Blade Runner 2049 and nostalgia for capitalism

Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, arriving 35 years after Ridley Scott’s rain-drenched vision of a near-future dystopia, painstakingly replicates the look and feel of the original. But Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just nostalgic for Lawrence G. Paul’s production design, it’s a requiem for American capitalism.

Warning: contains spoilers

Shuffling through the ruins of consumerism

In the scene where the protagonist of Blade Runner 2049 (Ryan Gosling’s Agent K) finally catches up with his predecessor (Harrison Ford’s gruff ex-blade runner Deckard), their climactic punch-up comes to an abrupt end when the latter is distracted by the crooning of a holographic Elvis. “I like this song” says Deckard, wistfully, before retiring with his pursuer to a bar in the abandoned Las Vegas casino where, presumably, he’s been holed up for the past couple of decades. There the two assassins drink 20th century brand alcohol and listen to Frank Sinatra, while Deckard reminisces about the pleasures to be found in Nevada’s Sin City, before the environmental collapse that reduced it to a heap of eerily spectacular sand-blown ruins.

It was a place where you could forget your troubles, see a show, maybe gamble a little. He’s talking about Las Vegas, but his words could just as easily apply to Western civilization as a whole. Blade Runner 2049 succeeds as an example of dystopian fiction (if not as a Hollywood movie) because it allows us to feel nostalgic for the imperfect-yet-familiar world that came before; it allows us to feel nostalgic for the here and now.

Gosling’s K and the camera make stately progress from one bleak, benighted vision of the future to the next, lingering over remnants of the lost world like puppy-eyed archaeologists. These totems of consumer culture – the rare steak, the expensive whiskey, the birthday cake, the cigarette – are mourned with more sincerity by the denizens of the movie than the plants and animals which have long disappeared from the earth’s surface. It’s as if the movie isolates the bass line of nostalgia thrumming beneath our popular audio-visual media and amplifies the signal until it distorts.

At the end of the Second World War the United States stood as the only remaining world power. It became the centre of gravity of capitalism, allowing that phenomenon to become truly global through military might and the allure of the consumer good. Powered almost exclusively by cheap fossil-fuel energy, this empire of businessmen and generals sequestered most of the world’s natural resources and put them to work, flooding the world with manufactured products to meet every conceivable human need. The proceeds from this activity made a very small number of people very rich, but it also made millions of people comfortable, with enough take-home pay to afford a decent place to live, the odd steak to eat and enough entertainment to compensate for the drudgery of their work. There were enough spoils from foreign conquests to share with the majority. That the next generation would be better off than this one – more property, better gadgets, longer lives – was taken for granted. For a while. But empires cannot continue expanding indefinitely. Empires generate bills which, sooner or later, must be paid. Capturing new sources of wealth overseas, and establishing new markets, becomes more difficult because low-hanging fruit has already been picked. The empire must find a way to maintain a steady state or decline. The decline of the American empire – a decline both material and psychological – began sometime in the last few decades.

The West’s factual media has done its best to ignore this downturn in fortunes, trumpeting each incremental rise in global GDP as a sign that the boom continues. But this is a rearguard action. Our fiction, which is forced to confront the subconscious fears and desires of the masses, is growing ever more comfortable with the burning questions of the day: why does life seem so much harder for the generation entering the workforce than it did for their parents and grandparents? How were those previous generations able to afford their own homes, and raise children with seeming ease? Was it because they worked harder? Was it because they spent less of their income on frivolities like iPhones and Netflix subscriptions? Or was there simply more to go around back then? Thrust into an age of convergent crises – political, social, economic and environmental – isn’t it only natural to look back longingly to a time that seemed easier, more carefree? Is it any wonder that our most popular entertainment pines for the simple life of small town USA, just like Rick and his band of survivors from the Walking Dead? Can we be blamed for seeking comfort in a time when all our existential fears could be amalgamated into a single Spielbergian monster, like in Stranger Things? And if we’re nostalgic for the days of empire in its prime, what better way to remember it that through the baubles and adornments that were its hallmarks of achievement: the consumer goods, the music, the film, the fashion, the technology.

The characters in Blade Runner 2049 are also yearning for simpler times, particularly Deckard (“I did your job once. I was good at it”), whose life as a mere human blade runner prior to the events of the first movie was austere, but better than that of the fugitive replicant we encounter in the sequel. K’s home life is an imitation of 1950s suburban living, right down to the obedient housewife who greets him with a hot meal, fixes his shirts and lights his cigarette. Only the fact that they’re both artificial intelligences – K a living, breathing replicant, his spouse a piece of software – gives the lie to this Jetson-esque fantasy. Another pivotal character makes a living manufacturing pre-catastrophe memories for replicants who would go insane without them.

No progress, no catastrophe, just decline

In fact, the only character who is focused on the future is the chief antagonist, Jared Leto’s chrome-eyed Niander Wallace, whose mission to save humanity by colonising space with an army of reproducing replicants pays more than a passing resemblance to the madcap schemes of today’s tech billionaires. Wallace, who sees himself as the father of a million android children, is cast from the same mould as Elon Musk. They both desire to extend themselves into the future far beyond their natural lifespans, even beyond the lifespan of Earth itself, by creating a sustainable home for humanity among the stars. Both men’s plans are equally unlikely: Wallace seems to have paid no more attention to the fact that even androids who are born have to be made from something than Musk has paid attention to the fact that Mars has no atmosphere.

In contrast to this technological utopianism, K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi sees the end of civilization around every corner. She’s desperate to keep the news about the reproductive capabilities of replicants getting out because she thinks it would spell the end for the walled-in city state of Los Angeles, where she is tasked with keeping order. In the Blade Runner universe she could be right, but as a work of fiction she nicely represents those whose guiding myth is not that of progress, like the Silicon Valley moguls, but that of apocalypse.

Both mythologies, that of humanity on the march from one great achievement to the next, and that of a great cataclysm which comes as punishment for humanity’s misdeeds, are born from egocentrism. To both the progressives and the doomsayers, humanity, and human civilisation, is exceptional. Markedly different from all the other matter in the universe, our destiny is either to transcend the confines of our home world or to be obliterated for our overreach. In both world-views, humanity is unquestionably important. In truth, the universe is unlikely to be reverent of homo sapiens to the extent that it marks out a special fate for them. Humans must abide by the same rules (gravitation, thermodynamics, electromagnetism) as everything else. And so must our civilizations. Our quest for infinite growth on a finite planet will neither be punished by jealous gods nor solved by god-like humans. Which means a much more likely fate for global capitalism than an all-consuming cataclysm or a great leap into interstellar space is a slow, gradual decline, much like that of the Roman Empire, Minoan Crete and Medieval Mesopotamia. All of these civilisations took over 300 years to collapse from their peak, during which time, the citizens who lived in them would hardly have noticed any decline at all. Blade Runner 2049 paints just such a picture of capitalism in slow-motion free fall.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”

The movie’s vision of the near-future is complex and seemingly contradictory. While the collapse of ecosystems has continued (it’s already been widely acknowledged that we’re living through Earth’s sixth mass extinction event), technological developments in food production have, at least partly, compensated for the lack of arable land and sunlight. While cities like Las Vegas and San Diego have been reclaimed by the desert or overwhelmed by trash, Los Angeles is still a burgeoning, highly-populated metropolis. And while Silicon Valley has failed to solve the problem of colonising space, its ability to output ever-higher-fidelity entertainment devices continues to improve. Our protagonist can avail himself of all the trappings we’ve been taught to expect from a high-tech future – flying cars, voice-controlled drones, ubiquitous AI – and yet his life isn’t any easier.

This is a vision of the future where cataclysms come and go, but none is final; and where technological progress continues in narrow fields, but isn’t a panacea for all of humanity’s problems. Replicants aside, it’s probably the most realistic depiction of the future of capitalism that Hollywood has ever produced.

And yet, despite presenting a nuanced vision of a dystopic future, where rampant capitalism has brought about the collapse of almost all earth’s ecosystems, the cause of the collapse is never made explicit. The movie never attempts to explore the contradictions inherent in the quest for infinite economic growth. And why should it, you might say, it’s just a piece of entertainment, an old-school detective story transplanted into a sexy, sci-fi setting, like the original. And you might be right. But the purpose of this blog, in part, is to look at how popular culture – even the ‘arty’ stuff –  routinely stops us thinking about these kinds of issues, and how stopping thought might even be its real function in late capitalist society.

Dystopian fiction, however radical it might seem on the surface, normalises everyday injustices by showing us a world where everything is worse. It asks, archly, aren’t you glad you don’t live there? Aren’t you much happier with things the way they are? It puts the viewer in a state where any political action, any kind of thought that would challenge the status quo, is rendered too risky, for fear of inadvertently bringing about the hellish scenario with which we are confronted. It’s much safer to seek refuge in the certainties of the near-past and, from inside this mental straight-jacket, keep trying to reproduce it.

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