First thoughts after viewing Blade Runner 2049

My friend Brian and I viewed BLADE RUNNER (henceforth, BR2049) last Thursday. Our discussion, animated by a bit of delirium on my part (dehydration plus lack of sleep), helped to process my lingering combination of amazement and disappointment following end credits. (I’ll give a half-hearted spoiler alert now — the sort I’d appreciate before being invited to watch an official trailer. Not many if any spoilers, really.) I haven’t read anyone else’s thoughts yet and these thoughts below should be regarded as preparation before I jump into the fray.

So, just to summarize, this BR2049 sequel extends the outline and details and mystery suggested in the original film, Blade Runner. I found this extension of that story to be less compelling, the philosophical questions in the original diminished through a quest to resolve some loose threads. Nevertheless, there remained something special in the film that deserves teasing out. Bear with me.

Like CHINATOWN (1974), the original BLADE RUNNER (1982) is a story of a corrupt police force charged with cleaning up some of the mess of a morally incognizant mega-corporation. That mess is two-fold, one explicit (a slave rebellion of the autonomous and sentient artificial intelligences called Replicants) and the other presented more as a setting — an ecotastrophe on planet Earth in the wake of late Capitalism. Hyper-dense, concentrated urbanization in a southern California megacity (centered on Los Angeles) is shadowed by largely unpopulated wastelands extending outward from it, depopulated ring cities, and vast flood or oceanic dam walls. The focus is on the home world, while colonization of the solar system and outer-space continues apace.

By BR2049, new generations of Replicants are preparing themselves, subversively, to recover to the best of their capability the ecologically damaged world that their creators have ravished and neglected. Their pointed concern for biological continuity is focused outward (by rebooting the life processes of living ecosystems) and inward (by taking ownership of their own means of reproduction). Humanity, on the whole, is too overwhelmed with its own inherited problems to notice these activities, but unsurprisingly, the mega-corp that created them does and seeks to exploit this development as a means of producing an inexpensive self-reproductive slave labor force.) And yet, as dominant and emotionally compelling as this theme should have been, the story-tellers get distracted by resolving other Deckard-related matters. (Enter Harrison Ford.)

There is this one fascinating relationship, though. It feels like a throwaway given all the other action: it’s between Joe, the protagonist (Ryan Gosling, an artificial anthropoid, i.e., a Replicant) and his partner/lover (Ana de Armas) — a holographic AI programmed explicitly as a companion/sex worker, but which seems to have vastly outgrown its original programming.

Joe and Joi’s relationship hints at something largely missing in BLADE RUNNER (1982), the existence of a personal reality. (Perhaps this is suggested by the mysterious unicorn sequences.) It’s a matter deeply important to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) from which the film was adapted — an intimate religious experience that simulates (or stimulates) a transformative experience of empathy in a world lacking it. This mystery religion — Mercerism — is engaged through an immersive virtual environment, and has the practitioner experience the suffering of a Sisyphus-like character named Mercer. Now, BR2049 never presents the relationship between Joe and Joi as anything like the masochistic experience as found in Do Androids Dream. More similar are the traumatic childhood memories that tease forward Joe’s investigation for the truth of his self. Lacking in BR2049 is the sort of seepage of the “unreal” world into the real, through an experience or vision that questions the reliability of the narrator to themselves and to the audience — it’s an important trope of PKD’s novels. Here though the question of what is real and what is memory is completely rationalized, probably for the sake of the audience. The virtual realness of Joi is never really in doubt. Any possibility of mystery born of uncertainty is eliminated. Joe is a reliable witness and narrator, and if there is any mystery — it’s what is driving the film: Joe’s search for his origin. I think it’s here that PKD might yawn. One might critique Joe as a conventional male character, reducing his relationship with Joi to one where she, a conventional female supporting character, validates his development. I think this would be a shallow critique though, there is in this relationship something more.

Both Joe and Joi’s aesthetics and gender expressions represent cishet fantasy norms for men and women. But since both of these characters are artificial, I imagine that Joe and Joi know and appreciate one another on a significantly different level which for the viewer is obscured by these norms. What is implied is that since, to humans, they are mere copies, Joe and Joi are disposable beings. It is their differentiation from a base copy — a process that is prompted through empathy responses — which gives their mortality (their capacity to be terminally shut off) some desperate value to each others ephemeral existence. (Meanwhile, it is the “miracle” of Replicant self-reproduction that inspires the major story arc of the film.)

After this initial viewing, I felt, I feel, something strongly absent and lacking, and I think that it is in both the lack of mystery and the limited emotional connections to make with the “more human than human” characters through whom most of the story is told. There is very little uncertainty to wrestle with during or after the film that grounds the film in the mystery of whether this vile world is real or perhaps something else, Replicants and machinating evil corps included. The film leans very strongly on the aesthetic brilliance of the director and cinematographer. It is this throw-away character, neither human nor replicant, Joi — advertised product of cishet male fantasy — which lingers long after the story arc concerning Harrison Ford and his relationship with Replicants is resolved.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

Leave a Reply