First up, the boring part of the review: Blade Runner 2049 is amazing and you should go see it. It is a very good heir to the original Blade Runner, if only because it compels you to think about the original in a new way. Even down to basic questions like: ‘Could the original Blade Runner be made today?’ ‘How do we feel about the legal/political/social questions of the original movie today?’ and ‘Should we think more closely about the genre of film that seems to be defined by multiplicity of versions?’
It is a beautiful movie that somehow matches sophomoric and boring questions about authenticity with much more difficult questions about technology and sexuality. The movie is closer in substance to the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner than to the Final Cut: there’s very little ambiguity about the content of the movie, and the movie does a lot (too much for my tastes) to make it really, really clear where we’re up to in the story. I would have been happy with many of the movie’s questions to remain unresolved. In a sense, even the biggest questions from the plot don’t really need an answer. I look forward to watching a dozen edits of this movie over the next three decades.
For those of you who unwisely avoid spoilers, here is where you should stop. I want to discuss a few scenes in particular, and why some of the criticism about the film’s sexual and racial aspects are unwarranted.
The preview to this movie was awash in ‘bisexual lighting‘, but the film itself provides a sharp interrogation of heterosexual fantasy. In the year 2049, sex isn’t taboo. Holographic billboards of naked women are clearly visible to pedestrians in the main streets, and brothels are brightly lit with frosted glass barely concealing the activities going on inside.
The protagonist, K, has bought a holographic woman who creates the performance of the monogamous, heterosexual housewife. K performs the physical acts necessary for his ongoing survival (cooking something cheap and nasty from a can), while indulging in the fantasy that it is something else (the computer overlays his food with an image of a steak prepared by his virtual hausfrau). Where K becomes unstuck is his desire to actualise the fantasy: he can’t physically interact with his virtual partner, but purchases technology to make ‘her’ more mobile and lifelike.
Given infinite options and unlimited freedom to indulge any sexual fantasy, K replicates conventional gender roles instead. The CGI partner is not really a woman, but he uses it to realise his desire for a particular kind of female who performs in particularly feminine ways and who responds to him in ways that make him feel masculine. It/she tells him how clever he is, how special, and how unique. It/she tries to interact with him in ways that makes him feel attractive and desirable, while he purchases ‘gifts’ for her (the remote projector) that make it/her more immediately accessible to him.
This exploration of his home life results in a commentary about the real-world link between sex and industry. For all its claims about being subversive and liberating, the sex industry does far too well at normalising performing conservative gender tropes. It is, fundamentally, an industry. It seeks to increase demand for its product, and to appeal to the widest range of people with the narrowest range of goods. Blade Runner 2049 shows us a world where markets have been liberated without a corresponding shift away from heteronormative, conservative gender roles. And it shows how sad and isolating that world will be. K rejects interactions with other women in order to preserve the fantasy of the faithful, monogamous, dutiful partner to his life partner (whom, remember, he purchased and controls). He is emotionally retarded because he can’t open himself up to adjacent experiences, but does whatever he can to preserve the integrity of that fantasy.
Two scenes respond to this. First, K uses a sex worker to occupy the physical space of his CGI girlfriend. As he interacts with her body, the computer tries to disguise the actual bodily interaction with the perceived fantasy. This is an incredible scene and there are so many different ways to engage with it. K attempts to to align both his imagined fantasy and his sensory experience. But this raises so many questions: why does the sex worker agree to this? Apart from the plot elements, what does it mean when a person is giving somebody access to their body so that they can fulfil a fantasy that doesn’t involve their identity? Isn’t this what we mean when we discuss objectification? But, conversely, isn’t this what we do with everybody given that other people are fundamentally and inescapably unknowable to us?
If I bump into an attractive woman and we try to chat each other up, aren’t we engaging in exactly the same kind of behaviour as K? Don’t we overlay that person with our fantasy of that person? Further, isn’t there some violence in this act of trying to get others to fit into our fantasy spaces?
In K’s example, this goes even further. He only wants the sex worker’s body insofar as it conforms to his fantasy and performance of the heteronormative gender roles. When he kisses her lips, he imagines the lips of the girlfriend that he has programmed and controls. When she touches him, the CGI makes it seem like the virtual girlfriend is touching him instead. Worse, when the sex worker wakes up the next morning, it is the virtual girlfriend who dismisses her. The fantasy regulates his interactions with others, and limits the ability for others to interact with him.
The thing that shatters his fantasy is not the inconsistency between the real and the imagined. Having to hijack another woman’s body in order to play out a fantasy doesn’t create an irreconcilable conflict. What creates the conflict is understanding the nature of the fantasy. As he crosses over a bridge, he sees a version of his fantasy girlfriend as advertised to the masses. She’s the size of a billboard, naked, and has blue hair with jet black sclera. Not is he immediately confronted with the Madonna/Whore conflict — here is the woman with whom he was engaged in a monogamous, heterosexual, conservative fantasy being on display for every man who walks over the bridge — but he is also confronted with the realisation that his fantasy is mass produced. There’s nothing unique about the intimacy he experiences from his industrially-produced partner. There’s no authenticity to the desires that were purchased.
K really only has two options available to him. He can either incorporate this new aspect into his fantasy — the fantasy has enough depth to accommodate a lover who shifts through roles depending on the context: sometimes she is the mousey-brown haired partner who wants an emotional connexion, sometimes she is the blue-haired nymph wants a physical connexion — or the fantasy has to shatter. In this case, it is the latter. He simply cannot accept a fantasy object who does not conform to the fantasy space.
It’s this part which, I think, gives us the best social commentary. His fantasy is both a product of the economic machine in which he’s situated and is only sustainable to the extent to which he is wilfully ignorant of the economic machine which produced it. His desires are not natural, and neither of any of ours. All of our ‘born this way’ rhetoric and our reduction of sexuality to a ‘Choice versus Nature’ dichotomy stems from an inherent need not to look under the hood and inspect the machinery of our ideological framework. The less we look, the less we risk being confronted with things that we do not want to see.
This brings us nicely to the other core question of the movie. Where K is struggling with his Madonna/Whore paradox, everybody else is wrestling with the idea of the ‘perfect’ artificial woman. It extends a conversation that was sketched in the original Blade Runner: is the goal an artificial woman with intellect and emotions that are indistinguishable from a natural man’s? And, if we attain that goal, haven’t we created something that is worthy of moral consideration, worthy of legal rights, even worthy of being loved?
Blade Runner 2049 plays with this question through the filter of the hypercapitalist dystopia in which it’s set: isn’t the goal of an artificial woman to breed? 2049 is in no way concerned with the intellectual, emotional, or spiritual aspects of the replicant that Jared Leto is trying to create. Instead, he is solely concerned with its ability to reproduce. A replicant is born into the world, covered with birthing slimes and coughing as it/she fills its/her lungs with air for the first time. Jared Leto slashes it/her across the stomach because it/her is infertile and, therefore, not the perfect artificial woman.
In 2049, we care less about the creative capacities of her mind and more about the creative capacity of her womb.
Again, we are back to the discussion about the performance of gender roles. In the original Blade Runner, we were happy for female replicants to act as hyperintelligent pornography. One replicant allows people to indulge the fantasy of a snake woman. Another replicant is created for the purpose of giving basic pleasures (and spray paints herself in the face, and hides herself among the dolls). But here, we want something more than mere pleasure and sexuality: we want her to bear children and play mother.
Anyway, this film is amazing. Go see it. Enjoy!