A review of Blade Runner 2049

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Film poster for Blade Runner 2049 by James Jean

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), but I do remember that it had an instant and formative aesthetic impact on me. Blade Runner’s dark atmosphere and noir rhythms were cut from a different cloth than the Star Wars and Spielberg films that were the VHS diet of my 1980’s boyhood. Blade Runner was an utterly perplexing film, a film that I longed to see again and again (we didn’t have it on tape), akin to Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984), or The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)—dark, weird sci-fi visions that pushed their own archetypes through plot structures that my young brain couldn’t quite comprehend.

By the time Scott released his director’s cut of the film in 1993, I’d read Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and enough other dystopian fictions to understand the contours and content of Blade Runner in a way previously unavailable to me. And yet if the formal elements and philosophical themes of Blade Runner cohered for me, the central ambiguities, deferrals of meaning, and downright strangeness remained. I’d go on to watch Blade Runner dozens of times, even catching it on the big screen a few times, and riffing on it in pretty much every single film course I took in college. And while scenes and set-pieces remained imprinted in my brain, I still didn’t understand the film. Blade Runner is, after all, a film about not knowing.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. Moody, atmospheric, and existentialist, the core questions it pokes at are central to the Philip K. Dick source material from which it originated: What is consciousness? Can consciousness know itself to be real? What does it mean to have–or not have—a soul?

Set three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 centers on KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling in Drive mode). K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb). K is a blade runner, working for the LAPD to hunt down his own kind. At the outset of the film, K doesn’t recognize the earlier model Nexuses (Nexi?) he “retires” as his “own kind,” but it’s clear that the human inhabitants of BR ’49’s world revile all “skinjobs” as the same: scum, other, less human than human. K, beholden to his human masters, exterminates earlier-model replicants in order to keep the civil order that the corporate police state demands. This government relies on replicant slave labor, both off-world—where the wealthiest classes have escaped to—and back here on earth, which is recovering from a massive ecological collapse. The recovery is due entirely to Niander Wallace’s innovations in synthetic farming—and his reintroduction of the previously prohibited replicants.

Our boy K “retires” a Nexus-8 at the beginning of the film. This event leads to the film’s first clue: a box buried under a dead tree. This (Pandora’s) box is an ossuary, the coffin for a (ta da!) female replicant (a Nexus-7 if you’re counting). Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any plot spoilers.

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Nabokov/Hardwick/Lispector (Books acquired, 7.21.2015)

I picked up Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire on a weird whim. I mean, I quite literally passed by it in the bookshop I frequent; it was misshelved, or unshelved, really. Someone had left it in sci-fi, near the “Bs” (B-for-Ballard, if you must know). Pale Fire, eh? I thought. Can’t remember this one. Because I had never read it, somehow. An amazing novel, one I dove into after sampling a bit of Clarice Lispector’s Selected Cronicas (still sampling—this is one of those books that’s lovely to dip gently into between selections) and after failing to get through the first essay in Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal. Not sure if I can (should?) muster a “review” of Pale Fire, but it’s one of the better prepostmodern-postmodernist novels I’ve ever read—very very funny and a beautiful mindfuck.

What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse – I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.

From Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire.

Man’s life, etc. (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)


From Vladimir’s novel Pale Fire.

Lolita (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)

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See it and condemn (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)

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I love this passage from Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The title of Pale Fire, of course, comes from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Ironies aside, I dig the sentiment here, and would extend it to the glut of contemporary novels that rest heavily on the weight of other, better would-be precursor texts.

A syllogism (Vladimir Nabokov)

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From Vladimir Nabokov’s magnificent novel Pale Fire.

Line 27: Sherlock Holmes (Vladimir Nabokov)

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From Pale Fire.