In Defense of Blade Runner 2049
-By Adam Timmons-
Against my better judgement, I’ve been perusing Twitter, Youtube, and other corners of the internet to get a sense of people’s reaction to Blade Runner 2049 and I’ve been disheartened to find that a great many people are being very vocal about their dislike of the film. I’ve seen it referred to as “empty” and “shallow,” particularly in comparison to the original. I do not understand this criticism, as the film is figuratively overflowing with content to discuss, decipher, and interpret at virtually every turn. Blade Runner 2049 is every bit as engaging and astounding as the first film, and it has so much to offer narratively, philosophically, and atmospherically.
Take for example the character of Joi. Introduced early on in the first act, Joi (Ana de Armas) is a holographically projectedAI that serves as a romantic interest and companion for the film’s protagonist K (Ryan Gosling). Their relationship is one that is founded on emotional intimacy, not physical contact. As a hologram, Joi cannot touch or be touched by K and can only go where her projector—fixed to a linear track that runs the length of K’s apartment—will allow. The physical limitations placed on Joi become a compelling visual metaphor for the intangible, but very real limitations that women face every day. In fact, Joi’s first appearance sees her dressed in the style of a doting 50s housewife, clearly meant to place her in the role of housekeeper and caregiver. However, Joi is able to transcend these limitations somewhat when K buys her a portable projector that allows her go anywhere he brings the device. While this frees her from the confines of the house and the role of housekeeper, she is still tethered to the portable projector and by extension to K. Her arc seems to run parallel to that of the women’s movement; her freedom is conditional and there are still some things that she simply cannot do.
If that were all that was interesting about Joi’s character, that would be enough, but there’s still more to unpack here. The unconventional relationship which K and Joi share seems to be a point of contention or controversy in the world of Blade Runner 2049. In a conversation where a group of sex workers discover that K has a relationship with Joi, one of them remarks that “he’s not into real girls.” This one line, seemingly innocuous, cuts to the heart of one of the film’s biggest philosophical questions: what does it mean to be real? The sex worker who utters the line is a replicant, a robot designed to do manual labor in place of actual humans. Therefore, the distinction she seems to be making here is one that hinges on substance: the replicants, while robotic, still have a body and can be considered realwhereas Joi’s ethereal form relegates her to the status of a facsimile, a cheap substitute. This position is challenged by other characters in the film, including K. In one of the film’s more bizarre moments, Joi hires one of the sex workers from the earlier scene to come act as her body so that she can have sex with K, telling him “I want to be real for you,” to which he replies “You are.” K already sees and acknowledges Joi as real because to him, realness is not tied to physicality. While he doesn’t elaborate further, the implication seems to be that Joi’s sentience and personality and enough to prompt K to view her as real, as a person in her own right.
Further complicating this issue is another tension that exists in the film: that between humans and replicants. Just as some of the replicants treat holographic AI like Joi with disdain and dismissal, so too does much of the human population look down on replicants. Their creation and use for the purpose of off-world labor and their treatment at the hands of humans in the film make replicants an obvious analogue for African Americans and other exploited minorities. To further this comparison, the humans in the film use pejoratives like “skin job” and serial numbers in place of names to put distance between themselves and their robotic counterparts. Because replicants were engineered and not born, they are seen as somehow subhuman, as not real. As K so eloquently puts it during a conversation with his lieutenant (Robin Wright), “To be born is to have a soul.” The distinction this time around is more abstract: it isn’t a body that makes one real, but a soul. This makes K’s personal journey through the film all the more compelling. Upon discovering that he might in fact be the first replicant born into this world instead of manufactured, he begins to have an existential crisis. He is torn between his loyalty to his lieutenant and his desire to be real, to validate his existence and break free of the limitations of being a replicant in this dysfunctional and highly prejudicial society.
This question of reality is perhaps best embodied by the mystery surrounding Deckard: is he a human or a replicant? This ambiguity regarding Deckard’s true origins is carried over from the first film (at least, some versions of it) and is addressed by the film’s de facto antagonist, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). In a cryptic conversation between the two, Wallace seems to suggest both possibilities are true, and Deckard’s response is simply this: “I know what’s real.” Presumably, he’s talking here about himself, but the vagueness of his response here leave room for speculation. Is he talking about himself? If so, what exactly does that mean? Our instinct as humans ourselves might be to read this as Deckard insisting on his humanity, but I’m not sure that’s actually the case. Consider this: with the introduction of the idea of replicants that can be born instead of made, the physical distinction between humans and replicants becomes negligible. They can propagate as a species now, just like humans can. Deckard knows this, as he is the father of the replicant child that the film revolves around. Therefore, he may very well be acknowledging that he too is a replicant, but that this makes him no less real than other characters in the film. For Deckard, then, what makes one real would seem to be self-determined. The film does leave room for alternative interpretations of this pivotal scene, however, prompting its viewers to come to their own conclusions about the nature of reality instead of trying to make a definitive stance one way or the other.
Some might choose to see this as a shortcoming of the film, that it is more interested in posing questions than asking them. I don’t think this is, strictly speaking, true. The film might not offer a definitive answer to the question of who among us is real, but it plays out in such a way that several different characters each offer a thoughtful response to the question. Thus, the film doesn’t offer one answer to the question, but many different answers. It is a film marked not by a single truth, but by possibility. Where some see a film that is “empty” and devoid of subtext, I see a film marked by deep introspection on some very powerful questions. It may appear “empty” at times, but those moments of atmospheric quiet are there for the audience’s benefit to allow them to ponder the deeper implications of these questions: What is reality? Can a robot have a soul? Can love transcend the boundaries of physicality? What does it mean to be human? For each of these questions, Blade Runner 2049 has not just one answer, but several. I urge the detractors among you to give it a second chance, you might be surprised at what you find waiting for you.