While in Hong Kong yesterday, I had the golden opportunity to see Blade Runner 2049 directed by Denis Villeneuve, the long-awaited sequel to the original masterpiece directed by Ridley Scott, which came out in theaters back in 1982. The IFC Mall in central Hong Kong was the perfect place to see the sequel. In resonance with some major themes in the movie which I will discuss in this entry, one can look out from the rooftop garden of the mall upon a postcolonial futuristic Asian metropolis full of neon and desire, a tourist’s fantasy dreamworld that in reality is undergoing a major identity crisis as the local population transitions from one colonial master to another.
At the time the first Blade Runner came out in 1982, I was still in junior high, and I don’t recall seeing the film on the big screen until much later. The first time I saw it was on videotape a few years after it came out. I don’t recall exactly where I first saw the film or when. It may have been in the attic-turned-second living room of our old Victorian Era home in West Acton MA (53 Windsor Ave to be exact) where I lived with my mother and step-father and sister, or it may have been in the home of my father and step-mother in Takoma Park Maryland located just outside the border of Washington DC. Maybe I saw it first with my dad, a philosopher and government bureaucrat, or maybe it was with my step-dad, a computer programmer, or maybe at different times with both. Certainly it was some time in high school, probably in 10th or 11th grade, so it would have been in ‘85 or ‘86 when I first saw it. I do remember that the film had a big impact on me, and I must have seen it again several times after that. By the time I started college in 1987, I was a big fan of the film, and I recall that I made a cassette tape of the movie and listened to it frequently, until I had basically memorized all the dialogue. I can still quote from many scenes in the movie today, if not with complete accuracy.
I was drawn into the story of course, but also I loved the soundtrack. I was a fan of Vangelis and I listened to his albums frequently in high school—in fact I’d say that Vangelis was one of the big soundtracks to my high school years, when I was deep into science and philosophy (a topic I cover in another journal entry). The electronic music guru’s moody high-tech music went well with sci fi, and in addition to the soundtrack to Blade Runner, I also enjoyed his albums Heaven and Hell and Spiral. His music also fit in well with other sci fi literature I was reading at the time such as Stanislaw Lem’s book The Cyberiad and other novels from the Polish sci fi master that I devoured in high school. (A small aside, but this piece is about personal memories and connections: I first encountered Lem through my childhood friend Pete Bennett, who introduced me to Cyberiad, and quickly became a huge fan of his work. I was also reading other sci fi literature at the time, especially the books of Piers Anthony and Michael Moorcock, which were as much fantasy as sci fi, and also the “classics”—Asimov, Heinlein, Vonnegut—but Lem became my favorite sci fi author by my third year of high school.)
Through my dad, I also got into the work of Douglas Hofstader, starting with his magnum opus, Godel Escher Bach, which I read in the summer of 1986 during an epic journey through Norway to visit our old ancestral home, with my mother and childhood friend Leo Iacono and his mother (Leo also devoured the book, we had great conversations about it during the trip, and today he teaches philosophy at a college in the USA). After I finished GEB, I moved on to some of his other works: Metamagical Themas and the Mind’s I, which further explore themes of self and consciousness (The Mind’s I also features an excerpt from Lem’s Cyberiad).
By senior year of high school, I was making frequent forays to the Acton Town Library and also into Harvard Square to hit the bookstores and pick up books by Lem, Hofstader and other writers, particularly anything having to do with the philosophy of the mind and studies of the brain and how consciousness works. These included works of psychology such as The Origins of the Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and also the classic book The Mind of a Mnemonist by Alexander Luria focusing on the case of a man who had an amazing ability to memorize things, and who was also a synaesthetic.
By my freshman year at Dartmouth College, I was deep into learning about the mind and brain and focused a lot of attention that year on this subject, devouring books on AI and on human intelligence and how the mind works by MIT scientist Marvin Minsky and other authors. I was also interested in the work of Gerald Edelman, who came up with the concept of neural networks and “neural Darwinism.”
So, a big part of my love for Blade Runner lay in my own fascination with the mechanics and the philosophical underpinnings of mind, brain, memory, and self, and the possibility that these could be artificially constructed. I took a course on Philosophy of Mind and one on Cognitive Psychology and another on the Anthropology of the Self, studying how different communities and ethnicities and so forth conceived the self and how the self was embedded in language and culture and expressed differently in different cultures and societies.
This was about the time that I was getting ready for my first big voyage to Asia, where I spent several months living in Taiwan studying Chinese and then travelled extensively in Mainland China, spent time in Hong Kong, and also travelled to Thailand. Taipei has a Bladerunneresque quality to it, and while I was living in Taipei, I remember seeing Blade Runner again in an MTV (basically a parlor that allows you to rent a room and watch a movie on videotape) and of course it resonated with the gritty, neon-infested alleys and incense-filled street markets and temples of this Asian city. Perhaps—not entirely sure about this—but perhaps Blade Runner was in fact one of the big reasons why I embarked on a trajectory that took me to Asia and deep into the experience of living, working, and studying and writing about life in Asian cities, particularly though certainly not exclusively Shanghai.
I would even go so far as to argue that although Tokyo is an obvious reference point for Ridley Scott’s depiction of LA, Shanghai also hovers like a palimpsest behind the scenes. The old mythical Shanghai of the 1930s is referenced in so many ways, but so is the new Shanghai of towering skyscrapers and retro-futuristic cityscapes which Anna Greenspan has written about in her book Shanghai Future. Not that it existed back then. Ridley Scott was dreaming the new Shanghai back in the 1980s, just as Shanghai writer Mu Shiying was doing so in the 1930s. But not just Shanghai—other Asian cities as well, from Taipei to Seoul to Hong Kong to Bangkok to Singapore. This was an incredibly prescient film that saw the rise of globalized Asian cityscapes and the weird retro-mix of old and new technologies and ways of being converging, just as William Gibson was doing in his novel Neuromancer and others.
So one could argue that while the film takes place in an imagined Los Angeles, it is really taking place in a postcolonial and post-apocalyptic Asian metropolis, with western actors substituting for Asian ones (hence a lot of anger lately focused around Hollywood’s whitewashing of Asia). More accurately it is not any particular location at all but rather a deterritorialized mega metropolis that could be located just about anywhere on earth within a certain degree of latitude. It is the great metropolis of the future, one in which simulated experiences with automatons are more important and valued than connections with real living people.
This is why Blade Runner 2049 is in so many ways a brilliant sequel as well as an homage to the first. To those of us steeped in the original style, ambiance, and flavor of Blade Runner, the new version comes as a shock at first. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is much darker than Vangelis, far deeper and bassier and more ambient and industrial, which fits in perfectly with the stark, grey scenery of an LA ravaged by industrial pollution, beset by an angry ocean and wracked with the pains of global warming. Mother Earth, symbolized by the replicant ‘born’ in one scene only to be eviscerated by her ‘maker,’ is crying out in anguish and in pain.
This is indeed a far darker depiction of a dystopian future than the original, which was more of a gritty noir film set in a city that in its way was far more 1930s Shanghai than anything else I’ve seen, save for the flying cars. The new Blade Runner is a world in which the line between real and simulacrum is far more blurry than ever before, which is of course a central theme of the movie. There is no need to go into details about the plot or talk about the outcome—I do not wish to spoil the experience for any reader who has not yet seen the film.
And yet, there is another larger theme underlying this film series, which also underpins much of science fiction. This is not really about simulated humans or “skin jobs” who are performing a role as standings for the real subjects of the film. It is about the colonial subjects or slaves of the modern western and since WWII primarily American imperial capitalists. That “offworld” that they keep referencing in the film? Africa, Asia, Middle East—you name it. The obvious reference to racism through the usage of “skin job” throughout both films highlights the role skin plays in both films. The replicants are the people whom western capitalism has harnessed to do the dirty work, with clear resonances going back to the age of slavery.
This also harkens back to the original film template for Blade Runner which is of course Metropolis. The fear is that the colonial subjects or the urban proletariat whom the capitalist class has carefully cultivated to do its bidding will rise up in revolt and knock the capitalist masters out of their ziggurat. And of course this is exactly what did happen in China in the 1940s and elsewhere in Asia during the Cold War, and would have happened in Japan and South Korea and Taiwan had SCAP and MacArthur not been there to hold those angry masses at bay and offer them bright and shiny alternatives.
And so the victorious postwar USA harnessed East Asia to be the factory for the western world, only to lose China in 1949 and North Korea in the 1950s, and of course Vietnam in the 1970s, but otherwise kept a hand in the other East Asian countries until they started rising up on their own, first with the Japanese in the 1980s — and this was when Blade Runner first came out mind you, hence the numerous references to Japan in the film and don’t forget that Ridley Scott went on to film the darkly anti-Japanese Black Rain — and then the Koreans and the Taiwanese who threw off the authoritarian masters kept in place by American support and established their own democracies.
Meanwhile, China too was on the rise and it eventually replaced Japan as the major menace from the East, but for the past 30 years or so it too served the obedient role of the farmer, factory worker, and mechanic, much like the replicant who is hunted down at the beginning of Blade Runner 2049, until it gathered enough strength to throw off that yoke, yet without the democratic transformation that so many hoped and expected, and so Blade Runner 2049 is subtly and obliquely refracting the rise of China and the current unruliness of Asia, which fails to conform to the “norms” set by the capitalist west.
On the other hand, could it be that the replicants are stand-ins for the growing tide of immigrants pouring into Europe and America from the war torn and climate ravaged Middle East and Africa? We have tried to make them into citizens, obedient and docile, just as the Tyrell corporation under its new owner tries to create more obedient replicants who do no harm to their rulers, but they just keep on having their own ideas and following their own religions, don’t they? And while we are still teaching the rest of the world to speak English and respect Christian values, they will not always embrace them, and sometimes will act in contrary and even conflicting ways.
Going back to Stanislaw Lem, his sci fi world view was influenced by the other end of the political spectrum namely the Soviet Union and the huge shadow it cast upon Poland and other Eastern European states in the postwar era, and his focus was more about the nightmares of Soviet-style bureaucracy and the ways that states took control of their subjects, gave them numbers and erased their minds and identities, like his predecessor George Orwell author of 1984, or even better yet, Franz Kafka, perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th century, who so deeply influenced Lem and so many others. This is also the world of Brazil, that great film by Terry Gilliam, which also had a deep impact on me when I first saw it in my dad’s home during my freshman year in college, and in some ways Brazil is an even better film than Blade Runner in terms of its dystopian vision about the world we are heading into. The quest for individual identity and origins through endless perusals and searching through stacks of government documents and archives—these are Kafkaesque themes that all of these works including the latest Blade Runner 2049 explore.
But of course, the chief influence from the sci-fi fiction world on Blade Runner was Philip K Dick, who also was so obviously drawing upon Kafka’s world with his depictions of alternative realities. When I was in high school, and it may have been before I saw the film, I read Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the original inspiration for Blade Runner, which was far darker than the film and closer in ways to its sequel. Dick’s work, which inspired so many Hollywood sci-fi films, has many resonances with that of Stanislaw Lem though coming from such different backgrounds and perspectives, yet their vision of world in which the real and the simulated are so blurred that you can’t tell one from another is the bedrock upon which Blade Runner is constructed.
The big idea in Blade Runner is thus not simply that humans construct humanoid robots or replicants who do their dirty work per se, but also and just as importantly the notion that memories can be implanted into people or replicants to give them false histories and mask their true identities.
Why is Blade Runner set in LA? LA is the image factory of the world, where the real and the simulated come together and get blurred in a funhouse of mirrors. We all live in an imaginary dreamworld created by Hollywood, which has had a far greater influence than any other institution on the way the world constructs reality, and has done so since at least the 1920s, when Blade Runner was first conceived through the German vehicle of Metropolis. While German cinema of that age ultimately supported the rise of Fascism with its own deep mythologies, Hollywood is the backbone of global capitalism.
Then again, the core story in Blade Runner 2049 and the original Blade Runner goes back even further to ancient times, with the myth of Pygmalion. The notion that humans can become like gods by taking on super powers or else by constructing a race of super humanoids has deep threads in all mythologies, and this seems to be a major theme of many Hollywood films today—note the proliferation of superhero movies. Behind all this is the all-too-human striving for immortality—our Icarus Complex, which stems from our knowledge of the limitations of our own fragile existence.