Blade Runner 2049: Introspective Sci-Fi and the covenant with the audience

Let us for once doze in the reassuring lull of hyperboles: Blade Runner 2049 is a cinematic miracle. It takes a good dose of luck to reach the accomplishments of this replicant-fueled nightmare, reaching cult status thanks to a director cut amending most of the movie’s original shortcomings and spawning a 30-years-late sequel which almost overshadows its predecessor. From a cynical perspective one could almost rejoice that the economic fiasco, mainly due to the enormous budget, will preserve the series from becoming a franchise prone to relentless exploitation. Of course, one should buy into the philosophy that bad movies can somehow ruin the enjoyment of a whole saga, but I digress.

The challenges of reviving an old glory are numerous. For one scriptwriters need to find a way to captivate both newcomers and veterans, to resume the conversation from where it stopped and to fill in new viewers who may have experienced the original through the filter of pop culture. They come with a whole baggage of expectations which has been warped and twisted by decades of anarchy in which the creator was absent. This state deeply unbalances the relationship between the story’s architects and its beneficiaries, a bargain which is rarely harmonious but at least sees equally strong forces opposing each other. Although he had to face a public deeply embroiled in slick, optimistic sci-fi, Ridley Scott could count on the advantage of perfectly knowing how to play with the viewer’s expectation. He could subvert an entire genre because having novelty on his side, he could tear down the palace of sci-fi tropes and present to the shell-shocked audience a unique vision built from the rubble of the demolition. Denis Villeneuve couldn’t afford this luxury, not after 30 years in which moviegoers had enjoyed a total freedom of imagination. Nullifying the liberties taken would have been an authoritarian overthrow tipping the scales the other way around, affirming that ultimate control over a body of work is hold only by the name written on top of the poster.

Between Scott and Villeneuve, I personally hold the Quebecois for the better director, not so much because of qualitative considerations on the movies they created, but because of the understanding Villeneuve has of cinema as a cooperative work. The hits taken by the Alien franchise are symptomatic of Scott’s personal beliefs on what it means to create a story: despite the weight of the questions posed by Alien Covenant and its objective qualities, it completely disregarded the emotional investment by an audience which had been tantalized by the grotesque horror of Alien. If stories are tools functional to the director’s own needs, then there’s no reason why Covenant couldn’t demystify the Xenomorphs origins and take an existential drift ignoring what the public is looking for in the series. Contrast this with Villeneuve, who took a page from the book of Cameron’s action-packed Aliens. Perfectly conscious of the backdrop against which Blade Runner is seen, he set himself to work inside a certain framework and respect the foundations of the cyberpunk dystopia. It’s certainly lacks the glamour of pure creation, but this approach demonstrates a craftsmanship vital to work in an era when more than ever not even the most modest artwork exists in a cultural vacuum.

This is not to say that the Canadian director and the scriptwriters didn’t bring novelty to the movie. To respect the covenant with the public means to accept the role of vanguard on upcoming trends, to pose questions the mass didn’t know to want answers to. The way they reshuffled the formula of the original Blade Runner modernized a film which was in bad need of an update. If sci-fi can only be effective insomuch it interiorizes the hopes and fears of contemporaneity, then this script was able to draw a direct line between an original which posed questions on what being human means up to a sequel adapted to a world which is already used to living on the brink of change and is frantically looking for a post-crisis vision.  What difference can humanity even make in absence of home? If boundaries are destined to collapse how can a binary choice between social role and personal wishes even be made? Is closure possible if one is condemned to eternal irrelevance by big data?

The genius of Blade Runner 2049 is to update the structural doubts the original had on the direction the world was heading in 1982 with the substantial dread of the individuals living in it. The disruption of the 21st century has been a blessing for sci-fi not only because of the opening of new technological frontiers, but also because of the introspection sought by those who live in “what comes after”: after the digital revolution, after the end of traditional sociopolitical structures, after capitalism, after the Blackout.

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