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16 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:58pm

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.

By Robin Bunce

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.

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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”. 

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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.