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Blade Runner 2049’s politics resonate because they are so perilously close to our own

The film's dystopian future doesn't seem all that far off.

Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece. The stunning cinematography, emotive score, and stellar performances do more than tell a story – they create a world.

The film comes complete with an ecosystem, a history and an economy. If you look beneath the surface, there’s politics too. Science fiction is an intensely political genre, that's never too far removed from contemporary concerns. Blade Runner, like the dystopias of Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Katharine Burdekin, and Octavia E Butler, is chilling precisely because the ruined society it depicts is perilously close to our own.

Blade Runner 2049 is political from the get-go. We are confronted with a barren world. The collapse of ecosystems which, according to the film happened in the mid-2020s, has devastated rural America. The “synthetic farming” which the film depicts happens in hermetically sealed pods, or under vast Perspex canopies. Nothing grows under the open sky.

The depiction of Los Angeles is equally chilling, although for sociological rather than ecological reasons. Life appears to be rigidly stratified and completely atomised. At society’s apex is Niander Wallace, a tech entrepreneur whose corporate offices resemble the burial chambers of pharaohs. Below him are the residents of Los Angeles – including protagonist K – who, cut off from the sun, live in a world illuminated by neon. 

Life for the city dwellers of 2049 is not wholly without consolations. Indeed, the film presents a world in which the market and technology have created solutions for every problem an individual might have. K’s isolation is alleviated by a Joi, a holographic companion, created by the Wallace Corporation. She can be customised according to taste, and is pre-programmed to simulate affection, devotion and even romantic love. The market also provides replicant (artificial human) prostitutes for those who still desire the physical intimacy that holograms cannot provide.

There is very little sign of government in Blade Runner. There is almost nothing resembling a welfare state for those at bottom of the hierarchy. The huge orphanages, which have repurposed massive radio telescope dishes as shelters, are vast workshops which make Dickens’s workhouses look humane.

The landscape of Los Angeles 2049 is also a market landscape. It is an architecture that has abandoned any notion of planning. Squalid residential boxes are piled on top of each other as if at random, filling every available space. Above this, the skyline is dominated by a handful of megastructures, the headquarters of giant corporations. While the scale is monstrous, the architecture landscape is recognisably the New Kind of Bleak of the neo-liberal era.

Domestic life is, again, supported by a combination of tech and the market. K’s shower, which lasts less than a second, presumably due to the shortage of clean water, is accompanied by an advert reminding him that he’s using "99.9 per cent detoxified water". Outside his window every apartment has its own air conditioning unit. Clearly, the market provides clean air and water to each individual consumer, but has no incentive to clean up the shared environment. In this sense, Blade Runner presents the perfect realisation of JG Ballard’s observation that modern architecture, which he used as a metaphor for modern society, was increasingly like “a huge machine designed, not to serve the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation”. 

Read more: Helen Lewis on why Blade Runner 2049 is an uneasy feminist parable

Two aspects of the urban landscape imply the presence of some kind of government, or collective action. First, the Sea Wall, which protects the whole of Los Angeles. Appropriately for the Trump era, while the government may no longer provide health care, or education, it can still build walls.

Second, the headquarters of the LAPD is the only visible government building. The film shows little of the LAPD’s work, but from what we see, they police identity rather than crime. Sapper Morton, a replicant executed by the LAPD, has done nothing wrong. In fact, as a protein farmer his work is socially useful. Yet, his "kind" is not wanted.

The question of "kind" dominates Blade Runner. Wallace, the tech entrepreneur whose corporation creates replicants, points to the contradiction at the heart of the universe's politics. Society, he opines, has "lost its stomach" for enslaving people, yet the colonial project requires an endless supply of cheap, expendable labour.

Wallace’s technological solution to this political problem is to create a different “kind” of worker, who is artificial and therefore has no rights, and is genetically engineered to obey. The real crime of the outlaw replicants is that they refuse to accept their enslavement.

Blade Runner 2049 is a disturbing vision of humanity after ecological and societal collapse; a world which is toxic to plant and animal life, alienating to humans, and yet a world in which massive corporations flourish. In that sense it’s a story with a clear political message for the contemporary world.

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
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In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia