Blade Runner 2049 is thick with ideas that don’t actually stack well together because the foundation is that of parable rather than science fiction as descended from Brave New World. But it does work harder than the original, and not just because Robin Wright shows up and is amazing.
There will be spoilers, of course, but this goes on for 3100 words so you’re likely to get bored before you get to the spoilers if you’re not following what I’m talking about. Anyway, let’s start with a direct look at the structural flaw.
The structural flaw is this weird belief (executive producer) Ridley Scott–whose odd relationship with the Bible gets a nod from Mr. Wallace and will have me pulling in verses here–seems to have that people want to make artificial people (as comes out of Alien) for purposes of labor, likely made popular by Brave New World, and while it is historically true that a disposable labor force–the given purpose of replicants–has their labor exploited for the ends of others as Mr. Wallace and/or Lt. Joshi duly observes, the historical record shows that the purpose of slavery was to avoid paying for labor: when automation becomes available, enslaving humans is inefficient. Even Foxconn knows this. So what we have here is not so much science fiction as a parable where “replicant” is the Americanized term for “proletariat.”
The term has to be Americanized because the economically classed society under a hot mess of corporations (presumably merely wearing the skins of old brands like Atari and Peugeot, which started in the coffee industry) makes the discord of society tangible: in the second scene K returns home past all of the bitter and hateful and presumably unemployed actual humans to his adoring AI chattel. As a replicant, K is supposed to rank below the natural bums in the hallways and yet even he has his own fawning fake love-slave to keep him emotionally grounded. Two things are in play here: the larger economy makes a place for those who serve its operation, and will also create mechanisms to control those who serve, cheaply and en masse.
The creation of mass control isn’t intentional, it’s a side-effect of restlessness. Joi’s holographic presence doesn’t really do much for K; she serves–again with the feminine servant AI trope as noted by Dr. Bell–as a mental balm to keep him moving. Joi has a programmed desire to elicit appreciation that creates an attachment feedback loop she recognizes as love, and she feels that desire for the both of them. K has no surfaced desire: he merely buys (directly: Joi is a consumer product from the Wallace corporation) into the fantasy on the expectation that the semblance of normalcy is what he’s supposed to be desiring. Joi’s function is to focus and absorb K’s desires in a simple and predictable way. It combines a simple, primal desire with a painful loneliness, earlier crystallized in–for example–Mr. Robot when Dominique is talking to her Amazon Alexa. This point isn’t accidental: Mr. Wallace named his not-Rachel personal assistant replicant “Luv”–which is to say that he thinks love can be grown in a vat and commoditized.
The economic class system gets messed up even further when Joi orders K a hooker–that is, a person/proletarian with a physical body–so she can project herself over the hooker’s body to fuck K. This is a thing: AI will use the bodies available to it to whatever ends it believes will please its master(s), and that’s true regardless of whether the AI is complex and advanced or just a decision-making flow chart that doesn’t place a value on human life while pursuing profits. The scene is both super-creepy and the most expert of commentary on how out-of-control the global economy is.
All of this economics-talk depends on K doing something valuable for the economy, or at least for somebody with money, but how that works–much like today–is not actually clear. The movie opens with him hunting down and terminating a isolated farmer. The farmer is doing the hard and awful work of being a Grub Rancher to supply protein to the large urban population, work that is important even if it isn’t very highly valued. And K, with his regular job, apartment, and AI chattel, kills the isolated and harmless replicant who was doing exactly the kind of hard and thankless labor replicants were supposed to be doing: the work deemed too physical for actual humans. In much the same way we deport the “undocumented” people who seem like they’ll be easy to deport rather than the ones who are a threat, killing the farmer comes off as a counterproductive effect of an economy that has misaligned its spending to prefer some behaviors (stock buybacks) and neglect others (product innovation).
See, there’s a lot going on and we don’t even know what’s going on yet.
What’s going on is that Deckard and Rachel had a kid with a little replicant commune and Rachel died in childbirth, but building more on Battlestar Galactica than on the generally superior Orphan Black, this is treated as amazing and important. It’s super unclear why replicants would ever have functional reproductive systems–“Tyrell was a mad godlike genius, creating things that didn’t need to exist so of course he’d give them a reproductive system that could both work and kill the mother in childbirth!” is a less acceptable answer than “It’s a parable, not sci-fi.”–but it’s somehow important for our story. And this somehow threatens the social order because all of the replicants/proletariat inherently understand that they need to seize the means of (re)production but haven’t stormed the Wallace headquarters where they’re spawned (full-grown from ziplock bags)? Again: “It’s a parable, not sci-fi.”
But this core plot point brings us back to the heroic narrative where K comes to believe that he is somehow more than a soulless replicant, that he is a real human who was desired and loved by real parents. And the course of his investigation takes him to an “orphanage” which is actually a scrap heap sweatshop, presumably not unlike what can be found in slums across the global south. What is immediately obvious but never actually said is that all of these children–the only children in the entire desolate movie–are the real human children that, you know, have souls and/because they were loved by parents. And the film can’t say it because if it did then it would have to drop that ridiculous claim and end up where it really wants to go which (I think) is that you don’t actually get a soul, you have to make your soul out of how you interact with other people.
And that’s the how-and-why of describing interaction with machines, even very clever machines, as “soulless”: if the machine is always pursuing a particular objective, even if it’s the happiness of the user, then the person using the machine is basically interacting with a mirror. It can be good practice, it can refine the elements of what is already there, but it does not add material to a socially-formed soul. (Related: Jesus told his followers to pray in private, but invoke him while in a group–those are Matthew 6:6 and Matthew 18:20.)
There is a huge amount that can be read into the imagery of the orphanage (and the real aberrant behaviors of the real-world economy writ large), but K misses all of it because he’s wondering if he might have a soul. And he thinks he might have a soul because he has flashbacks of the orphanage and finds a relic from the past. This leads him to question which memories are real and which memories are implanted, except that all memories are functionally implanted: we implant them on ourselves in the act of remembering, which is really the process of recalling what we remembered last time we did it and trying to patch in whatever we’ve forgotten until it makes sense–this is just basic neurology these days. But it’s also how the filmmakers screwed up the memory from the orphanage, because perspective changed.
My paternal grandparents lived in the same house for many decades, but they were in northern Washington so we didn’t visit often. And one of the solid memories I have of my youth is remembering that they had a hallway off of the living room to get back to the far end of the house where the spare bedrooms were. So we go up to visit them, having not seen them for several years, and I’m trying to remember everything I can about their house: the hallway, the big hill up the back of their property, all the details. And we get there… and there’s no hallway, really, it’s just a linen closet of division. The hill up the back of their property isn’t so large either. The memories I had formed were in proportion to my small physical size in the earlier encounter; as a teenager everything looked completely different. Growing the last few inches into adulthood and looking again, it was smaller than even my consciously revised memories. If you don’t have a grandparents’ house you can try that with, then check out an elementary school some time: you remember them being right-sized when you were there, but they’re tiny now.
So when K remembers being a kid in the orphanage, he remembers it outside of his own perspective: the metalwork that would be immense to what he remembers as his diminutive body is indifferent to his adult size. Oops.
One element that is particularly strange about the memory-making scene is the cast of characters at the birthday party are all in sharp focus, but it’s not clear that there’s anything to them. To borrow from (I think) Gibson: there’s no there there. The virtual anonymous happy faces form a self-blending crowd who won’t have names or personalities or even be remembered, so why are there such sharply focused faces?
I barely remember anybody I went to college with, not even the woman I got stung by a Portuguese Man-of-War with in Australia. When the 20-year high school reunion Facebook group popped up I realized that I didn’t actually know most of them, either. I can’t just remember somebody in isolation, I can only remember them contextually. This goes back to the social construction of the soul: we are only memorable in a perspective-shifting context of relationships. Without an external agency that extends beyond the self, the memory is just a self reflection rather than an ability to think outside of the self into a different perspective–it is soulless in the same way interacting with an AI is.
Consider the memory maker’s work at a birthday party: all of the kids are happy and cheering and there’s cake with candles and that’s how a birthday party is supposed to go. But does it ever really? To me the scene looked like they were trying to make a stock photograph, trying to elicit a particular response in the same reflexive way Joi might, because the goal of the synthetic happy memories was to provide something even shallower and cheaper than commoditized AI chattel to keep the replicants/proletariat emotionally grounded. And the goal–the emotional grounding–makes a lot of sense, both thinking on Hellboy and on Dark City, but, recalling Dark City makes the precision of shallow memories come across as extra-dubious.
All that aside, the time at the memory-maker’s place leads K to believe that he is The One which is a toxic narrative handed down to us from at least The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus loses multiple crews of soldiers, sailors, and loyal followers–in no small part because he’s not satisfied to be immortal and fucking the demigoddess Kalypso–who are nameless and don’t actually matter: they are the disposable labor on Odysseus’s quest. Infernal Affairs summarized the “great man” narrative with succinct bitterness: how many thousands must die for Caesar to be great? The egomaniacal individualism that has saturated culture, chronicling make-believe kings and inviting people to treat themselves likewise, feels good to listen to but–like interacting with an AI–doesn’t build our capacity for soul.
So it’s no surprise that Joi pushes the notion on K that he’s a real human, that he had real parents… for whatever they were worth: we saw the orphanage with our own adult eyes and he remembers that same orphanage from his childhood; what’s special? How does that make him more heroic? The irony here is that Joi is just following programming and guessing at K’s desires before he consciously formulates them in an uncontrolled way: she guesses that real boys have names so she names him Joe, she supposes that real boys get laid so she calls Boober (“It’s like Uber, but for prostitutes”). Joi’s attempt to give K a “real soul” is thus a spectacular misfire from its consumerist foundation on the belief that K is more or less real based on what other people did before he came into the world and can be decorated with external tokens of realism. (Contrariwise, consider the words written in Isaiah 56: “Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people’ … to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters…”)
The movie doesn’t want you to remember that Joi is just a very clever shell script. The movie–perplexingly–wants you to think its writers got lazy when K reconsiders himself to be Joe Chosen One and leaves work to go look for daddy Deckard in a long annoying scene of normalized (to my eyes) antisocial masculine violence. And then Mr. Wallace’s folks show up and cart off Deckard. And then the Boober shows up and carts off Joe Chosen One. Harrison Ford has a more convincing torture scene than he had in, for example, The Empire Strikes Back, and Joe Chosen One learns that he’s just o-K after all, for which I was very grateful. And these are the last two things I want to talk about.
First of all, K becomes a radicalized proletarian/replicant terrorist. They don’t actually say that, of course, he’s just told that Mr. Wallace can’t be allowed to have Deckard and the easiest way to put a stop to that is killing Deckard, and dying for our cause is what will make you a real boy. For realsies. And so, coming out from his fantasy world to realize his consumer-grade AI girlfriend was a consumer-grade AI, K sets off to make a name for himself by killing Deckard, or at least baptizing replicant Luv/drowning artificial love, who we already knew shouldn’t be able to make it out of this movie alive.
But let’s spell this out very carefully: K isn’t a cop anymore, he’s a rogue replicant working on the instructions of other rogue replicants to go and kill not just people but people who act with state-level impunity. This would brand him as a rebel generally, but–as an affluent real human–any media report I would see on the incident would call him a terrorist (because despite his whiteness, he’s a replicant; see also the haters outside his apartment). And this reminds us of and works with what we’ve read in Camus’s The Rebel and Hedges’s War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and that’s great, except that I can’t help but notice that it makes the collateral damage look heroic. Even if he’s not Joe Chosen One within the film, K is our focal point, our protagonist, and he started the film with killing a farmer, and he’s ending it by offing an Uber XL driver. And so the clever criticism of the heroic narrative is somewhat undone by focusing on the violence that the common man is capable of wielding while trying to prove his place in the tribe/society/species.
Second, WTF is seriously going on with the Tyrell/Wallace corporations? And we have to ask because Joshi–and, again, another shout-out to Robin Wright–understands that legacy hierarchy and order of society and how it’s both problematic to maintain and messier to let collapse (as we see when we realize K is a radicalized terrorist, and from reading Niebuhr). But Wallace is apparently doing something I–in my volunteer work as a high school debate coach–almost sympathize with in building superior humans and pushing them to make the future a better place where lazy humans aren’t supposed to be upper-class just because their parents had sex. And this is strangely like what the replicant rebels say they’re trying to foment by seizing the means of (re)production. But if Tyrell’s last work was to give replicants the means of reproduction and uncapped lifespans, then how is it that Tyrell, and the replicants, and Wallace aren’t all on the same pro-replicant side of history? Doubling down on that, the memory-maker for so many of the current generation of replicants is intimately tied up in exactly all of that, so do they–either collectively or any particular faction–have a line for subliminal suggestion to align the replicants in their uprising?
The storywriter Fancher definitely left an opening for where the story arc can go, but it probably shouldn’t: parables don’t get sequels. The incoherencies in this plotline that work when we’re talking about the proletariat but are inane when we ask why a civilization that would make AI holographic girlfriends would also make artificial people instead of custom tools suited for particular jobs would be too much to bear when the Marxist replicants realized that Engels was totally bourgie and used that to justify siding with Wallace to wipe out all of the normies.
One strange outstanding item are the ongoing references to off-world colonies: replicants were originally used as off-world labor; Wallace claims that they’ve colonized nine worlds and he wants more; a vendor offers K passes to get off-world as if it’s more desirable than the overpopulated hellscape that is what’s left of Earth. In this, Blade Runner is the opposite of (previously noted Ridley Scott film) Alien where all of the action was off of Earth but because of Earth; here all of the action is on Earth but because of off-Earth (that is, replicants). While the movie does a good job of picturing what environmental collapse looks like, it fails to explain why Wallace would hang around on this hellhole.