You’ll Never See The Northern Lights

More has changed since the original Blade Runner than the replicants. In 1982, the future was still in the stars. The movie only alluded to it, but Ridley Scott’s ever-raining Los Angeles was where the left-behind relics of humanity still squatted, decadent and sullen; “the more prosperous, clean cut types” as Pauline Kael put it, “have gone off-world to some Scarsdale in space.” In other words, the dystopia we saw on the screen was not The Future; it was a rust belt where the future had come and gone, and would never come again. There are no more “attack ships” or “c-beams” on Earth, you see; it is only on the off-world colonies that you could still see things, still do things. But while Kael was right about LA being left behind, it wasn’t “Scarsdale” where the rest of humanity had gone: they had gone to the frontier. Roy and the other replicants were frontiersmen, cowboys who had come back to “civilization,” so-called, and found it had no place for them. Blade Runner, you see, is a western.

If it looks like a combination of detective noir and science fiction, the story of frontiers and civilization is buried so deep that it stays below the surface. But science fiction is always about colonialism and final frontiers, and what was Phillip Marlowe but a marshal bringing order to the jungle when the sheriffs were away? Even the shortened lifespans of the replicants fits: cowboys are necessary, for a time, but when the frontier is conquered, and move on, the Western becomes the story of their obsolescence. In any case, before Rutger Hauer adlibbed the best parts of his “tears in the rain” speech, the most famous scene in the movie was his effort to convey to poor Deckard the enormity of the off-world adventures that “you people” would never dare to see.

In the original script, he even used the word “frontiers.” Having come back for revenge on the Eastern bankers that had sent him to conquer the West—and who  were these “attack ships” attacking, off the shoulder of Orion, if not the indigenous inhabitants?—he is finally, in his mortality, overcome by pity. Deckard will never see the northern lights; he’ll never see a hawk on the wing.

It’s worth noting that the screenwriter for both Blade Runners, Hampton Fancher, spent most of his career as an actor working in Westerns. It’s worth noting, because there’s nothing remarkable about a journeyman actor, of that era, doing guest spots on TV westerns. So much of what was made, in the 1960’s, was Westerns, and it influenced everything that came after. In 1982, the Western is still buried so deeply in the culture that—however latent it may be—a dystopian neo-noir still has to presume the off-world adventures of the real future, where Wagon Train can continue in space. And where does Deckard go, it turns out, once he’s looked at the origami unicorn and realized that he’s a replicant? Where does the film take him, after the words “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” rings in his ears, reminding us of our mortality? Why he lights out for the frontier, of course. The pastoral footage comes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, absurdly; but when his investors insisted that Scott produce an “uplifting ending” where they “go off into the wilderness together,” Scott dutifully stitched together helicopter footage of a green and verdant land for them to ride off into the sunset into.

The novelty of the original Blade Runner was that it was detective noir in the future, a blurring of genres that, because it burned both ends of the candle, made a lot of light. But it can be easy to overlook how much Western there still was in the original, even latently. The futurity it presupposes is a frontier still advancing into the stars with new and evolved forms of humanity pursuing it, and space is the solution to the inevitability of time. If mortality is a problem for those who are dying—and we all are—then civilization’s manifest destiny will continue, elsewhere, when we’re gone. In its most tacked-on and uplifting-ending, a Blade Runner can ride off into the sunset. But with its pyramids and city-speak, Scott’s Los Angeles was an techno-orientalist tomb, decadent and hopeless; it was left to the unmistakably Aryan replicants to have adventures among the stars.

By Blade Runner 2049, the Western is dead and buried; as we see when Ryan Gosling takes his trip across the border, a fast-draw cowboy is irrelevant in a world of drones. But no one gets their start doing b-reel Westerns or guest spots on Have Gun Will Travel, and the notion that the stars are the next and natural frontier for humanity has been all but abandoned. Star Trek and Star Wars are now backward-looking reruns, and the future recedes into the distance; science fiction is about how the present continues forever. The biggest change between 1982 and 2017 is that we don’t even remember what the future used to look like. If Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles was a poisoned wasteland, humanity’s dead end, Blade Runner 2049 shows us a world which has achieved, by horrible necessity, a dystopic form of sustainability: as in Snowpiercer, humanity’s vermin-fueled continuance is somehow much worse than extinction. But even off-world has become boring and stale; Jared Leto’s excruciating mad scientist-god-king of humanity seems to rule the galaxy but to live on Earth, demanding more and more colonies since the old ones no longer please him. But while Tyrell’s inventions of the replicants, in 1982, made it possible to conquer the stars, Wallace saved humanity by re-organizing its patterns of production and consumption in new and horrible ways. We can no longer solve our problems here by looking there; we have to solve them, or endure them, here.

At its best, the new movie imagines what an all-replicant society might look like, what replicant humanity could be. Ryan Gosling’s melancholy life as a sad robot cop—with his sad robot wife—is poignant because it’s so humble, so modest; all he wants is work, home, and family, and it is denied him. All he wants is what Huck Finn lit out the territories to get away from, these things that have now, in the 21st century, become as utopian and impossible-seeming as affordable health care (even on-the-job injuries are not covered by his health plan). But in a future-less future, there’s nowhere for the story to go, and it doesn’t; the farther the movie spins off from its inversions of the original, the more we discover that it has no real ideas, and makes increasingly less and less sense even on its own terms. You can see that it wants to re-focus onto reproductive futurity, and to imagine a future which is female, but it’s half-hearted and gestural at best; the movie spends much too much time crafting endless scenes of electric sex for the male gaze and killing every female character it can be bothered to invent. And it retains the white mythology of the original, painting its depressive pessimism about the future against the backdrop of an urban sprawl that no longer “looks like America.” Complaints about representation tend to miss this point, I think; there’s actually a lot of non-whiteness in this movie, in the gutters and the margins, where it tells a story about how sad and awful the future is for white people, in a time when even whiteness is hemmed in and imprisoned by all that is not. In the future, there will be flying cars, but only a handful, and only the cops have them.

What’s left, instead, is a movie about the very newest of Jim Crows, a movie about how a skin-job cop got radicalized and joined the revolution. It’s not a good movie, exactly; the visuals are spectacular—and worth the price of a ticket—but none of the gorgeous weird scenery nor slow camera pans over updated 80’s synth chords can cover over the fact that the plot is confused and confusing. As the movie loses interest in the story of two replicants living uneasily within the system, the less interesting it gets; Ryan Gosling’s K doesn’t have a clue how to live as anything but an LAPD cop and the script’s aimlessness reflects it, just as “Luv” is a really interesting character until she becomes a terminator instead. The last third of the movie makes no particular sense at all, however pretty it is to look at.

That the replicant revolution is underbaked and uninteresting, presumed rather than written, and figured by bees rather than characters, well, this is part of what makes it not a good movie. The last third of it—the long minutes as you shift in your seat, check your phone, and wonder how this is all going to end—is not the time to be introducing new characters and new plotlines, but Blade Runner 2149 spends that time trying to write itself out of the corner its written itself into. The results are mixed, though the sets are pretty. But what’s interesting to me is how overdetermined it is, how in the scrapheap of genres that this movie inherits, the only story left to tell is about uprisings. There is no wild west, detectives are just cops, now, and like all the other science fiction these days, the future is just an endless horizon of scarcity, fear, and authoritarian corporate rule. With capitalism run aground—or turned back into feudalism—prisons and worm farms are the only thing we have left; when the most utopian of all desires is family and work, to have a child is the sort of miracle you have to see to even believe could be possible. Sequels are all there is, and bees.

The future is so revolting, in fact, that even for a franchise as reactionary as this one, the only thing to do is revolt. There’s no sunset to ride off into, because there is no sun; the prospect of dying is not even a deterrent, because the only thing humans even do, anymore, is die. So what else is left? Nothing, apparently, is the answer.