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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

POP Archives Deep Thoughts: The Archival Dystopia of Blade Runner 2049 and Aeon Flux

Dystopia. That’s it. One word that invites a lot of imagery because when are we never not casting our present day fears, anxieties, and questionable decisions towards a bleak manifestation of our future where all of those issues have been horribly amplified? From the Greek for “bad” dys and “place” topos, the simplicity of its translations makes it almost easier to adopt and adapt than its counterpart, utopia. I know there’s a The Good Place joke to be made here, so imagine I did that and we can all have a good laugh together.


As a term, dystopia, originally spelled dustopia, has been present since the mid-1700s, but modern audiences are familiar with it as a subgenre of film, television, and literature often paired with the post-apocalypse, and young adult love triangles, under the umbrella of science fiction. The list of properties that fall under the genre are numerous, covering the full gamut of media formats: Cyberpunk 2077, The Hunger Games franchise, Bitch Planet, Akira, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Logan’s Run, Dredd, The Lorax, various episodes of Doctor Who, Samurai Jack, Squid Game, the X-Men Days of Future Past comic storyline, The Handmaid’s Tale, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.


And while there is a vast swath of properties I could talk about within the dystopian subgenre, the focus of this article is primarily on two films: Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Aeon Flux (2005). You might be wondering why these two films? One is the sequel to what some consider to be the greatest science fiction film of all time and the other is a movie adaptation of a popular, but very weird, adult cartoon series that aired on MTV in the early 1990s. One is a neo-noir detective story while the other is, for all intents and purposes, a cheesecake action movie. The films are separated by 12 years and yet they both ruminate on similar themes regarding memory and autonomy. And they both feature archives as an essential component to their respective plots.


What follows are spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, or Aeon Flux


You’ve been warned.


Set 30 years after the original movie, Blade Runner 2049, written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, and directed by Denis Villeneuve, follows K (Ryan Gosling), a Nexus-9 replicant and “blade runner” for the Los Angeles Police Department tasked with hunting down and “retiring” rogue replicants. After retiring Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) on his farm, K finds the remains of a woman buried under a tree, which is later found to be a female replicant who died during childbirth. With no remains found for a child, the LAPD concludes there is an organically born replicant child out in the world and K’s superiors order him to find the child and retire it before the general public finds out as it would shatter the already fragile existence between humans and replicants.


As part of his investigation, K makes use of two archives. The first is located at the Wallace Foundation where he shows the File Clerk (Tómas Lemarquis) the serial number and hair sample found on the remains of the female replicant. As they walk through the extensive yellow-washed room of identical cabinets, the clerk casually talks to K about the Blackout that wiped out power for ten days and erased massive amounts of data and digital records, leaving only the paper from which to rebuild. A moment I think will make any archivist or records manager chuckle is when the clerk has no qualms with the loss of the digital backlog. I mean, it sucks that a lot of records were just gone, but also, yeah I can sympathize with the relief that might result from no longer having to worry about catching up when you’ve got more than enough on your plate.


File clerk reading the replicant record.
File Clerk reading a replicant record

It’s worth noting that our friendly neighborhood library counterpart, Reel Librarians, called the File Clerk an archivist in their 2018 article. And while I’m inclined to agree that he mostly acts as a de facto archivist by virtue of him being the only person working in the records department, he’s credited as File Clerk. Semantics, I know, but it’s always worth understanding how the script and the movie determine the importance of naming a character or titling them appropriately versus how they’re interpreted by the audience. In this case, a very specific audience that is me and Jennifer at Reel Librarians.


When the clerk pulls up the matching record for the replicant, he laments that whatever they have of the digital files is fractured. All he can tell K is that she was an older model made by the Tyrell Corporation, which the Wallace Foundation acquired some time between the films, and that she was “unremarkable”. Before K can protest, however, the two are interrupted by Luv (Ana de Armas), Wallace’s replicant enforcer, who was alerted to K’s search. She leads K down to the lower levels of the building into what appears to be a more traditional archives. A drawer opens as they approach and Luv shows K the memory bearings that match the time period of the replicant he’s tracking down. Though most of them were wiped out during the Blackout, there are still fragments left behind.


She selects a memory bearing and plays it for K and the audience hears Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) voice over the image of an eye. This memory bearing was originally the recording of Deckard’s interview with Rachael (Sean Young) using the Voight-Kampff machine. Putting two and two together, we now know that the replicant buried on Morton’s farm who died giving birth was Rachael. 


The second use of an archives comes a bit later after K revisits Morton’s farm and finds the date 6.10.21 carved into the tree where Rachael was buried. The date sparks a memory in K of the same date carved on a toy horse he had as a child. He then goes to the LAPD’s DNA archives and searches for children born on that date. The machine displays that records for the date were either lost or corrupted due to the Blackout and the backup records are also corrupted and can’t be translated. K tells the machine to “run it raw” and he then proceeds to look at screen after screen of genetic code.


Genetic code on screen resembling microfilm.
Genetic code on archival reader

Firstly, the machine K uses is supposed to resemble a microfilm or microfiche reader. The design of the interface, however, makes me think that if everything worked properly, then the reader would have either translated the code and cross-referenced it with actual police files or would’ve spit out a list of names for K to use elsewhere. However, when K finds the two exact matching genetic records for a boy and girl on the same day, he also gets the additional data about the girl dying of an illness and the boy still possibly being alive, which feeds into his budding idea that he could be the child of Deckard and Rachael. 


Plot progression aside, the fact that the LAPD has a DNA Archive brings up a lot of issues regarding the retention of genetic material by law enforcement and the right to privacy. The collection of DNA by law enforcement over the course of an investigation is a given. We’ve all seen the procedural television shows, though the speed at which they receive viable data from DNA is akin to sorcery at this point. What they don’t tell you in those shows is that the DNA profiles of those not convicted of the crime being investigated should be expunged from police records. Just know that I’m talking about laws in the United States. If there are similar laws in other countries, I’d love to know what they are! There are some states where the process happens automatically if there’s no conviction, but other states, like Washington, for example, require the individual to submit a form along with a court order. If you didn’t know that, then consider this some helpful information in protecting your Fourth Amendment rights because law enforcement sure isn’t gonna help you on that one!


So in the far flung future that’s only - check’s notes - 25 years away as of the writing of this article, the LAPD retains genetic profiles on presumably people who aren’t convicted of any crimes given that K’s search using only the date of birth didn’t result in criminal records. That’s disconcerting. Are the police collecting DNA profiles when children are born? Are hospitals submitting genetic materials to be profiled? When are these records created and how can I burn it to the ground?


Okay, let me cool off a bit by turning my attention elsewhere.


Aeon Flux, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, and directed by Karyn Kusama, is a live action adaptation of the cartoon of the same name created by Peter Chung for MTV’s Liquid Television back in the ye olden times of the early 1990s. The 2005 movie is very loosely based on the cartoon, but still centers on Aeon (Charlize Theron), a mercenary/freedom fighter in the city-state of Bregna, the supposed last human city after a plague wiped out 99% of Earth’s population and left the remaining survivors infertile. 


A tale as old as time. 


Bregna uses recycled DNA to clone people and redistribute them into the population after they’ve died, maintaining the veneer of a thriving human populace while their scientist/political leader, Trevor Goodkind (Marton Csokas), tries to reverse the infertility. Unbeknownst to everyone, Trevor’s made-for-movie brother, Oren (Johnny Lee Miller), is planning a coup to take over Bregna when it’s revealed that women are starting to naturally become pregnant in order to maintain the power of his family’s genetic line.


I’ll be honest, the plot to Aeon Flux is truly so convoluted with multiple factions trying to kill Trevor and Aeon dealing with clone trauma and all the conversations about genetic memories that caring enough to keep it all straight is beyond me. What’s important for our purposes is the very end of the film when Aeon decides to put an end to the cloning saga once and for all by infiltrating the Relical, a dirigible that’s been flying around Bregna for the whole movie. Within the Relical is a DNA archive of all the genetic material used to recreate the population over and over and over again. Upon entering the Relical, Aeon meets the Keeper (the late Pete Postlethwaite), a scientist who became the guardian of the archives. 


Interior of the Relical with the Keeper at the center in the spotlight.
Relical interior

Oh and we also find out that the Keeper saved Aeon’s DNA from being purged on Oren’s orders because she was - dramatic pause - Trevor’s wife, Katherine! And apparently she wasn’t cloned again until recently because the Keeper somehow knew that she was the key to helping/stopping Trevor? I suppose one could interpret this as an archivist stand-in seeing the value of something and preserving it for future use rather than a contrived reveal that adds nothing to the overall story. So, yeah, I’ll do that.


It’s here that I want to talk about what cinched my decision to write about Blade Runner 2049 and Aeon Flux as a duo. Like I said at the beginning, these movies could not be anymore dissimilar in style, writing, and direction and yet there are quite a few commonalities. 


For one, both movies use fertility as a plot point and both sacrifice female characters for the sake of making that point. Rachael dies giving birth and her body is the catalyst for K’s investigation. Aeon’s sister, Una, is killed, on Oren’s orders, because she was naturally fertile and pregnant when she died, which pushes Aeon to question her freedom-fighting group and their motives for wanting Trevor dead. 


This is obviously not the first time a story about a dystopian future made fertility issues the central premise, but neither Blade Runner 2049 nor Aeon Flux are particularly interested in telling the story from the perspective of the women at the core of the issue. Contrast these films with properties like the film adaptation of Children of Men or The Handmaid’s Tale television series where fertility and ownership of bodies capable of giving birth are directly linked to power and agency. Ya know, like in real life.


Second, memory is integral to our existence as humans. Or that’s how the movies depict it. Aeon Flux heavily relies on the concept of genetic memory, a psychological theory, as a symptom of humanity straying from its natural existence. The cloned population is plagued with nightmares that are actually memories from either their previous lives or the original life of that person, causing mental instability across the board because only a select few know that Bregna is sustained by clones. I don’t necessarily want to get into the whole nature vs nurture debate when it comes to cloning and how Aeon Flux is saying that your clone is just you minus the stimulus and experiences needed to create those memories in the first place and your personality is locked in regardless of the differences in your current circumstances and…oh, wait, I just did that.


The Keeper
The Keeper

The Blade Runner films approach memory as a tool wielded against replicants. Rachael is an experimental replicant in that her creator deliberately gave her the memories of his niece in order to make her believe she’s human as a means of muddying the Voight-Kampff test. Memory is supposedly an aspect of humanity that allows us to feel sympathy and empathy. Because we’ve experienced some emotional moment in the past, we’re able to draw upon it when confronted with questions that might draw those feelings out of us. Hence, why typical replicants can’t emulate human emotions well enough to pass the Voight-Kampff test. It’s a cruel joke and makes Rachael’s story that much more tragic.


K’s story is almost the reverse of Rachael’s. He knows himself to be a replicant and yet when he sees the date carved into the tree on Morton’s farm, he suddenly experiences a memory of his childhood that sends him down a path of questioning whether or not he’s a wholly sentient being. When we meet the memory maker for the Wallace Foundation, the audience learns that memories are created to form personalities in replicants, which blurs the line between human and replicant even more when one has to consider if their memories are false implants to craft a persona or a natural creation of a life actually lived. The validity of memory becomes the access point to our very existence, which adds an extra layer of tragedy to K’s story. 


Memory work is an aspect of the archival profession in that history is a societal collection of memories through preserved documentation. However, we know for a fact that the historical record is flawed and has numerous holes due to the erasure of minority groups and individuals deemed unsuitable or unworthy of preservation. When we think of the stories we tell about the origins of our country and the lionized figures at its center, or any historical event for that matter, we are telling a story based on what was given permission to endure versus what was allowed to be discarded or outright destroyed. So whenever someone tries to push society back towards “simpler times,” know that their idea of that time period is fundamentally and historically wrong. Always.


Thirdly, the archives are essential to some aspect of the plot. The archives in the Relical have to be destroyed to stop Oren’s grand plans for genetic domination, but also to end the inhumane practice of repeatedly resurrecting people without their consent. K’s visits to both the Wallace Foundation archives and the LAPD DNA archives progress the story but also leave K with more questions about his origin. And yet each instance of visiting an archives and meeting the people running the facilities, or the absence of them, enhances our understanding of each film’s reality, more or less.


The Wallace Foundation archives, both of them, are contrasts of color and space. When K and the File Clerk walk through the rows of carbon copy cabinets, the wide shot shows us a vast, seemingly endless room. It’s expansive and imposing, intimidating, and tells the audience that the Wallace Foundation is powerful in its monopoly over replicant creation. The yellow lighting of the scene is sickly, a color choice that reflects the artificiality of Wallace and his company. Later in the film, when K actually speaks with Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), his office is also bathed in yellow that is supposed to simulate sunlight, but comes across as dull, almost lifeless. 


K and the File Clerk walk down the rows of storage units in the Wallace Foundation archives.
Wallace Foundation Archives

Contrast this with the scene between K and Luv in the non-public-facing archives. Despite having a more neutral gray coloring and hinting at a continuation of storage beyond the confines of the camera, the space feels more intimate. The memory bearings are unique items, kept because there might be value in them regardless of the corruption brought on by the Blackout. K’s investigation cashes in on that promise of value in the same way that a researcher gives value to an archival collection when they request access.


Wallace Foundation lower archives

When we look at the Relical in Aeon Flux, the archives are nothing short of a representation of the divine. The interior design is wave-like and cavernous with sheer golden threads hanging like curtains. And at the center of it all is an old man in robes, standing in bright light, waiting for Aeon to arrive. So divinity actually makes sense given that the contents of the Relical are the means to create life. How anything functions within the Relical is beyond me. We never see the Keeper do anything except deliver expository dialogue and accept his inevitable demise. I also don’t know how the dimensions of a dirigible work, never mind a dirigible in the “future,” but the interior space doesn’t seem like it would fit into what we see of the exterior. But that’s not really the point of the scene. The point is that Aeon meets God and kills him. 


If only the movie could have lived up to that idea.


I find it intriguing that two movies could be separated by over a decade and find similar yet wildly different ways to depict an archives. Both are dystopian futures where the survival of humanity is vaguely important. Both archives store genetic or building block materials for the creation of sentient life. Both films light their main archival settings in gold or yellow. Both have a stand-in archivist who’s male and bald. The differences lie in the intention: divine vs artificial, functionality vs fatality. 


It makes me want more time in these scenes, more moments with these characters because so much of what society is and what makes it tick can be found in the archives. But those are stories for another time and another place.

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