Co-written with Dr R. Lyle Skains
Blade Runner is a formative SF film for many fans and scholars, inviting endless revisitation – a multi-layered, visually excessive storyworld that prioritises aesthetics over narrative. Its long-awaited sequel, 2049, is equally beautiful and complex, although more narratively accessible than its predecessor. Similarly, 2049 also asks questions about the essence of humanity while lacking depth in its cultural representation. Under the direction of Denis Villeneuve, production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Roger Deakins imagine a mesmerising future America – an undeniably bleak, largely white cis-gendered, dystopian world where the utopian promises of the Off-World feel as impossible now as they did in Blade Runner’s vision of 2019. 2049 is interwoven with intertextual references to its past and to contemporary SF films (e.g. Her, 2013) that themselves are indebted to the visual and philosophical audacity of the original.
Frustratingly for many, 2049’s visual pleasures fail to address the original’s issues with the racial/queer/gendered perspective. In a film about systematic de-humanisation and programmed inequality, a film that prioritises visual storytelling, the lack of diversity could be seen as intentional, equating mono-culturalism with dystopia. If so, its failure lies not in the message, but in its ambiguity. Leaving issues of cultural representation so ambivalently open to interpretation that they spark no new discourse undermines any statement the filmmakers might have made about representation on screen and in production, particularly for an otherwise extremely self-aware film.
If the existential questions 2049 pose feel a little tired, and the cultural discourse somewhat shallow, the visual splendour distracts us from them. Viewers barely have a chance to consider the intricacy of human nature/cruelty whilst they are batted between soaring techno-vistas and claustrophobic personal spaces. Thus, even as it reflects current issues in cinema through its questionable diversity, 2049 offers its viewers replayability in its philosophical questions and breath-taking frame-to-frame artistry.
This review originally appeared in Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association (287) in their ‘Best of 2017’ edition published Spring 2018.
The British Science Fiction Association was founded in 1958 by British fans, authors, publishers and booksellers, in order to encourage engagement with SF in every form. It is an open membership organisation costing £29 per year for UK residents and £20 for the unwaged. See here for membership details: http://www.bsfa.co.uk/join-the-bsfa/