The original Blade Runner (1982) was a practical effects masterpiece whose world deeply influenced the visual development of cyberpunk. Scott (along with Hampton Francher and David Peoples) managed to adapt Philip K. Dick’s tremendous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) while deviating from it rather famously, eschewing all mention of Mercerism (Dick’s techo-transcendental religion founded in an all-consuming empathy for life in a dying world) and Pennfield mood-organs (fantastic devices which allow one to change their emotional state at the dial of a few numbers), transposing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’s obsession with social-status granting animals both real and electric with more recognizable pop-consumerist themes. What was born of these changes is a spectacular neon-noir police caper to the chagrin of none, thanks to Scott’s masterful execution.
For would-be director Denis Villenueve, it certainly presented challenge proportioned to the opportunity; while four of his previous films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016) where critically well-received and carry solid followings of admirers (I among them), handling a film property as influential and revered as Blade Runner carried with it new burdens. Adapting a relatively little-known short science fiction story (as was the case for Arrival) was one thing – directing a sequel not everyone was sure they wanted for one of the best science fiction films ever made was another. If he failed, people would remember it, and for all his talent and previous successes, Villenueve still had a popular name to establish.
What’s remarkable, then, is the depth of his success. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) encapsulates all of what has made Villenueve’s previous work (particularly Sicario and Arrival) so captivating, so visually striking, and so thematically rich, developing upon those talents to a notable degree; one can only remark on how relatively unprecedented it is for such a widely celebrated film to receive a sequel so long after the fact — a sequel that not only lives up to its predecessor, but establishes itself as a new classic. No doubt Scott’s involvement as an executive producer is essential here, but credit could not be reasonably taken from Villenueve, a well-proven director who has helmed some of the best recent films. Immense credit must also go to the film’s writers, the returning Hampton Francher along with Michael Green, who penned a script so thematically rich that it will no doubt be the subject of years of discussion.
Indeed, if any doubt was left, Villeneuve no longer has to prove to anyone that he is one of the most confident, visually stunning, and performance-effective working directors in Hollywood.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Blade Runner 2049 carries several similarities to Villenueve’s most recent, Arrival (while infused with Ridley Scott’s rather clear preoccupation with themes of creation and godhood). Like Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 carries strong sociopolitical themes which are infused into its environment and inextricable from the challenges the characters face. These themes, however, do not deter Villenueve and company from a clear, decisive focus on the emotional and existential dimensions of its cast of largely disillusioned, disassociated, and exploited characters. In other words, the heart is not sacrificed for the intellect in a style now common to Villenueve. Even in the midst of a ruined world, which sweeps us away with a visual and auditory grandeur (with Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score), the journey is well seated within the circuits of a synthetic slave caste.
While unraveling the full variety and depth of these themes between the original work and its two adaptations is beyond the scope of a single article, a discussion of Blade Runner 2049’s themes can be serviced by some categorization: proceeding in a sense from the film’s progression, we can begin first with its environment (the desolation of its post-ecological collapse), secondly its politics (and the exploitation and alienation therein), and lastly, the pervasive isolation of Blade Runner 2049’s inhabitants and the existential journeys of those electric dreamers to find what constitutes ‘real human responses’.
“First, strangely, the owls had died.”
Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. (IMDB)
Between the films and their source material, one of the clearest and most straightforward adaptations lies in the world’s desolation and ecological ruin. In Dick’s novel, the world suffers a last, great war (aptly named World War Terminus), following which an eerie, pervasive, radioactive dust falls. With it comes the silence: “First, strangely, the owls had died… After the owls, of course, other birds followed.” (pg. 12). Once understood that an unknown fallout was enveloping the world from an unknown source, ‘previously underway’ colonization efforts become redoubled via what were known as ‘Synthetic Freedom Fighters’. During the war, there were androids that could work and live in the dire radioactive conditions of the outer colonies. Those humans left on Earth, for whatever reason they chose (or had no choice) to live on a dust
Indeed, throughout Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, both of the protagonists (Deckard and particularly Isidore) remark often on their sense of tremendous, terrifying loneliness and the deafening, maddening silence which at times seems to envelop their lives: “Isidore strode into the living room and shut off the TV… Silence… it assailed not only his ears but his eyes… he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive… The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.” (pg. 16). Both characters frequently experience a visceral sense of the world’s entropy, of the decay of all things, a theme so endlessly reinforced by the decay seen all around them. Isidore, in his odd way, refers to it as the ‘kipple-ization’ of the universe, wherein the detritus and junk that surrounds them will inevitably win out against all life — a great, swirling tide of degeneration: “No one can win against kipple… It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe.” (pg. 57). Whether you might agree with Isidore on some objective (or spiritual) principle is perhaps beside the point; for these characters, all they see is their sorld dusting away.
Clearly, such environmental devastation is no longer an alien concept. Staring down the barrel of ecological devastation, the ongoing advances of neoliberalist capitalism, and the failure of nuclear non-proliferation efforts, people deeply concerned about the state of the world often find themselves frustrated at an apparent total lack of representation. The consequences of this are, in fact, generally understated: whether depressed resignation, nihilistic political indifference, naked despair and anxiety, or the kind of confusion and anger which demagogues shamelessly exploit, the consequences of not having a voice within your own society are dire.
This sense of isolation and total ecological devastation arguably finds greater emphasis in Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, if perhaps only because decades have passed; while Scott’s film opens with an eye beholding an industrial landscape, Blade Runner 2049 opens with the image of an eye beholding tremendous solar energy installations which don’t seem to have any light to capture, installations surrounded by seemingly endless granite-like slates of long dead Earth (as we will later see, eyes serve as significant visual metaphors. What dust there was in the film 30 years prior is thicker now, laid heavier, the air at times seemingly more acrid and dense with smog, the buildings more dilapidated and collapsed, the silence more frequent, and only relieved by the mesmerizing Vangelis-inspired score.
Indeed, the impression of an effectively dead world bears plainly throughout. Our lead, a replicant Blade Runner designated ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling), soars in his dusty, worn-out hovercar over miles of lifeless dirt, tech, and slate to eventually arrive at a protein farm where a lone farmer cultivates maggots under rows of white-gray plastic containment areas. Interior shots of K’s hovercar look distinctly filthy in the way you might find an old CRT monitor, which has collected dust and grime for a decade. Soon after, shots of K flying into the greater metropolitan Los Angeles are so profoundly thick with smog (and dim of light) that the only things that seem to puncture it are a handful of neon-lit signs that designate corporations and their ads (or else the LAPD headquarters, a towering structure so dominating that it might vaguely remind one of the 2012 film, Dredd‘s Hall of Justice).
When K later finds a picture that prominently features a dead tree, a Los Angeles’ resident who sees the photo (the later significant ‘Mariette’ played by Mackenzie Davis) has to ask what it is, and upon remarking on its ‘beauty’, has to be told that it’s dead. In a following scene, K travels to San Diego, apparently now reduced to nothing more than a tremendous garbage heap of unprecedented proportions, a junk-world for desperate people who can scarcely even be described as an underclass, their exploitation and alienation is so complete. Tremendous concrete-looking walls appear to keep the ocean at bay, with ‘vents’ (potentially giant filters) that allow water to spill into reserves presumably for some variety of metropolitan use. A later trip to what appears to be an old Las Vegas resort contains glimmers of what was a nostalgia-laden reminder of plenty surrounded by a seemingly endless sky of sand, dust, and trace radiation. This is a society whose denizens are in a state of near utter alienation from the natural world, most plainly because there is effectively little to no natural world to engage with.
Of the many potential detrimental effects of climate change, it is ecosystem collapse that remains in many ways the most frightening threat. Ecosystems are supremely delicate and, in the context of rapid changes to our environment brought on by human consumption and production, could precipitously decline into virtual extinction within entire regions inside the next several decades (a process already well underway in the form of what is being called the 6th mass extinction). This is not something we can simply reverse; it took billions of years to create the stunning biodiversity of the Earth’s forests and oceans. Films like Blade Runner 2049 can serve an important function in depicting just what such a future world might look like, in trying to communicate how horrifyingly high the stakes actually are. Make no mistake: Blade Runner 2049’s environment is in many ways our world on its current course, and no amount of well-wishing will change that.
“We’ve lost our stomach for slaves.”
Summarily, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner 2049 is a bleak, smog ridden cyber-metropolitan nightmare, a concrete jungle full of people who don’t remember what a jungle looks like. Color is found in the streaking red-and-blue flashes of police vehicles, the neon phantasmagoric glow of advertisements and company logos from the very same corporations that helped precipitate the collapse of the environmental world. When the only light and color of note comes from the familiar, ‘comfortable’ logos of titans such as Coca-Cola paired with the flashing alarms of their public enforcers, the story of which socioeconomic forces won predominance in human society can’t be any clearer.
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Imagine Your Own “Artificiality”
Much like in Scott’s original film, one can’t rightly admire this neon beauty without being reminded of how empty, vapid, and soulless that light is. Similarly, what multiculturalism is on display is ultimately meaningless, no real triumph of pluralism and tolerance but rather market globalization’s diversification of consumer demographics (and in many ways, the erasure of genuine culture and community). In brief, everything is in service to profit in this future world, not unlike what many today are regarding as the experience of ‘late-stage capitalism’, though inherent in that label is the perhaps false assumption that capitalism cannot develop much further in its depravity; Blade Runner 2049’s world, at least, plainly suggests that it can get much worse.
—– an event inferred to be the result of scandals regarding ‘disobedient’ replicants, and a ‘great blackout’ perpetuated by earlier model Nexus units where huge amounts of data was lost in an electromagnetic pulse. Taking over Tyrell’s monolithic, pyramid-like corporate headquarters, Wallace engineers a new breed of replicant
Though Wallace HQ and the man himself bear the film’s most obvious biblical/mythological themes (an area where Scott’s influence seems clearest), one would be remiss to assume that Wallace is merely written as some kind of biblical allegory (though he is also easily interpretable as an Egyptian pharaoh seeking to construct new monuments to himself on new worlds). To the contrary, Wallace’s true, defining characteristic in the context of Blade Runner 2049’s hyper market-driven society is that of the merciless oligarch, the titan of capital driven chiefly by a relentless pursuit of profit and expansion. His seemingly godly stature is in that way important to understanding Blade Runner 2049’s world and its relation to that corporate dominance: though Wallace and men like him no doubt contributed greatly to the collapsing of the world’s environment and ecosystems, it was Wallace, which is to say capital and free-market industry, which came in for the rescue.
In other words, not only does capital get to destroy the world, it gets credit for saving it as well. Not unlike our own society, capital fairs no true consequence, faces no justice; though one of its brandings might be removed (Tyrell), another just as easily takes up the mantle. No opportunity can be left for the average person to earn a dime, no socioeconomically disadvantaged demographic is left unsold to, no bit of greenery can be found under all that is dust, broken, gone. To the extent that the ‘state’ still exists in a way that is relevant to the poor and working class denizens of Earth, it appears to function chiefly in the enforcement of corporate property relations (the minimization of the state in service to capital is common to cyberpunk). In this sense, Blade Runners serve as weakly guised corporate stooges who clean up after the malfeasance of their masters.
To the extent that Blade Runner 2049’s world has prosperous frontiers left for the more fortunate in the form of the off-world colonies (a feature of the world consistent between the book and both adaptations), they are built on the backbone of synthetic labor which feels, breathes, eats, sleeps, and as we quickly realize, loves. To quote Wallace, “We’ve lost our stomach for slave labor.” No amount of dignity can surmount the imperatives of profit, and Wallace, deluded into believing that he is a living God, makes for the ultimate industrialist because he embodies the ultimate devaluation of life. ‘Progress’ at any cost, the same myth, which so devastated life on Earth.
A terrible society requires a terrible lie, and the greater the lie, the greater the complexity of the false assumptions, arguments, prejudices and propaganda meant to sustain it. Blade Runner 2049 is so forward with the style and nature of these divisions that it essentially declares them out loud: early on, K discovers a body buried near the site of the first kill we see him make as a Blade Runner. Contained within are the remains of a woman who apparently died in childbirth. Upon closer examination (in Blade Runner style, with voice-assisted analysis imaging which allows for the magnification of extremely small details), K discovers that this woman was a replicant.
Lieutenant Joshi remarks that this simply shouldn’t be possible, and in a rather severe office meeting immediately thereafter she makes her fears plain: “the world is built on walls, K, the separation of kind. You tear those down, you buy yourself a war, or a slaughter.” The idea that replicants can give birth, she worries, that they can be creators themselves makes it plain that they are effectively human (‘like us’), and if that is true, then our unceasingly exploitation of them becomes plainly immoral.
The importance of the assumption that androids lack basic human emotional capacities like empathy is central to both the books and the films. If androids can truly feel and live as humans, if there is ‘no real difference’, then society will ‘lose its taste’ for a new breed of slave which, after all, is allowing for humankind’s expansion into the cosmos. Without the lies, which sustain the exploitation of an underclass in a system of domineering capital, of institutionalized racism, the luxuries of that exploitation lose all discursive legitimacy (and most threateningly to those holding the reigns, demands a fundamental restructuring of existing power relations). In short, it is because replicants can create and love, hope and suffer at deep loss that their exploitation is so fundamentally wrong. This theme is not alien to Villenueve and was featured heavily in Arrival.
As the film progresses, Villeneuve and company investigate the extent to which replicants are conscious beings in the process of discovering ‘the real’, the hand which feels the rain on its skin and is ‘there’. It is here that the isolation of Blade Runner 2049’s inhabitants continually reinforces and enlivens their deep need for genuine connection, communal relationships which the isolating effects of global capitalism actively undermines.
“I do hope you are satisfied with our product.”
In journalist Chris Hedges’ most recent book, Wages of Rebellion (Nation, 2016), one of the most difficult anecdotes he provides when discussing the thoroughly isolating effects of fascistic, oppressive rule takes place during WWII in the Warsaw Ghetto: “To be totally alone, even for those who faced certain death, was to be drained of purpose and meaning. There was a ferocious struggle to cling to life.” (pg. 101) Quoting for Hanna Krall’s Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Henry Holt & Co. 1986), Hedges relays the abysmal story of people who barely knew each other getting married just prior to being sent for ‘liquidation’, people so desperate for connection that they were “drawn to one another as never before, as never in normal life.” (pg. 101) What they sought, in essence, was the conjuration of a genuine bond (no matter how tenuous) above all else as a means to give context to their otherwise utterly destroyed lives. While I do not mean to compare the incomparable inhumanity of real-world events such as what happened in Warsaw directly to the events of the film (much as Hedges does not mean to suggest that capitalist systems are yet sending people to their deaths by the trainload), the idea here is that systems of oppression are inherently isolating, and this isolation accentuates the fundamental human need for connections which form our most essential identities.
Central to Blade Runner 2049 is K’s relationship to his world and that tremendous isolation is his holographic girlfriend, this ‘conjured’ relationship, a ‘product’ — perfect and charming in every way — named ‘Joi’ (Ana de Armas). It is through K’s surprisingly nuanced and complex relationship with Joi that Blade Runner 2049 first explores the question of what makes empathetic bonds ‘real’, what constitutes ‘genuine’ consciousness, love, and ‘being’, and how those bonds spring first out of an aching sense of being-alone-in-the-world.
Throughout the film, we see K’s relationship with Joi as a principle means of dealing with the shocks, stressors, and alienating effects of his everyday life. This is clearly established early on after K is forced to ‘retire’ a replicant who, most troublingly, spoke of ‘witnessing a miracle’ – a miracle later confirmed to be another replicant’s ability to give birth. He appears to first ‘grapple’ with this by ‘gifting’ his holographic girlfriend a presumably quite costly module, which allows her to accompany him outside of his apartment’s emitter array. His hope, we infer, is to strengthen his empathetic bond to this conjured relationship in an increasingly alienating world which actively resents him, much as we seek, however desperately, genuine companionship to help bear the burden of the tremendous difficulties which we have come to accept as merely part of modern life. The module he has purchased to achieve this, crucially, is sold and manufactured by the same ultimate object of his exploitation — the Wallace Corporation.
Joi, ecstatic at K’s surprise, is soon taken outside to a rain-drenched upper-platform of their apartment complex in what amounts to an epistemological (and arguably ontological) escalation of their relationship. It’s here that we first plainly see a recurring visual theme with ‘outstretched, grasping hands’ in their evaluation of the ‘real’: stepping outside, Joi reaches her hand out to the rain. Her holographic emitter, still calibrating, at first is only able to depict the rain passing through her hand, as if in confirmation that she is indeed not real; however, it isn’t long thereafter that the rain begins to impact her ‘skin’ realistically as if she has a true physical presence. This again escalates K and Joi’s relationship, this perceived movement from the virtual to the real, from ephemeral to physical (though it is soon thereafter shattered when an interruption from K’s superior throws the moment into stasis, literally freezing Joi).
This relationship takes a backseat during much of the film’s second act, however, to K’s growing crisis of identity and autonomy. K’s first sign of that development is conveyed early: when ordered to seek out and ‘delete all traces’ of the miracle birth he just discovered, we get a sense that he may not obey the full dimensions of this order. Remarking to his superior that ‘he’s never retired anything born before’, that ‘something born maybe has a soul’, his superior rebuts as he begins to leave: “You’ve gotten along fine without a soul.” He returns to the scene of his discovery and, in a visual motif which calls back to Blade Runner’s piano scene, toys with a piano before opening it up to discover a photo of a mother and child standing before the aforementioned dead tree.
Carved into one of the roots of this tree is a date which reminds K, as we later learn, of one of his presumably implanted child-hood memories: running about a seemingly abandoned industrial setting, K is chased by a gaggle of head-shaven children who want his coveted wooden horse. Before he is overtaken, he manages to stash the horse inside defunct machinery. A date is carved into the bottom of his prized possession, a date matching what he finds carved into that same tree looming over the grave of a miracle mother, a miracle birth. As he leaves he dutifully burns all other evidence, but the date (and the photo) stay with him. The witnessing of a ‘miracle’, as the Sapper Morton spoke of, is changing K.
Examining data of genetic material (at one point he addreses Joi’s basis in binary code as opposed to genes as “half as much but twice as elegant”), he discovers two entries which seem to match one another perfectly. The records show one dead, a girl, while the other, a boy, presumably lives. The ‘dangerous coincidence’ of the date carved into the tree is brought up by Joi, and its as he grapples with these surely overwhelming discoveries that she whispers in his ear: its ‘as she always said’, K is ‘special’, even ‘born’. The opportunity for K to discover that he was ‘born’ is of tremendous existential significance not just for the obvious reasons, but because we learn that K is fully ‘aware’ that his implanted memories are just that, implants (presumably due to his job as a Blade Runner). Imagine if the emotional basis for your identity, the memories, which form your being, were knowingly false.
In a sense, it’s because K is so apprehensive about the implications of his discovery that Joi’s comments almost seem taunting. When he suggests that K have a ‘real name’, ‘Joe’, it proves too much for K as he briefly bursts out at Joi. Is this the product of inappropriate programming, or does Joi genuinely want happiness for K? How complex is she, and as such, how complex is their relationship? Is the ‘realness’ of human relationship found in its complexity, sincerity, or both? It is in asking whether Joi is simply programmed for her affection that we can tangentially wonder whether we are simply programmed for our affection. Is it really just the genetic urge to procreate? Would that be different from a programmer urging its creation to love?
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“Real Human Responses.”
Determined to follow up on his discovery (even if it implicitly disobeys Joshi’s orders by going effectively off-investigation), K travels to an ‘upgrade center’ to ask a few questions of a ‘dream creator’, someone who creates the implanted memories which help to keep replicants docile. We are introduced to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), an utterly isolated woman living in a literal albeit-large bubble as she suffers some kind of presumably autoimmune disease, given everything she needs to live comfortably ‘except for other people’, she briefly and tenderly laments.
Her memories are the best, she explains, because the others don’t understand ‘how memory works’, because ‘authentic memories equal real human responses’ and ‘we recall first with our feelings’. We get the sense that Ana lives in a world conjured entirely of her own long-ago memories (one of parents who had to leave her on Earth after she fell ill), reenacting emotional bonds as deeply as she can remember them through her work, through the ghostly visages of children’s birthday parties and expeditions into living forests now long dead anywhere but her dreams turned memories. It’s a melancholy doubled in potency when you consider that her memories are merely leashes on a company product with a tendency toward rebellion, that the crucible of replicants’ sense-of-being in the world is merely a manufacturing process catered to ensure their life-long consignment to corporate profit.
When K asks her to examine his own memories so that she might determine whether they were ever ‘real’ or not, she examines him via some kind of scanning technology. She is moved to tears: “Someone lived this yes. It’s real.” In an outburst that in the consuming environment of the theater quite literally jolted me, K screams, perhaps at his needless suffering, perhaps in outrage at his deceptors, perhaps in a wave of sheer, confused, distraught reliefnce again in a period of about 48 hours
Back at LAPD headquarters, he’s subject to another ’empathy test’. The changes are clear: his voice, his expression, his timing are all less rooted, less precise: “You’re way off your baseline.” Escorted to Joshi’s office, K tells her that he ‘found the child’ and destroyed it (a lie true only insofar as he believes he’s found himself, that he is the real child in the records). Joshi shows clear relief, and in what could be mistaken for motherly affection, tells K that she’s giving him time to ‘get a head start’ on what would presumably be K’s very own Blade Runner knocking at the door of his ‘retirement’.
Returning home (and to K’s growing relationship with Joi), we find that Joi has invited the prostitute (or ‘doxie’) Mariette to their home, the same K explained the tree to. “I could see that you liked her,” she remarks with a kind of resignation. It’s clear that just as K is advancing further into this realm of ‘the real’, of a more ‘legitimized’ existence, that Joi wishes to proceed in that evolution with him, to continue the transition from the digital, the simulated, to the physical and visceral. Tellingly, this is in spite of K assuring her quite convincingly that, so far as he’s concerned, Joi absolutely is real. Joi insists: by ‘syncing’ her image with Mariette’s movements, Joi simulates as best she knows how true physical engagement. The visual effects here are tremendous: as Mariette moves, so does Joi to varying degrees of synchronicity, a clear hybrid between true physicality and Joi’s ideated image at a point in the film where the two are blurring more ‘clearly’ than ever.
The scene is again a testament to Villeneuve and company’s talents, taking your typically obligatory Hollywood love scene and giving it tremendous visual and thematic depth in a way the technological genre trappings of science fiction could only accomplish. It’s following that we see Joi rather contemptuously ask Mariette to leave, noting that she’s ‘done with’ her now. It’s here that who Joi is becomes clearer: whether the result of her programming or not, Joi is just as emotionally and intellectually complex as any replicant. Her emotional vulnerability communicates that no matter what she is made of, she is very much a fully conscious being.
Proceeding, she further establishes her desire to ‘make their relationship real’ by insisting that K deletes her from their house-bound backup so that K’s pursuers can’t use it to track him down. By deleting her backup, she only ‘exists’ on the portable emitter K purchased earlier. The implication is that the ‘true’ relationships rests with their growing emotional and physical vulnerability, something Joi understands more readily and intuitively than K. What Villeneuve and the scriptwriters want to say here is clear: bonds of love are substantiated by risk (again, a strong theme in Arrival). Genuine ‘human’ connection necessitates the threat of loss. By moving to this level of existential uncertainty, Joi and K are paradoxically reinforcing the existential foundations of their bond without a single strain of real human DNA between them.
It’s as the film moves into it’s third act that the contrasting role of another principal character, the replicant Luv (a tremendous Sylvia Hoeks) whom serves as a sort of ‘right hand’ to Niander Wallace, begins to fully develop. Tasked with finding the ‘miracle child’, she decides to track K after an initial meeting where he seeks information on the dead mother. Early on, her interactions with K are layered; when she informs him that her name is Luv, K expresses perhaps something close to amusement: “Must be special.” Luv’s expressions — what they betray never entirely clear, thanks to Hoeks detailed performance — seems to border between self-reflection and some kind and a hidden doubt.
Though at varying points we see Luv full of either fear, rage, or frustration (shedding tears on several occasions), there are as many instances where she appears a combination of calm, focused, and even further like her master, utterly ruthless. To provide example of the latter, when K’s investigation first takes him to the San Diego trash-heap his hovercar is shot down by surface-to-air missiles. Surviving the crash, what look like scrappers commence to break through K’s door security. While K initially defends himself ably, his desperate attackers (numbered in the dozens) begin to be targeted by what can only be drone fire.
With bodies and their respective limbs brutally flying about the scene, we repeatedly cut back to Luv commanding the strikes with cool precision from a small headset back at Wallace HQ, impeccably dressed and quite literally having her nails done. As she chides K to ‘do his job’ from her distant haunch, the scene might be all too familiar to audiences tuned into the modern horror of dehumanization that is drone strikes. Luv’s dedication to her master’s corporatist mission and the bourgeois detachment with which she kills dozens of poor, destitute people reduces human life to the priorities of profit (the unthinking, unquestioning discourse of ‘mission’), the deed itself so removed as to play out like a game. When K soon after finds at least a dozen children huddled inside a shack, we wonder whether it was their fathers that were so casually murdered.
However, if anything remains consistent across Hoek’s performance in that it underlies all that ruthlessness and cunning, it’s insecurity. The crux of this insecurity, we might realize, lies in her suffocating need for approval from her creator, Niander; in a later scene where the two are alone, we can see Luv’s devotion to fulfilling Niander’s demands, to living up to his perhaps casually-distributed title of ‘best angel’. While the expectations set are ultimately unrealistic, we get the impression that Wallace is not a stranger to this form of manipulation: Luv, as a victim of his god-complex, is unable to validate herself because the existential validation she seeks is external to herself, and as such, not truly within her control. It’s the manners in which Luv and K respectively seek said validation that ultimately distinguishes them.
K and Joi’s escape/ongoing investigation takes them to what looks like an old performance hall in what appears to have once been Las Vegas, Nevada. It is here that K is finally introduced to Deckard, now an old man in hiding.
Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford (IMDB)
Living in total isolation save for a single maybe-real dog, surrounded by the trappings of a glamorous past much as he no doubt sits alone with the tapestry of his own ruminations, Deckard and K’s initially violent confrontation finally gives way somewhat comically to a barside chat. Asking for K’s name, K begins to give Deckard his designation when he cuts him off and insists on his real name. It is perhaps because this is the first time K has been treated like a person deserving a ‘real human name’ that he finally takes up the mantle: “It’s Joe,” he admits to himself. It’s here we learn that Deckard is the one who cooked up the duplicate genetic entries to help hide the miracle child, the miracle child he fathered together with Rachel (1982’s Sean Young). Joe, believing himself to be that child, asks why he’d leave his own like that. With some resignation, Deckard unhappily replies in very much the form of an isolated, borderline-nihilistic, disaffected noir lead: “sometimes to love someone you gotta be a stranger.”
Joe’s time with Deckard is soon thereafter cut short when they realize Joe has been tailed by Wallace Corp. An attempted escape results in disaster: Deckard is captured, Joe is nearly killed by Luv, and Joi’s remote emitter is destroyed under her boot: “I do hope you were satisfied with our product,” she so viciously taunts him. It is in Joi’s final moments that she tearfully assures Joe that she loves him, a flash where we see the complexity, sincerity, and ‘realness’ of Joi’s love expressed as a ‘real human response’, a final validity granted to their bond by terrible loss, a connection codified, again, by vulnerability. It is after Deckard is shipped off when Joe is rescued by a group including Mariette (who began tracking Joe along with whatever group she belongs to since her visit to his apartment, slipping a transmitter into his coat).
It is at this point that both Deckard and Joe are confronted with a final existential challenge to the most important relationships of their lives, and by extension, much of their entire sense-of-being in the world. Now back at Wallace HQ, Deckard is confronted by Niander. Not long into their discussion does Wallace begin to taunt Deckard’s sense of ‘what’s real’, suggesting that the focal point of his life, his relationship with Rachel, was orchestrated by Tyrell Corporation specifically to test Rachel’s capacity for child-rearing — that everything about her was designed with scientific precision to allow for Deckard to ‘fall for her’ the moment he saw her in that ‘perfect moment, that what to Deckard was effectively the divinity of true love was merely a corporate orchestration. Deckard, moved to tears, confides himself as he confronts Niander: “I know what’s real.”
Unrelenting, Niander offers him something at least as cruel as seductive in exchange for his cooperation: a full recreation of Rachel as he remembers her decades ago, right down to her clothing, makeup, and gait. A shattered Deckard looks her in the eyes, then walks away: he rejects Wallace’s temptation because this ‘Rachel’s’ eyes tell him all he needs to know — that this isn’t the one he loved, that ‘the bond that was’ is unrecoverable no matter how much it can be materially duplicated. Wallace rather unsurprisingly is unable to grasp this, immediately commanding Luv to execute the replacement while promising Deckard that he will be tortured for his insubordination in the haughty, absurdist tones of a wrathful-yet-composed deity. As the film continues to assert later with Joe, whether an object of love is materially unique is inconsequential to the opportunities for a true relationship.
Apparently tracked by a group of replicant freedom-fighters, Joe is met with their leader following his rescue, the one-eyed Freysa (Hiam Abbass). Freysa, building an army inspired in large part by the miracle birth (Sapper Morton a former member), argues that “dying for a cause is the most human thing we can do” before confiding in Joe that it is necessary to kill Deckard before Wallace can extract the truth of the child’s identity from him. Joe’s reaction implies clearly to Freysa that he believed he was the miracle child when it was in fact the girl of the pair found in the records. His gaze utterly crestfallen, Freysa comforts him: ‘we all wish it was us’. As Joe looks out at the huddled replicants, he realizes he’s no different in their search for validation and identity.
Strolling outside dejectedly on a rain-soaked platform, Joe sees an advertisement for Joi. Giant neon billboard aside, the model on display is precisely the same as the Joi he just lost, again promising him love, companionship, and a salve to his feelings of alienation (for a price). The similarities end with the eyes, however: the advertisements gaze is eerily black, devoid of any humanity. We see the resignation-turned-acceptance on Joe’s face: he won’t be purchasing another Joi. Joe, like Deckard, has made his choice. What made their relationships unique, ‘special’, cannot be materially duplicated even though the objects of the initial relationship, particularly in the case of Joi, were in fact manufactured and not materially unique; though the eyes serve as the film’s visual cue for this distinction, we might assume that the two would reject their lover’s duplicates regardless because it simply isn’t the point. In other words, what substantiated these relationships in the hearts and minds of one another was entirely immaterial — conjured rather, as with all human or indeed conscious meaning, in a shared and carefully cumulated set of genuine emotional responses.
Sylvia Hoeks (© 2017 Alcon Entertainment, LLC. / IMDB)
The film moves into its conclusion as Joe tracks down Luv and Deckard. Disabling their vehicle enough to force a landing, Luv’s craft lands at a shoreline and water begins to flood the vehicle. Joe and Luv’s fight eventually appears to end with Luv’s victory: “I’m the best one,” she childishly goads (her domination over Joe an apparently key manner of validating this to herself, assuring that she is the ‘best angel’). Joe, managing to temporarily recover from his wounds, catches Luv off guard as she works to free Deckard from the sinking vehicle. In a scene that takes on an oddly baptismal tone, Joe slowly drowns Luv by holding her under the water, her life slowly draining from her as she looks up at his shifting visage. Much as the enclosed light of the hovercar’s quickly sinking interior afloat in the total darkness of the sea can be conceived to resemble a kind of womb, it’s as Joe finally stops Luv (and the Wallace Corporation) that a new world is arguably born for replicants.
The results of this confrontation brings the final distinction between Joe and Luv into full relief: while Luv sought her validation via the belief that she was the ‘best one’ — a replicant who could stand above the others who had effectively touched the face of God — Joe’s devastating loss and ultimate sense of disillusionment at the realization that he is not special releases him into a full accounting of his agency, frees him to make his own choices and determine his own meanings. It is the difference between seeking existential validation externally, as is the case with Luv (whether from a fickle, cruel ‘god’ or from anyone else), and discovering that validation internally. Whether Joe was or wasn’t the miracle child doesn’t determine the authenticity of his being because that authenticity cannot be sourced materially, much as the bonds both he and Deckard shared with their respective digital lovers transcended the crass material convenience of capitalistic duplication, the false promise that happiness can always be ‘bought’. It is in realizing this agency and true sense-of-self that Joe spares Deckard: no matter how large or consequential the upcoming confrontation between Wallace and the freedom fighters is, the power of Joe’s realization allows him to make his own, true choice that says no to a final act of violence.
Carla Juri (IMDB)
Entering the final scene, Joe takes Deckard to whom he realizes is the true child, the dream-weaver he met with previously, Ana. It is here that the hands again play an important visual role: after Joe sends Deckard in to meet her alone, we cut to Ana holding her hand out as if to catch snow, snow which, projected from her imagination, passes through her hand immaterially. Calling back to the earlier scene where Joi’s projection calibrates itself in the rain, we are reminded of the earlier existential escalations, which focused on physicality, on material authenticity, baser validations which the film by now has transcended. Back outside, we see a perhaps mortally wounded Joe lie down and stretch himself out, gazing upward at the falling snow. His outstretched hand is real as the snow lands softly, and we can see on Joe’s face the subtleties of contentment.
It is in this visual metaphor that the film finally wraps up its theme, and the theme of the previous film’s story, and Dick’s novel. Each indicates that spiritual authenticity does not require material authenticity (or ‘uniqueness’), that synthetic beings of sufficient complexity are, for all existential purposes, real, authentic sentient beings. The previous film communicated this in Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final haunting words about the unique character of his experiences, about all the moments ‘lost like teardrops in the rain’ of otherworldly material experience mixed with the swirl of immaterial feelings of joy, fear, hope, and courage which composed the meaning of his brief, tragic, exploited, violent life.
“Electric things have their lives too.”
Android, Blade Runner, and Blade Runner 2049 presents us with a dystopic vision of a post-apocalyptic world hurdling toward further spiritual and environmental entropy, the ‘kipple-ization’ of all things. It is dour, grim, and cautionary in the way of the best science fiction. Each work asks, in its own way what is still the central query, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”
The question is not merely a clever title, nor does it refer solely to the question of whether androids are human-like on a theoretical level, but rather, it asks us to wonder whether these synthetic beings dream of social mobility like we do, of a better life for themselves and the ones they love in much the same way the Deckard of the original work seeks social mobility through the purchase of real animals. This want of a better life and of recognition of the value of our own individual experiences in a society which seems to fundamentally devalue those experiences — Dick and the works he inspired seems to suggest — is very much human, authentic. Furthermore, the suggestion that sufficiently complex digital lifeforms could feature such human characteristics is a fundamentally subversive one for us as a species: after all, if what we are can be reproduced materially, then perhaps there is truly nothing immaterial about us that makes us ‘special’ (undercutting centuries of thought on the ‘divinity’ of human life). If so, we are merely genetic blueprints as they are synthetic ones, alone, without any true god of note, finding our own meaning.
As all the various inhabitants of this horrid future contemplate who they are, what is real, and what they want for their futures, so too do we with them. So too do we awe at the destruction of our own environment, so too do we despair at our inability to do anything about it, so too do we dwell in alienation at what our role is in a society so thoroughly subservient to the dictates of capital, so too do we seek our place and our identity in a world which seems to want to rob us of our right to it, a world which devalues our individual experiences, a world which seems to leave us alone, isolated, yet still eyes beholding and hands outstretched. So too do we dream of electric sheep.
Editor’s Note: This article originally published, erroneously, with edit marks still intact. It has since been properly updated.