Blade Runner 2049 is a film that has generated some divided criticism. To borrow from the comedian Mitch Hedberg’s story about his experiences in a band: “Some people loved us. Some people hated us. Some people thought we were ok.” And really what more is there to say about aesthetic judgment after the fact? Describing the moment of aesthetic experience however is something else. You watch a movie and you feel a range of things. Maybe some nameable emotion through an identification with a character. You also feel excited or bored or tired or interested or confused in some holistic way in response to the film but not only the film, also your own body and the rest of the world around you.
Evaluative and analytic genres and tools offer a means to capture these thoughts and feelings. Shall we talk about plot and character? Or cinematography, sound, and special effects? The scriptwriting? The directing? The acting? Shall we read this symptomatically in terms of contemporary ideological concerns? Or perhaps in the context of the history of filmmaking or science fiction? Pick one or more. Why did you make that choice? Did such tools and choices shape your experience of the film? Probably, in some ways, here or there. It would be unusual not to ask as one watches a film, “What is this film doing?” “What sense can I make of it?” Of course then we aren’t exactly watching the film. We are watching ourselves watch the film. An activity that is open to an endless series of refractions as any analysis or evaluation can itself be analyzed or evaluated. One might fall into a wormhole of in-folding analysis and hardly experience the film at all. Indeed, interpretation will say that the film can never be directly experienced; all that one can really experience is one’s interpretation of the film. An assertion that puts me in mind of an Emo Phillips joke quoted by Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman: “‘I used to think the brain was the most wonderful organ in the body,’ he says. ‘But then I thought, who’s telling me this?'”
In a different ontological formation though, the film and I are not separated by an uncrossable barrier but rather share the same messy material space. We’re really not that different. At one point Ulmer writes, “Part of the point is that technics precedes ‘humanity,’ that a certain animal became human, fulfilled its potentiality, through the prosthesis of tools. With the Industrial Revolution (which is to say, since the inception of electracy), the dominant power in this relationship is on the side of machines. It has been said, in fact, that humans are the sex organs of machines.” Or as DeLanda puts it, from the perspective of some future robot historian “the role of humans would be seen as little more than that of industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine-flowers that simply did not possess its own reproductive organizes during a segment of its evolution.” In such formulae, analysis and evaluation are probably little more than the memetic-genetic material for future nonhuman generations: grist for the data mills.
In other words, I understand why you… why we… want to analyze and evaluate films and other media, but we make a significant anthropocentric error if we believe these things are for us. Of course we can, and do, make use of them, and I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t. However if we have (or some of us have) slowly managed to get our heads around the idea that the universe might not exist for us and the planet is not here as fuel for our destiny, then can we make the tougher step to recognize the same thing about technology, media, language, and art? It’s tougher because we might reasonably say that we have made those things with purposes in mind… but we realize that’s only part of the story, right?
If there can be a robot historian, can there be a robot film critic? And what would it say about Blade Runner 2049? Following the common thematic tropes this and other sci-fi films present and given the uncanny encounters with our own mechanistic and programmed operation, might we wonder if are always already robot film critics? Or do we assert, like Deckard, “I know what’s real!” And what would that be?