Do We Dream of Electric Sheep Like Blade Runner's Corporate-produced Replicants?

Ryan Gosling as K in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) (IMDB)

The isolation of Blade Runner 2049's inhabitants continually reinforces and enlivens their deep need for genuine connection, communal relationships, which the divisive effects of global capitalism actively undermines.

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.

At the center of this corporate corrosion lies humanity's post-collapse savior: Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Like the commonly traded myth of most any great industrialist who 'single-handedly' transforms society for the better, Wallace swoops in following the ecological collapse of the 2020s and the dissolution of the original's Tyrell Corporation --– 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 that is decidedly more obedient ('easier to spot'). Having engineered a less troublesome version of the slave caste, he utilizes their brutalized labor to expand human colonization to 'nine new worlds'.

Wallace also pioneers the production of synthetic foods, which prevent the total collapse of human civilization on Earth. Early on, we see K preparing some of this 'food', squeezed out of what looks vaguely like electrostatic-proof packaging. The result is a bowl of translucent 'noodles' accompanied by pitch-colored garnishings. A bit later, K visits a market/Red Light district complete with a food court where residents hit large, colorful buttons representing the artificially colored and flavored 'food' they want. The food-dispensing devices are reminiscent of our current vending machines, only much larger. Given the corporate dominance of Blade Runner 2049's world, one can reasonably expect that this is all anyone in this dystopian existence has the opportunity to eat due to the total lack of fresh produce or traditional animal products: a society where you've effectively no food choice but Coca-Cola, Hostess, and Frito Lay -- commercialized foodstuffs for an utterly exploited populace which unwittingly trades their health for complicity in corporate profits.

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.

Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling (© 2017 Alcon Entertainment, LLC. / IMDB)

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.

Following an investigative dead end at a deplorable child-slavery operation in the ruined trash-heap of Sand Diego, K wanders the industrial ruins. This place is all too familiar to K, bearing a rather precise resemblance to the industrial ruins of his 'implanted' memories. As he slowly wanders (and the score takes the tension to consuming heights), he finds 'his' childhood hiding spot. It's as he reveals the wooden horse with the date unmistakably carved into the base that we at last see K overwhelmed as his sense of 'what is', 'what's real' again undergoes a tremendous advance. It's while he later attempts to reckon with his discovery emotionally that Joi continues to encourage a seductive but no-doubt terrifying narrative: "you're a real boy now."

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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