Smoking Cigarettes Is Passé, Unless You're In A Hollywood Movie

if "Blade Runner 2049" is any indication, smoking is on the outs. But cinematic portrayals of the present aren't quite keeping pace with reality.

by Travis Diehl
Nov 16 2017, 8:46pm

"Set 'em up, Joe," sings the Frank Sinatra hologram, doll-like in its belljar; "I got a little story I think you should know." Frank stabs the air with a ghostly, unlit cigarette.

That story is Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve's sweeping three-hour sequel to Ridley Scott's insurmountable Blade Runner (1982). Yes, it's 2049—thirty years after the events of the original—and a new generation of practically alive androids known as replicants live as servants and slaves among the dregs of humanity. Yet a few renegade old models are still at large—including the first film's protagonists—and it's up to our freshly hatched hero to hunt them down . . .

Blade Runner and replicant "K" (Ryan Gosling) has tracked his former colleague, Deckard (Harrison Ford), to the burnt orange wreckage of Las Vegas. The air is choked with uranium-colored dust. Giant statues of nude women tower over ruined streets, like a Burning Man that they forgot to burn. Sinatra's simulated suave, emitted from a jukebox still operated by big coins, in a forgotten Romanesque bar in something called the Vintage Casino, is just one more copy of the martini'd and Marlboro'd Americana that, by the time Blade Runner 2049 picks up, has wheezed on for over a century. There is still no better vision of the good life.

Not much else remains of America's glory days. The world has died of many things—cancer certainly among them. The farms, sealed under white tents, are all synthetic, and grow grubs. Los Angeles is blanketed in smog that even the constant acid rain can't rinse out; San Diego is its landfill. In the city scenes the beams of advertising projectors fuzz through the fog like 35mm frames clacking through a smoke-filled theater. Ash mingles with snow.

But while the world smolders, none of the characters seem to. Extranational corporations like Atari and Sony (and the fictional Wallace Corp) rule the galaxy; cigarette companies are not among them. Of course there are precious few plants to speak of: On a black-lung planet where natural wood makes you rich, one imagines genuine tobacco makes you wealthy. Yet smoking was such a big part of Ridley Scott's 1982 Blade Runner that the lack of smokers in the sequel is like a burning hole. Thirty in-world years prior, in 2019, LAPD detectives chewed cigars in the shadows; Rachael, red-lipped and green-eyed replicant fatale, came wreathed in the smoke of her Boyards. Cigarettes are central to the film's postmodern nostalgia, and pay homage to the history of film noir. Hardboiled folks puff away like it's 1940.

When Blade Runner came out in the early '80s, cigarettes had already lost their innocence; they signaled a deathly self-awareness, as if each drag brought one new knowledge of one's own mortality, each exhalation like the cottony spirits in 19th-century photographs. All this takes on an extra existentialism when the replicants—lifelike androids—light up, too. In the 1982 film, when Deckard administers Rachael the Voight-Kampff test that will check how real she is, she begins with an immortal line: "Do you mind if I smoke?" Her smoking is a subconscious plea for her humanity. "It won't affect the test," says Deckard.

But in the new film, the plot revolves around a miracle; Rachael, lifelong smoker, has borne a child. Cigarettes haunt the clues. When K returns to the farm where he discovered Rachael's bones, he finds a baby's sock, hidden in an old piano, kept in an antique cigarette tin. And in the San Diego sweatshop where Rachael's orphaned daughter was a laborer, on the desk with the manager's record book, is an ashtray. K gives it a long look: it's in the shape of a skeletal horse, curled around three or four orange-yellow butts. The ashtray is the deathly double of the carved wooden horse that K, in the next scene, finds in the boiler where Rachael's child has hidden it.

"To be born is to have a soul," says K in the new film, hoping that he has one, knowing he doesn't. But maybe to die is to have a soul, as well? The Nexus 6 replicants in Blade Runner, like the older models in 2049, are obsessed with lifespan in a way that only synthetic beings can be. It won't happen to me, say the humans as they puff away; but for replicants with preprogrammed lifespans, death (retirement) is an all too standard certainty. All the more reason to get used to the taste.

At the end of the first film, a blade runner named Gaff leaves an origami unicorn outside Deckard's apartment. It's a double signal: that he knows Deckard dreams about unicorns, and thus that he knows Deckard is a replicant; and that he has chosen not to kill Rachael. The origami paper is silver on one side, matte white on the other, like the foil from a cigarette pack.

"Too bad she won't live," says Gaff. "But then again, who does?"

In 1982, when Scott's Blade Runner was in theaters, one in three American adults smoked; in 2017, the figure is closer to one in nine. You can't light up in restaurants any more, or bars. They're even phasing the ashtrays out of Vegas casinos. Yet smoking in films, having fallen since the golden '40s, has held at '80s levels: around half of movies released today with an R rating depict tobacco use. This is a tangible futurism. There are few better ways to reject a corrupt generation than to kick its bad habits, and youth both in-world and out are voting with their lungs. It's as if Blade Runner 2049 has quit smoking, reflecting the real 2017 more than the in-world 2019. The film has decided to focus on raising a healthy family.

But oh, the memory of the smoker's life burns bright! In Blade Runner, everybody smoked. It was the atmosphere. In Blade Runner 2049, cigarettes have become precious, an obsession, a filigreed motif. The slightest reference carries life and death. The movie racks in and savors it as the scene passes. The cigarette is like the upright piano—an antique piece of analogue equipment, still singing in a soundtrack of keyboard synths.

If Blade Runner reeked with postmodern nostalgia, 2049 adds another ring: a nostalgia-for-nostalgia, or for the earlier film's authenticity, only a quote away. It's as if the latter yearns to be, like the former, a truly dangerous film. But its dystopia is clean and livable. People don't smoke because the world smokes for them. Or else, unlike, say, Philip K. Dick, Villeneuve and company declined to imagine the drugs that will fuel the future. Instead, 2049 repackages the postwar fantasy of another era—call it 1949—when Sinatra sang "The Huckle Buck" and starred on Your Hit Parade, a variety show sponsored by Lucky Strike.

The first time we see or hear of a cigarette in Blade Runner 2049 is in K's future-shabby apartment. Sinatra's "Summer Wind" plays on the hi-fi; K has just sat down to a steaming bowl of protein reconstituted as glassy-looking udon. His holographic live-in girlfriend, Joi, enters in a floral apron. With a midcentury smile, she superimposes an image of a steak dinner on K's meal. Then a cigarette appears in the blade runner's lips; Joi lights it with the tip of her finger. This in a scene that is practically the film's thesis. K's memory of the wooden horse turns out not to be his own; when he meets the woman who makes the replicants' dreams, she is detailing the scene of a girl blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Is this the sort of warm, polished memory that makes the androids more human than the humans?

But K's domestic simulacrum is the only place where the American dream still lives. Never mind that K lives in a box, that his girlfriend is an AI, that he himself is an android, and that his neighbors spray paint "skinjob" on his front door. It is his personal Vegas. A prostitute asks for one, Sinatra's ghost waves one around, an ashtray holds their remains, but this cigarette dangling oddly in the center of K's lips as he plays house with Joi is the only one we see any character actually smoke. And we're not even sure that it's real.

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