Note: This close reading of Blade Runner 2049 contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049. You should probably go see it. Twice.
The fallacy hidden under several obtuse layers of really highly stylized production in Ridley Scott’s original 1982 Blade Runner was that the central mystery of the police/hitmen tasked with exterminating runaway androids—who is a human and who isn’t?—is a completely moot point. The “replicants”—artificial humans so real and so dangerous that they have been deemed living, breathing contraband—are human in all but name. The denial of their humanity is a profit motive. If something thinks and feels and takes photographs for sentimental reasons and runs when you try to kill it, then it’s human.
Having accepted that, where could the sequel have gone? It turns out, to places that ask what value human life has—and what power it has over its environment and the systems that enclose it—in a time when it can be churned out on an assembly line.
Blade Runner 2049
has been praised up and down for its incredible photography and production design, for the maturity of its plot and setting, for the complexity of its story, for the fact Harrison Ford seems to actually care about interpreting scripts when you pair him with a good director and pay him the GDP of a small nation. For my own part, I think it deserves the highest praise for imagining a world that doesn’t just take the conceits of the original movie and do them again but with nicer CG. It is a film that accepts the premises of the questions of its forebear—Who is human? What is human? Why are we made to die?—and ponders deeper ones.
What can we do to make a difference when there is nothing that makes us special?
“I’ve never retired something that was born before.” —K
Filling his palette with the dark shades of The Trial by Franz Kafka, director Denis Villeneuve’s protagonist is also named K (or KD6-3.7, to be exact). A serial number for a serial man—part of a new generation of replicant designed not to exhibit the drapetomania of earlier models. If Deckard’s job in the original film gave him and the audience the uneasy feeling that he was hunting his own kind, K’s job is explicit about the matter. As a Blade Runner, K is tasked in no uncertain terms with hunting down replicants whose outdated model numbers mean they still respond to the inhumanity of their slavery by running rather than enduring servitude and slurs without complaint, as K does.
The story begins with K hunting for one escaped replicant, the hulking, desperate, but strangely gentle Sapper (an inspired, nuanced performance from Dave Bautista). K’s matter-of-fact murder of Sapper puts him on the trail of more prey. An exhumed body of a pregnant women who died in childbirth at the scene of Sapper’s home is revealed to actually have been a replicant—a fact that shocks K’s commander to her core. The idea that these slaves could create more life, could be human, will, as she puts it “break the world.”
And so, K finds himself forced on a hunt for the miraculous child whose existence seems to unravel the delicate order that props up this society that has collapsed all ecosystems and relies heavily on enslaved, manufactured humans.
For his own part, K lives a manufactured, spoon-fed, boxed-in existence. It’s implied through his easy execution of Sapper and the routine way his superiors treat him afterward—one calling him “Constant K”—that he’s unnervingly good at this job, that he excels at hunting and exterminating his own kind. Like Kafka’s hapless protagonist, he is caught in a bureaucratic net which demands he submit to bizarre rituals and woeful obligations which have nothing to do with his own feelings or interests—whether it be regurgitating random lines of Nabokov to show that he’s mentally sound, interrupting a cathartic fling with his holographic girlfriend Joi to go back to work, or submitting to hunting down and killing a child.
When K ponders that a thing which is born must have a soul, K’s commanding officer (a hard-drinking Robin Wright) tells him he’s done fine without one of his own so far. What person would the great machine regard more highly than a soulless, obedient one?
“I’ve been inside you. Not so much there as you think.” —Mariette
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of an entire movie that is from start to finish deeply unsettling is Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s holographic, artificial intelligence girlfriend. I am disturbed by the idea that you can purchase affection and domesticity, that you can tailor your helpmeet right down to the hair style (hilariously/terrifyingly, the sharp-eyed will even notice that Joi’s nationality is set to “Cuban” when her OS takes a moment to reboot in an early scene).
“Everything you want to see, everything you want to hear” blare the great holographic billboards that advertise Joi. With her periodic ringtone and expensive walking-about upgrade, you get the impression that owning your own Joi is a mark of status not that far removed from an iPhone. And she does, indeed, tell K everything that he wants to hear. That she loves him, that he’s special. That he is, in one deeply affecting callback, a “real boy.”
But she’s a product. We’re never allowed to forget that. Every time her ringtone sounds (the first bit of a motif from Prokofievs’s Peter and the Wolf), somebody reacts with a wry knowingness toward K. The fact he has a Joi says something about him.
Everybody who saw the movie with me has brought up Joi in particular. One or two have asked me, quite seriously, if I think her love for him is real or just part of her programming. And I’ve told them that I honestly and truly think that it’s both and that this weird and horrible future has broken down the barrier between those two currently mutually exclusive things in much the same way that we have almost eliminated the phenomenon of “getting lost” from our human experience by shooting satellites into space and talking to them with our little plastic phones.
Joi’s fawning over K is just the societal tool reinforcing the idea that he’s special—that he’s a “real boy” with a real life. That’s perhaps why it’s so tantalizing for him to think that the memories he carries of a real experience mean that he might be the missing child, the replicant born of woman rather than birthed in a vacuum-sealed, goop-filled sandwich bag inside the creepy pyramid of Jared Leto’s unhinged trillionaire, Niander Wallace.
He isn’t, of course. After his exhaustive search—after staying one step ahead of Wallace and his killer replicant bag-woman Luv, K finally meets the man he thinks is his father before losing Joi forever and being left for dead. When he awakens among the members of a replicant uprising, he is given definitive proof that he is not the miraculous child. That others may in fact have the memory which he believes may be real.
Beaten to a pulp, alone, with only a gun and hopeless mission, K wanders through the rain to be confronted by another Joi billboard. A forty-foot tall over-sexualized representation of his girl Friday leans in close and whispers to him exactly what the last model said to him. Exactly what any Joe wandering the streets would want to hear.
”I know what’s real.” —Deckard
Kidnapped and confronted with his own empty facsimile of love, Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising the shit out of his role in the original) refuses to give up his daughter and is promised torture in an off-world facility. K intercepts him and his captors, and the climax plays out as a bloody knife fight just outside the massive barrier walls that separate the roiling ocean from the West Coast. There, outside the walls of the great machine, K makes his last stand, rescuing a man who demands to know why he bothered when it would’ve been safer to let him die and the secret of the miraculous birth with him.
K never explicitly says why. (He’s been programmed to be the strong silent type, or else they wouldn’t have cast Ryan Gosling.) As in the first film, when it is revealed Deckard might be a replicant, the answer isn’t as important as the question. Is Deckard a replicant and therefore hunting his own kind? Who cares: He is hunting things that fear death and so may as well be human. Why does K put it all on the line for Deckard and his daughter, up to his own lonely death? Who cares: He had reasons that weren’t Wallace’s, or the police’s, or even those of the replicant uprising that wanted Deckard silenced permanently. He chose.
In a world where new algorithms are written every single day to find out how to appease us, to lull us into enough comfort not to question the order of things, it becomes harder and harder to argue that we have any choice in any of it. Everything about the wrecked environment and brutal police state, the made-to-order girlfriends and rule by twisted blind autocrats, are great supporting details, but they aren’t the point of Blade Runner 2049. The point is that what makes us exceptional, what makes us heroic, is to choose.
Kenneth Lowe will tell you about his mother. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his works have also appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can read more on his blog.