Offworld Invasions: Representing Humanity at Festival Nouveau Cinema 2017

by Randolph Jordan October 14, 2017 9 minutes (2197 words)

My FNC 2017 kicked off with the launch of 24 Images No. 184, a special issue on David Lynch that I had the pleasure of contributing to. Edited by Bruno Dequen, the issue features page-long entries on everything in Lynch’s filmography as well as an impressive array of feature articles on everything from Kier-La Janisse’s foray into the gender politics of Lynch’s collaboration with Peter Ivers on the music for Eraserhead to my own musings about the relationship between sound, technology, and geography across Lynch’s oeuvre.

The new series challenged fans of both the original Twin Peaks series and of David Lynch’s broader oeuvre alike. Most difficult to parse was the series’ representation of women, a seeming departure from the wealth of female-centered narratives in Lynch’s later work, which Martha Nochimson paints as a gradual evolution across Lynch’s filmography. Has he taken a few steps back, we wondered? Many arguments have emerged for and against, but, as usual, Lynch’s m.o. leaves much open to interpretation. The final scream of Carrie Paige, once Laura Palmer, resonated well beyond the finale on Labour Day weekend as people debate whether or not it reflects a lifetime of sexual abuse destined to repeat itself ad infinitum, or if it marks a blast of empowerment that will finally break the cycle. Indeed, only a month after the conclusion of Twin Peaks 2017, the buzz of Lynch’s return to filmmaking after a 10-year hiatus carried through this year’s festival, for better or worse.

It was through these ears that I listened to the biggest film at the festival this year: Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. The FNC audience was understandably in love with this local boy done good in Hollywood. Aesthetically the film is a laudable extension of the universe that Ridley Scott committed to the screen back in 1982, expanding the audiovisualization of Philip K. Dick’s original novel by showing us the world beyond Los Angeles as K searches for remnants of past Nexus model androids that might have been involved in the revolt that all but destroyed the records that hold evidence of the next phase of robotics: the replicants can conceive and bear children. An intriguing next step to the story to be sure. In terms of representational politics, however, the film utterly collapses under its own ignorance. The film’s release, contemporaneous with the festival, had the misfortune of coinciding with the eruption of #metoo online in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, making the film’s business as usual approach to the handling of female characters on screen simply too much to ignore for many of us who had been in the habit of doing so back when America was still great. Arguably impossible to ignore, in fact, when so much of the film’s massive budget went into the visualization of large scale pornography, from holographic ads for escort services many stories tall, to the statues of naked women that adorn the temples of past Nexus models’ burgeoning reproductive skills. Never mind that the film is ABOUT all of these things, and thus arguably justified in being mired in these images and thematics. The simple fact of the matter is that the film could have easily told the same story in a much more progressive manner while still appealing to the same broader scale questions about the line between humanity and android technology that fueled Scott’s film, especially given Villeneuve’s own rather decent track record for featuring strong female leads in films like Arrival, Sicario, and Incendies. It’s interesting to note, here, that Dick himself wasn’t so interested in blurring the line between organic and artificial life, his story being more about the stratification of class amongst humans themselves in this world of post-apocalyptic mass evacuation. No, it is Scott who has become obsessed with robots attaining bona fide life, now infusing his narrative arc across the Alien franchise. It was also Scott who introduced a layer of misogyny into the proceedings absent from Dick’s original novel.

Framed this way, we might be tempted to treat Blade Runner 2049’s presentation of a world that revolves entirely around female subservience to male pleasure as necessary if Villeneuve wanted to properly extend Scott’s vision of Dick’s world rather than fully reboot it. After all, 2049 builds its main storyline out of that now infamous scene of sexual aggression between Harrison Ford’s Deckard and Sean Young’s Rachel in the original film, a disappointing revision of Dick’s version of the Rachel character who had much more agency within the narrative, knowing her own position and using it to powerful effect. In 2049, we’re supposed to believe now that, decades later, Deckard’s eschewal of consent in forcing himself upon Rachel began a life-long love affair between the two that begat the world’s first replicant procreation – the child now sought after by Ryan Gosling’s Agent K. Of course we nerds know that the original script called for mutual attraction between these two characters, but it was a lack of chemistry between Ford and Young on set that led Scott to stage the scene as implied rape. We also know that Scott didn’t like the cognitive dissonance created by the happy ending of the theatrical cut that saw Deckard and Rachel driving off into the sun-kissed mountains of Kubrick’s excised footage from the opening to The Shining. So he cut it out of his director’s cut, a decision that survived through to the final cut now out on Blu-Ray. With the tension inherent in Deckard’s relationship with Rachel as canon for the Blade Runner universe, we have to ask: why does 2049 resurrect the improbable happy ending of the original film and build its entire story around this? There are myriad missed opportunities here. What if, instead of K catching up with Deckard at the end of the film, moping in self-imposed exile with his dog over the loss of his great love and separation from their child, we find him tormented by his bad behaviour and inability to make amends after Rachel’s death? What if, instead of imagining that everything worked out just fine for Deckard and Rachel, the film revolved around the consequences of breaking the bonds of consent? But what Weinstein would have thrown money behind that, right?

Okay, so never mind the film’s plot. I asked the students of my screen adaptation class at Ryerson University to suggest other ways in which the film might have at least attempted to get with the times. The answers came easily. What if ANY of the women weren’t there simply to serve their men? Love works for Wallace. Joi works for K. Even Robin Wright’s Joshi character, a figure of authority in the LAPD, can’t get by without trying to seduce an unflappable Ryan Gosling. We get it, he’s hot. Then how about this: what if K was gay, and the Joi character was a man? Would that really have changed much? Sure, this is a story about robots procreating sexually, the traditional domain of heterosexual coupling. BUT HE’S A ROBOT AND SHE’S TOTALLY VIRTUAL. What better time to break free of Hollywood’s heteronormative stranglehold and imagine that these replicants, patterned after human beings in all their diversity, might find a solution to the desires of non-heterosexual couples to give birth to their own biological children. Too distracting for the Blade Runner fanboys?

While we’re on the topic of diversity, where are all the non-white replicants? Weren’t these robots built to serve humans on the off-world colonies? Shouldn’t they reflect the range of humanity attempting to spread itself across the galaxy in the wake of Earth’s increasingly inhospitable conditions? No, because it’s all just the work of a blind Jared Leto slaughtering naked newly born yet fully adult female replicants in his office, or resurrecting clones of Rachel, digitally recreating her 1982 features, only to shoot her in the face. We get it. Misogyny drives the replicant industry. So maybe racism does as well.

So then, how about showing us some interesting human characters of colour? Instead we get black men running a child-labour camp and selling illegal wooden artefacts on the black market, replicating the broken English that plagued the character of Hannibal Chew, symptom of Hollywood’s love affair with stereotyping the Chinese in the 1980s. There is a black woman, too, and of course she’s a prostitute trying to curry the favour of everyone’s favourite white swan. Why does the film need all of this cultural insensitivity? Can we not imagine any dystopia’s where people of all colours fare equally in the misfortunes of humanity’s failings?

2049 failed to offer intelligent updating to the story that began in the 2019 of Scott’s film, especially egregious given that the 30 year separation between the two stories could have so easily yielded many simple solutions to all of these problems of representation. And even more egregious given that 2049’s own world building included a far more progressive short film prequel, released prior to the film’s release to fill in the story of the replicant revolt that led to the L.A. blackout that destroyed the records of the Nexus models who wanted to free themselves of human domination.

In Koichi Watanabe’s Blackout 2022, we find a team of three replicants – none of them white – assisting the plan to knock out L.A.’s power grid. Hallelujah! They exist. On that point alone 2049 could have easily followed its example. But even more amazingly, the film opens with a sexual assault on the woman replicant member of the team by a group of human men. But here the assault is not shrugged off, as in Scott’s film, or reimagined as glorious romance, as in Villeneuve’s film. It is named for what it is right off the bat and held up as an example of what the replicants are fighting against – not succumbing to and running away with. Here’s a film whose heroes are people of colour, who recognize injustice, and, as evidence of their burgeoning humanity, want to be free of it. The producers of 2049 commissioned this as part of official canon, and yet we see little of this kind of thing in the feature film itself. Missed opportunities all around. And such a shame, given the film’s clear desire to challenge the Hollywood blockbuster model from within on so many other levels, not the least of which being the demands of its glacial pacing and epochal running time allowing space for the audience to become fully immersed in its impressive extension of the world-building that made Scott’s film as revered as it is.

At this year’s FNC, we’d do better to look to another Japanese filmmaker, Kyoshi Kurosawa, for a more nuanced approach to handling the perennial sci-fi question of offworlders assimilating human characteristics. With Invasion, festival darling Kurosawa has crafted an intriguing alternate take on body snatching and artificial replication. The aliens arrive on Earth and learn what it means to be human by stealing concepts from their subjects. They solicit mental images of particular words and their associated meanings, which the aliens can read. And once the aliens understand the concept, the human loses it – with fascinating results. A shut-in forgets her agoraphobia and is free once again to leave her house. A tyrant boss loses his sense of power and becomes childlike, much to the amusement of his terribly stressed out employees. The goal of the aliens is to master all human concepts and, with them, the power to wield them at the expense of their loss to humans. How can humans function without the ideas that we hold about what it means to be human? It’s a powerful question, one very much in the spirit of exploring the slippery boundaries between our own sense of ourselves in relation to other life forms on Earth and beyond.

But the aliens didn’t bank on the power of love. This concept, arguably the most human of all human concepts, proves too challenging for the aliens to master. Instead, they succumb, and become all too human in the process, no longer capable of the mastery over the species that drove their original plans. And, more importantly, the concept of love – once assimilated by the aliens – survives in the human that conceptualized it for them. This is one idea that can’t be stolen, only shared. In effect, the aliens learn the power of consent in human relationships. And with that twist, Kurosawa builds another entry into his long list of films dealing with the strengths and limits of human community, from the family unit tested against social convention in Tokyo Story to the problems of ecological imbalance at the hands of foreign species invasion in Charisma. While Invasion lacks some of the formal panache of many of these earlier entries, Kurosawa remains one of Japan’s foremost interrogators of the human spirit.

Offworld Invasions: Representing Humanity at Festival Nouveau Cinema 2017

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. His research lives at the intersection of acoustic ecology, film studies, and critical geography. He is currently Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, and has previously taught film, media literacy, and environmental philosophy at Ryerson University, Champlain College, and LaSalle College. He is completing a monograph for Oxford University Press entitled An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema and is co-editing a collection for Palgrave entitled Sound, Media, Ecology. He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

Festival Reports   Film Reviews