The Future (Not)

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I took myself to the new movie Blade Runner 2049 to see what kind of future the Hollywood dream-shop is serving up in these days. It was an excellent illustration of the over-investments in technology with diminishing returns that are dragging us into collapse and of the attendant techno-narcissism that afflicts the supposedly thinking class in this society, who absolutely don’t get what this collapse is about. The more computer magic Hollywood drags into the picture, the less coherent their story-telling gets. Hollywood is collapsing, and it’s not just because of Harvey Weinstein’s antics.

Movies of this genre are really always more about the current moment than about the future, and Blade Runner 2049 is full of hilarious retro-anachronisms — things around us now which will probably not be in the future. The signature trope in many sci-fi dystopias of recent times is the assumed ever-presence of automobiles.

The original Mad Max was little more than an extended car chase — though apparently all that people remember about it is the desolate desert landscape and Mel Gibson’s leather jumpsuit. As the series wore on, both the vehicles and the staged chases became more spectacularly grandiose, until, in the latest edition, the movie was solely about Charlize Theron driving a truck. I always wondered where Mel got new air filters and radiator hoses, not to mention where he gassed up. In a world that broken, of course, there would be no supply and manufacturing chains.

So, of course, Blade Runner 2049 opens with a shot of the detective played by Ryan Gosling in his flying car, zooming over a landscape that looks more like a computer motherboard than actual earthly terrain. As the movie goes on, he gets in and out of his flying car more often than a San Fernando soccer mom on her daily rounds. That actually tells us something more significant than all the grim monotone trappings of the production design, namely, that we can’t imagine any kind of future — or any human society for that matter — that is not centered on cars.

But isn’t that exactly why we’ve invested so much hope and expectation (and public subsidies) in the activities of Elon Musk? After all, the Master Wish in this culture of wishful thinking is the wish to be able to keep driving to Wal Mart forever. It’s the ultimate fantasy of a shallow “consumer” society. The people who deliver that way of life, and profit from it, are every bit as sincerely wishful about it as the underpaid and overfed schnooks moiling in the discount aisles. In the dark corners of so-called postmodern mythology, there really is no human life, or human future, without cars.

This points to the central fallacy of this Sci-fi genre: that technology can defeat nature and still exist. This is where our techno-narcissism comes in fast and furious. The Blade Runner movies take place in and around a Los Angeles filled with mega-structures pulsating with holographic advertisements. Where does the energy come from to construct all this stuff? Supposedly from something Mr. Musk dreams up that we haven’t heard about yet. Frankly, I don’t believe that such a miracle is in the offing.

The denizens of this 2049 Los Angeles are a rabble of ragged scavengers bolting down bowls of ramen in the never-ending drizzle. Apparently they have nothing to do, nothing useful or gainful, that is. So you can’t help wondering how this hypothetical economy supports such population of no-accounts. I mean, we do know how our current economy supports the millions who are out of the work force, bolting their ramen between visits to the tattoo parlor: by giveaways based on pervasive accounting fraud backed by the now dwindling supply of oil that can be profitably extracted from the ground. But that won’t continue much longer. Know why? Because things that can’t go on, don’t.

One thing Blade Runner 2049 gets right in its retro-anachronistic borrowings from the present is the awesome joylessness of the culture. The artistry in this vision of the future is especially vivid in illuminating the absence of real artistry in contemporary “postmodern” American life. Sleek mechanical surfaces are everything, with no substance beneath the surface.

I walked out after two hours, and there was plenty more to go. It was too dreary, and too intellectually insulting to endure. I don’t blame Ryan Gosling, though. His look of doleful skepticism throughout the proceedings was perfect.


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