet the obverse tends to be true when we approach the work of white science-fiction authors and filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Denis Villeneuve, Steven Spielberg or George Lucas; the metaphor of slavery is downplayed for the enjoyment of white male dramatic agency in the form of a cop, an astronaut, a rebel leader or a scientist in pursuit of the truth.  

In both the original Blade Runner and the new sequel Blade Runner 2049, replicants (android non-humans in human form) are used as slave labor in off-world colonies and the termination of these artificially intelligent beings (the Nexus-6 and Nexus-8 models respectively)for escaping the unjust horrors of existence as a slave falls under the providence of officers called Blade Runners. In the original film, the last living replicants from an off-world rebellion whom the Deckard character is pursuing are white and thus the fact that they were slaves does not seem to be attached to their identities now that we see them in various disguises on Earth.  One of the reasons for this detachment from their identities as slaves is that we don’t see any of the slave work that the replicants do on the off-world colonies.  Usually, when slavery is presented in American films, particularly during the 8 years that Barack Obama was president, we see black slaves in period costume at work in the fields or in domestic service to whites and therefore we are given visual confirmatory evidence that these blacks we are seeing on screen are slaves. (e.g., 12 Years a Slave, The Butler)  By contrast, in both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, the notion of white-skinned replicants as escaped slaves does not fit the historical and representational iconography that we associate with slaves as being both black and engaged in menial labor.  Neither film gives us a glimpse of the ‘slave labor’ that the replicants were engaged in on the off-world colonies.  Therefore, the written preamble in both films about replicants being used as slave labor in off-world colonies does not become a significant theme in either film.  From the perspective of dispassionate black spectators, all we see are white people killing other white people for somehow not being authentic white people.  The replicants are near perfect reproductions of white people that even the authentic white people in pursuit are unsure about until after they have been killed. It is in this way that one might consider both Blade Runner films as mediations about white-on-white crime.  “Do white people kill other white people for not acting like authentic white people,” might be an alternative title for both films.  Furthermore, does being a slave for the benefit of white people automatically revoke one’s status as human?

This last question is most important especially when we consider what African-American Studies scholar Frank B. Wilderson III tells us about how,”…slavery is and connotes an ontological status for blackness; and that the constituent elements of slavery are not exploitation and alienation but accumulation and fungibility.” (1) Let us unpack this assertion by saying that being and having been a slave is somehow permanently attached to black racial identity and that being and having been a slave was a condition that consisted of how many slaves a white person owned and how easily one black slave could be replaced by another black slave. The logic is circular because to be a slave was to be black and to be black was to be a slave.  Recall how historians always try (implicitly) to downplay the fact that the so-called Founding Fathers owned slaves by noting that George Washington owned around 123 individuals or that Thomas Jefferson owned around 130 individuals so that one might not consider Washington and Jefferson as true slave owners like those of the Southern plantations who owned hundreds and hundreds of slaves.  We are implicitly encouraged to see Washington and Jefferson as just courageous gentlemen engaged in the practice of their times.  The amount of slaves owned and the fact that the slaves were black gave value to being white and added value to a white person’s wealth, this is what is meant by accumulation and fungibility in Wilderson’s assertion.  The point here is that “being black” is often synonymous with slave status in a white supremacist society and thus black identity carries with it what we might call a latent signifier of “slave status” even if a black person rises to become a President of the United States or a billionaire.

Yet, when we think of whites as slaves their slave status is always considered temporary, if it is acknowledged at all.  The indentured servitude of the Irish in America and other immigrating ethnicities who were often thought lower than blacks within the American racial hierarchy before the Civil War was a temporary status and not a permanent condition.  Blade Runner 2049 continues this temporary status because 1) we don’t see the ‘replicants’ performing the drudgery associated with slave labor, and 2) the new Nexus models of replicants have hidden themselves within the fabric of a white supremacist society so carefully we don’t think of them as runaway ‘slaves’ but instead as mere targets for Officer K aka “Joe” (Ryan Gosling) the replicant killing replicant.  But there is a significant change between Scott’s Blade Runner and Villeneuve’s sequel.  In Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve attempts to reveal the social prejudice against replicants by having other ‘police officers’ derisively call Joe the Blade Runner a “Skin job”.  We also see a derogatory slur against “skin jobs” on the door of Joe’s apartment.  But these attempts to reveal the prejudice against replicants in the future as inauthentic white people does little to resolve the questions of how racism against people of color is continued in this future by the lack of diversity that we see represented on the screen.  The first Blade Runner was filled with images that made a fetish of Asian iconography that is continued within Blade Runner 2049 with a gigantic holographic naked Asian prostitute that propositions Joe as he walks on the streets of Los Angeles alone.  More offensive is the decision to cast black actor Lennie James as the overseer of a child labor sweatshop and Barkhad Abdi (of Captain Phillips) in an even smaller role of little importance.  And it doesn’t help that the first person killed in the film is David Bautista an actor of Filipino descent but who can be read as “white” within the image which inaugurates the conception that Blade Runner 2049 is a film about white male dramatic agency and the degree to which it will be exercised is solely under the control of the white male in the lead role of the film: Ryan Gosling as Officer K/Joe.

All this has been said to understand how Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 posits a story about inauthentic white people as slaves but then effaces any traces of that slavery from the bodies and circumstances of the replicant characters who have escaped their unjust conditions and are now being hunted to their deaths by slave catchers of the future.  We don’t look at the Blade Runner films as stories of slavery, slave rebellion, and execution; we don’t look at the science fiction of white authors and filmmakers as metaphors of slavery (even if they explicitly reference the peculiar institution); we don’t accept white people as slaves and that the condition of slavery is a permanent characteristic of their racial identity because we have been taught through culture, ideology, and filmic conventions that slave status is always something permanently inhabited by a black body.

Outside of being a stilted mediation on white-on-white crime, Blade Runner 2049 fails dramatically because what story there is within the film is predicated on an impossible premise: that a human created biomechanical organism could give birth to a child.  To believe this premise one has to collapse, conflate, and ignore the many, many metaphysical, philosophical, and even religious questions concerning the nature of the ‘human soul’ and all those ineffable qualities that make a human, human.  Whereas the first film explored the futile attempt of replicants to get ‘more time’ to extend their 4-year lifespan from their creator at the Tyrell Corporation, the new film attempts to explore the nature of the human soul which raises questions too complex for the fictional conceit of the film to support: that replicants are almost human and through a complex series of tests and observations one can discern their inauthenticity is one thing, but to suggest that replicants are advanced enough to give birth to children is an ontological proposition that cannot be accepted as a mere fictional conceit.  Indeed, the birth of this child is referred to as a “miracle” within the film and moves the film from the genre of science-fiction and into a nebulous category of scientific and metaphysical speculation that raises more questions that the film itself cannot answer nor adequately explain in its current dramatic configuration.

It should be very clear to us that Denis Villeneuve is a competent and even visionary director.  The great works like Sicario (2015) and parts of Arrival (2016) show Villeneuve’s impeccable directorial vision and attention to detail, but Blade Runner 2049 reveals that even the greatest directors cannot overcome a badly written script filled with ideas that far exceed their dramatic grasp.

Notes

1) Pg.14, Red, white, & black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms by Frank B. Wilderson III, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.   






Andre Seewood is the author of several books on film including Slave Cinema: The Crisis of the African-American in Film.  Pick up a copy here


by Andre Seewood on October 8th 2017
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