Blade Runner 2049: image and inconsistency
First, the real motive for this is to avoid finishing a piece on three or four Canon p/s cameras from the 1990s and 2000s that you must try.
Let me start by saying this is a fantastic movie. Definitely worth 3 hours. If you liked the original, this is a distant continuation that is within bounds for narrative. And if Roger Deakins does not get an Oscar for this, there is no God, and many of us therefore will be able simplify our planning for the future.
But… I can’t resist taking Villeneuve’s masterpiece to task for some of its strange inconsistencies, not the least of which have to do with photography and technology. I am going to avoid discussing things I have seen elsewhere. Don’t read this if you want to avoid spoilers. Or if you want to read something coherent and not written in a sinus medication fever dream (thanks, autumn weather…).
Where are our black-border Polaroids? A central reference point of the first Blade Runner was photographs: Leon’s pictures of his friends, Rachael’s snapshot with her mom, and Deckard’s oddly anachronistic picture with an (iced tea? beer can?) and his ex-wife (or maybe that was his dad and mom?). Of course, the hard copies were all Polaroids with black borders and really cool red imprinting. The Blade Runner Curse, of course, would drive Polaroid out of business some 26 years later. Ok, not.
Photographs played a central role in the original movie – so much so that characters like Leon would risk death to retrieve collections of them. They stood in as a proxy for history – and a past. Replicants used them like holy cards. These elements are completely missing in BR 2049; the past is prepackaged – so much so that its consumers like Officer K even know it is fake. That seems to defeat the purpose of fake memories, does it not?
One of the coolest pieces of “not-quite-yet” technology you see in BR 2049 – related to the Sapper Morton scene and visible just for an instant – is a printed still photo with motion. That comes up but once. This would require one of the thinnest and most elegant power sources ever invented. Despite this super-cool print technology, photo drones are somehow larger than they are in backward old 2017, except for Niander Wallace’s vision drones, which looks like a combination of massage stones and every cheap electronic device sold on Ebay in 2003. The one constant is the massive and invasive image advertising; in the original, it was made up of blimps and Jumbotrons; now it is enormous holograms that know you’re looking – and interact with you. They even managed to jam a Frank Sinatra hologram into a Sony bottle. But by far the most incredible use of images is in the flickering holographic slugfest that Officer K and Deckard have in Las Vegas. This a perfected version of the distraction technique used by Scaramanga in the Man with the Golden Gun. And by “perfected,” I mean that Hervé Villechaize is not providing color commentary over a loudspeaker.
Through an eyeball scanner darkly. This whole thing at the beginning is actually absurd. Officer KD6-3.7ABCDEFGHIJK (no wonder Joi wants to call him “Joe”) goes to a remote location, the last known location of Sapper Morton. He sees a photo of Morton’s face on his car computer. Police procedures then (weirdly) require him to get close enough to a heavily-built, military-model, killer clone to scan a serial number on his sclera with a UV light whose bulb has to pulse for some reason. The clone will display this number this voluntarily, of course. Right. Then K has to cut said eye out and put it on a little scanner. To get paid. After killing a guy three times his size, of course.
The problem is that none of this is actually necessary. Morton is a manufactured product, and if there is no other way to identify him, facial recognition computing should have identified him within a reasonable doubt. And K should have aired Morton out as soon as he saw him.
But why the eyeball cutting? LAPD is coming out to close out the crime scene anyway (remember how Officer K comes back to a sealed scene – which he then violates?) Presumably a digital photo of a dead Morton would suffice until backup arrives to provide reinforcement. Except that we need the visceral thrill/horror. Because Chew’s eye shop in the first movie.
Also, did you notice that police body cameras don’t exist in this universe? I would think that if you have humanoid slaves running around with guns, you’d want to make sure that Miranda rights are being read and that no one is getting killed for a broken taillight on a Spinner.
Wood. We learn late in the movie that wood is so valuable that you could trade a small amount of it for a “real” goat. Niander Wallace’s office is full of it. So why didn’t we see Officer K strap Sapper’s tree to the top of his Spinner and take it? Ok, maybe a stretch, but somebody would have taken it.
Slaves clones that have holographic AI girlfriends? Let’s get back to this “getting paid” thing. Officer K is a Replicant, and a Nexus-9 “obedience” model at that. The entire K story is weird because we are told right at the beginning that he is a Replicant. It is implied that Replicants are second-class citizens. And yet K:
- Gets paid above his living expenses, hence the emanator.
- Rents and inhabits human housing (and a fairly big place by Manhattan standards) with no supervision.
- Has a full suite of home automation.
- Gets to drink the same whisky his human boss does.
- Apparently has enough leisure time to read books.
- Gets to smoke.
- Gets his 2 seconds of pure water in the shower, which is probably as much as anyone gets.
In light of this, you can only wonder what the legal status of Replicants might be. It would actually have to be pretty good. I guess they have to do what their bosses tell them to (“join the club,” said every 20th century office worker ever) and can’t reproduce. Given where we saw Replicants in 2019 in the previous movie, you know, in offworld kick murder squads, mining colonies, garbage collection, you would think Officer K should be living in the basement of police HQ, eating gruel, living like a monk, reciting his Nabokov and liking it. Right?
So K is basically a human for all external intents and purposes. But then his department apparently tells his colleagues that he is a clone (so much for HIPAA… thanks, HR) and his memories are baloney. Coco the Mortician even uses the term “skin job” in front of him. That’s pretty gutsy considering that K could probably kill him with his little finger. But somehow it also becomes known to K’s neighbors that he is a “tin soldier” (ahem, who leaked this?). Wouldn’t you want your hunter-killers to stay on the down-low? When you’re going to out your employee/slave, why would you even bother making blade runners look like average people? Other Replicants seem capable of detecting their own kind, so it’s not even good cover.
Joi but no Luv. Ok. Back to the point. Part of K’s home automation is his AI girlfriend Joi. Understand that in this universe, there has been a history of violent mutinies by past models (due in part to their emotional explorations…). Clearly this is such an issue that you have to put the Baseline Test on even the new submissive models. And yet they allow K and his friends to have a technological toys for which they might develop affection? Granted, there are many who would become clone slaves if Ana de Armas was part of the deal. But still. And speaking of which, what the hell kind of holographic technology would allow Joi to appear outside a vehicle, through an opaque door? There is technology. And then there is physics. And then there is the need to write in a touching scene when Ryan Gosling is knocked out and in danger?
Replicant escorts but no pimps. Okay, so Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) looks really weird and crazy-eyed all the time. Because Mackenzie Davis. And the idea of a Replicant-Replicant-Hologram (RRH) ménage-à-trois is only slightly more weird – because it requires a variety of wraparound projection that does not exist in our universe. But who is Mariette’s pimp? Remember, in this universe, all Replicants are (expensive) capital goods owned by someone or some company. They don’t reproduce (I guess that saves money on birth control for the escorts?), and as far as anyone knows, they are never freed from their non-human legal status. If Mariette’s a Nexus-8, she should be on an, um, kill list. If she’s a Nexus-9, she should have never left her employer. And who is that? The government? LAPD?
Let’s back up a step. How does an AI hologram hire an escort for her owner (or licensee, I guess….)? The ability to enter commercial transactions, to live in your own house, and to associate with whomever you like are rights associated with humans. Or Replicants. But now computer programs?
And for all of her baseline testing, it doesn’t freak Chief Joshi out that her would-be sexbot is letting his virtual girlfriend spend all of his paychecks on cheap booze and hookers? Is she even detecting that? She’s pretty much the worst detective ever (where’s the eyeball of the child But her outfits are good. Not as good as Luv’s, but still respectable.
Bald man in the yellow box. This dude is not a Replicant? He claims to have remembered the blackout as a child. But this is the most android-looking guy ever to show up in this film series. Also, can “born humans” actually see in this color light?I guess if you’ve worked in a Philippe Starck hotel in the early 2000s.
Optical memory. Ok, so a background assumption is that there was some massive EMP event that eliminated all electronic records. Which is fine, except for the fact that Tyrell (and now Wallace) apparently stored everything in optical format immune from electromagnetic pulses: cats-eye marbles. Shooters, from the size. Why not just say that everything was stored on magnetic tape and that it got wiped by the pulse? If Pan-Am and Atari still exist in that universe, I’m sure that 4mm LTO does.
Wallace’s phantom security video. One of the more screwy things in the original BR is the lack of security cameras. I mean, Roy Batty manages to smoke Tyrell by getting in through an elevator with no camera – and without ever being seen by a security camera in the Grand Poobah’s bedroom? Same with Leon and Holden earlier in the movie (where are the metal detectors?). We see video of the VK test, but apparently no one is able to track Leon on the way out of the building. And yet, when it’s time to research Rachael when K comes to corporate HQ, here are a bunch of security videos that were taken in Tyrell’s office. And conveniently, they are shot from the POV of the original Rachael-Deckard introduction scene. Not from the Voigt-Kampff machine, which only scans eyes.
Gaff. I am so glad that they fixed the color balance on Gaff. I mean in the first movie, Edward James Olmos must have had jaundice — or someone had swung the Lightroom tint slider the wrong way to “acting in yellow-face.” Also, it’s apparent that in the 30 years between the movies, they taught Gaff how to speak in accent-free English and got him that surgery to fix those weird glowing yellow eyes. The LAPD must have great continuing education and awesome health insurance.
Props qua props. In Vegas, note that the readout on K’s scanner says that radiation is “nominal.” Which means normal. So the fact that Deckard is there does not bear on people’s weird need for him to be an android. And when Luv & her henchmen show up, the henchmen, inexplicably, are wearing gas masks. Why? If they are replicants, they would not be bothered by anything on site (because humans would not). There is no reason for them to be human, since Luv presumably would not be commanding human bodyguards. If they’re human, they also would not need the masks at all. So this is just for optics, so to speak? To make the guys faceless?
Stelline’s lab and that Zeiss thingie. So we get to Ana Stelline’s office. It’s like the holodeck from Star Trek: the New Generation. She’s got this thing with dials. Not sure I got a good look at it, but the number of settings and third-stop increments mean that it must have been made by Zeiss. When K comes in, she is generating a memory of a 20th-century birthday party. Which she could not have seen. It gets weirder when you realize that she programmed the wooden horse memory in the third person. You know, like in Rocky IV when Apollo Creed died and Rocky remembered running with him on the beach (in a completely heterosexual way). How did Stelline know what she herself looked like? I don’t think the San Diego orphanage/dystopian Foxconn plant had a lot of mirrors.
Syd Mead! Las Vegas is pretty clearly either a Mead design or Mead homage. The influential industrial designer (exported from Detroit, FYI) left his fingerprints all over this movie. But a really nice touch is that the K’s spinner looks like a DeLorean (n.b., it’s a Peugeot, which supplied DeLorean with engines), but the bad guys drive spinners that look like 1963 Lincolns that would have been in design when Mead was at Ford. That said, I don’t want to be the one to say it, but the production design of BR 2049 is not very consistent with the original. The Mead/Scott design for the original involved recycling and retrofitting old buildings. So unless the original was all shot in the Fourth Sector, there is a lot of explaining to be done about where all the pipes and ducts have gone – as well as what happened to all of the Asian people.
The law. Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”….The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” (Tr. Ian Johnston).
It’s common knowledge (at least among people who pretend to have remembered college lit) that Joe K is like Josef K of Kafka’s Trial. What you may not have connected is that visually, K’s approach to Deckard’s casino is actually an homage to the cartoon short that opens Orson Welles’ adaptation of the Trial. Except that Welles is narrating from “Before the Law,” an unfinished short story. I don’t know who in the production is channeling Melville and Eco, but at some point you come to the realization that this story has cadged half of all religion and western culture (for starters, Moses; Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; Pinocchio; Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist; Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, World War II soldiers and aviators (“[GI] Joe”), tech moguls…)
The stars. So an image that appears early on is where Niander Wallace makes a statement that “we should own the stars.” Stars only appear once visually, in the peyote-and-are-they-eating-Deckard’s-dog? scene. But Ana Stelline is a reference to “little stars,” meaning that the key to this mystery is on earth.
Elvis! No comment on what went on in the casino, and it’s an awesome sequence, but are the holographic projectors of the future really a bunch of projection TVs from the 1970s with R, G and B lenses? Or are these DLP projectors gone really, really wrong?
Joi (the reprise). This is just a nerdy technical point – when Joi appears naked in the huge billboard near the end, did you notice that her color scheme is that of a person shot in 720nm infrared? Including the black eyes? It’s actually pretty impressive, when you consider that the scene was shot live and optically, not composited in with a computer.
Ok. Back to writing up some Sure Shots. If you want to see a fantastic deconstruction of the original Blade Runner, check out Typeset in the Future. That article even shows you what is in the dummy text used in props.