Whether Denis Villieneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a science fiction masterpiece is yet to be determined: coming off the back of numerous hyperbolic pre-and post-release reviews it has been still a commercial misadventure, at least domestically.
What it does do successfully, however, is build upon the social commentary of Ridley Scott's original 1982 film, as well as explore the landscapes surrounding the dystopian Los Angeles in ways its predecessor did not. While Scott's classic mainly deals with artificial intelligence and commercial issues, Villieneuve has cleverly interwoven themes of artificial intelligence and social interaction, to humanity's reliance on the digital storage of information. "Everything was kept on drives," Ryan Gosling's Agent K is told forebodingly when searching for information from a pre-EMP blackout era.
But perhaps the most intriguing — or better yet, relevant — themes in Villieneuve's sci-fi noir sequel are those like sources of renewable energy, waste disposal and nutrition. It has always been the charge of science fiction to admonish the issues currently faced by whichever generation it is addressing (this is what makes it such a fascinating and tactile genre) and #BladeRunner2049 is no exception.
1. Solar Farms
California, 2049 — the opening sequence of the film sees K soaring high above a seemingly endless solar farm, with concentric circles of metal and glass-panelled monotone superstructures as far as the eye can see. The imagery immediately brings to mind the current crisis faced with sources of renewable energy, with solar power being one of the forerunners in this battle.
A solar farm of such scale is perhaps unimaginable at this point in time, but it is not a far-cry from what has already been built. The title of the world’s largest solar farm is currently held by the Kamuthi power plant in Tamil Nadu, southern India. The vast facility covers an area of ten square kilometres and has a capacity of 648 megawatts as part of their government’s ambitious goal of producing 40 percent of the country’s power from non-fossil fuels by 2030.
Although Kamuthi is technically the largest traditional solar farm, Villineuve and his production team were clearly referencing the Ivanpah solar thermal power station in the Mojave Dessert, California. The facility deploys 173,500 heliostats, devices which use plane mirrors that rotate constantly to face the sun, focussing its rays onto boilers located on three centralized solar power towers. This has a collective capacity of 392 megawatts.
Although this glittering vision of renewable energy looks impressive, it has not been without fault since its inception in 2014. From originally being scaled back from its intended output of 440 megawatts in order to preserve the habitat of the desert tortoise, to quite literally setting birds and even itself on fire, many doubt its viability. It also requires a large amount of sunlight to work, which if Villeneuve's asphyxiated vision of future California is anything to go by, this could prove problematic.
2. Protein Farms
Not long after witnessing the gargantuan solar farm, we are introduced to Sapper Morton, an ex-military replicant who has since eked out a humble existence as a "protein farmer" at an equally-expansive Wallace Corporation facility. As K pays him a less than amicable visit, we are given a glimpse of his livestock: squirming invertebrates that makes even a robot wrinkle its nose.
As off-putting as it sounds, the farming of invertebrates for animal protein is becoming increasingly common. Most current livestock farming methods involve the use (and abuse) of animals such as pigs, cattle and poultry, and these centuries-old techniques not only take up far too much space, but are responsible for 60% of global biodiversity loss. They also produce alarming levels of carbon dioxide, methane and other harmful greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. As the population of the human race steadily increases, along with our collective appetite, many believe that the next logical step for producing viable sources of animal protein rests with the farming of bugs.
As is now #BladeRunner tradition, Villineuve’s sequel is perhaps a little ahead of itself: By 2050, the population of planet Earth is expected to rise above nine billion (the current figure stands at just over seven billion), and demand for meat is expected to grow by 44%, according to a 2014 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Although we are unlikely to see invertebrate protein farms of this scale by 2049, the issue still remains and it is acutely addressed here by Villineuve and writer Hampton Fancher.
3. Waste Disposal
About an hour into Blade Runner 2049, the audience is shown a glimpse of the Los Angeles municipal waste disposal fields that are charged with collecting the tons of garbage accumulated by the thronged metropolis. Colossal, air-borne vehicles drop trash from above as they have seemingly given up on traditional methods of waste disposal and collection — too numerous is the waste to rely on dump trucks and foot workers.
There are already a worryingly-large number of real-world examples to chose from in this area, from the 2,200 acre Apex Landfill outside the city limits of northern Las Vegas, to South Korea’s Sudokwan landfill (which receives up to 20,000 tons of waste every day), to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating "island" of trash the size of Texas and which is visible from space.
Interestingly, the municipal waste fields in the film also play host to an orphanage integral to the film’s plot. Here we are shown rows upon rows of children working in squalid conditions picking apart and repurposing old electronics and circuit boards. This draws an uncanny resemblance to the Guiyu waste dump in southern China, which is not only one of the world’s largest but also one of the most dangerous, going often by the name of the "electronics graveyard." Guiyu employs over 150,000 workers to disassemble old electronics to scavenge usable or sellable parts from them. The rest of the garbage goes into the dump, where toxic chemicals leach into the soil and water.
Flying cars, holographic partners and off-world colonies aside, it is these elements of the future we should be more concerned with. In many ways, Villieneuve's sequel has surpassed the original Blade Runner in its deft approach to our precarious future on planet Earth, by depicting the morbid lengths to which humans will go to endure their own shortcomings. A stark warning, perhaps, before this planet is lost — like tears in the acid rain.
Is there anything from the film you think I've missed, or know of any other films that comment on our planet's environmental future? Let me know in the comments below!