The world of Blade Runner asks a lot of its audience. At once futuristic, abstract, and startlingly familiar, the newest installment injects audiences into a dream-like expressionistic landscape populated by replicants, holograms, AI, dazzling architecture, and the occasion human being. Surprisingly, 2049 manages to explore themes of humanity, companionship, and the relationship between the sexes that most science fiction stories leave either completely untouched or woefully underdeveloped.
This general analysis does contain spoilers.
Feminist critics argued upon the film’s release that it was unfriendly toward women. It’s the same old critique feminism uses against anything that portrays a reasonably realistic vision of the future, so their complaints are easily dismissed. I would argue, however, that 2049 depicts a post-feminist society, one in which feminism has achieved all of its stated goals and triumphed over whatever they were claiming to fight in the first place. Blade Runner 2049 reveals a world without families, where both men and women are obsolete, where everyone is free to pursue their own economic interests, and where sex is about the only thing that people still pretend to be motivated by. Far from being a dystopia, 2049 reveals a feminist paradise, or at least, what one would look like.
But feminists aren’t happy with it, because even they can recognize a bad thing when they see it. No one in their right mind would want to live in that world, even while our world marches steadily toward it.
In order to explain this, we have to backtrack a bit; the place replicants hold in the Blade Runner world is important in order to understand what place humans hold there, because ultimately, Blade Runner isn’t about replicants. It’s about the world they live in.
So first things first: Officer K. Ostensibly, 2049 is about his untangling the mystery of a miraculous replicant birth that occurred some years in the past. More concretely, the movie is about K just trying to get along in life, navigating the bureaucracy of his job, the loneliness of his life, the lack of place for him in the world, and desire to be more than an apparent machine. His lack of humanity is insisted by side-characters all around him, as well as implied by his job, but aside from the serial numbers engraved into various parts of his body, he seems no less human than his boss.
And that’s the point. K isn’t distinguished as not-human because he isn’t living; by all available evidence, he is living: he has a girlfriend, even if she’s artificial, he receives a paycheck, he participates in the economic market by purchasing products and goods, he has tasks and responsibilities and fits neatly into his career, operates out of an apartment, and he even owns a bed, makes food out of a kitchen, entertains himself with books, and drinks. And presumably, like his Star Trek cousin Commander Data, he’s fully functional and anatomically correct, if the cyberpunk sex scene implies everything that can be reasonably inferred. So the divide between K and a real human isn’t that one lives life any more than another. The replicants of 2049 are quite capable of emulating life so well that it’s difficult argue whether or not they capture the essence of the life that they act out in letter.
The replicants existed for slave labor, remember. The few replicants of the original Blade Runner were deemed already off the rails by the time they appeared on Deckard’s radar. Their capacity for human emulation, pursuit of life, and their care for one another would originally have been interpreted as deviations from baseline—presumably. 2049’s introduction of K as a properly-functioning replicant already capable of emulating all of those things throws a lot of that out the window. And his status as a newer model seems irrelevant to all of that. And it’s because, despite appearances, 2049 isn’t asking about the status of replicants relative to human beings.
It’s not as if JOI was assigned to K as part of some baseline management system, nor does the apartment seem to be a simple holding cell in buried in police HQ’s basement. Although certain limitations have been placed on K’s agency, he is, for all intents and purposes, already a free agent in all of the ways that the society of Blade Runner requires of him. He is the perfect worker: a literal artificial cog, free to pursue his pleasures so long as he shows up for work. In the purest definition, he’s not even a slave—he gets paid for his work even if he is theoretically incapable of questioning it. It’s no wonder he’s such a relatable character. He’s a guy whose entire life is trapped on all sides by his profession.
This simulacrum of existence, played out in dramatic form by an artificial protagonist, forms the foundation of what Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately about. The simulacrum veils the urban world in an impulsive cloud of immediacy. Automation, holograms, and the plentitude of wealth enables the on-demand service of just about any discomfort that can be envisioned. As a result, the city lives predominantly in various states of squalor, contempt, and moral ruin. If the ‘average joe’ remarks are to believed, then K is every bit the stand-in to be expected; he is the baseline for the city’s functioning, be it comprised of replicants, humans, or a statistical mixture of the two. All seem to live more or less the way K does: cordoned off into apartments, doted on by digital lovers, picked on by overbearing bosses, and worse, harboring few prospects of retirement, passing interests in menial vacations, and no hope for the future.
And what is the future, anyway, given the ever-suffocating presence of urbanism’s immediate now? This is a world in which “Do what you feel like” has fulfilled nearly all technological prerequisites to function. Men act righteously in order to ensure the existence of a future; remove that future as a discernable, knowable reality, and the discomforts of the present turn from trivialities into catastrophes. Technology sweeps in to fill the void left by that predictable, hope-filled future, and pretty soon, every minor inconvenience is tended to not by the perseverance of the human spirit in spite of its frailty, but rather by the mechanical tickings of machines built to make life more convenient.
And so we arrive at the replicants. Created in order to ease the tedium of Modern inconveniences, the replicants of 2049 have advanced in technological ability to the point that even they are plagued by the overbearing boredom of Modern nihilism. The world of Blade Runner conveniently masks the degree to which replicants can think, will, and feel, but for the sake of 2049, it seems mostly irrelevant. The question of 2049 isn’t are replicants humans?, but rather, what the hell are humans in the first place? That the film only features three humans of any importance is enough to imply that.
In case it isn’t obvious by now, 2049 is depicting, with visual flourishes, our world: one in which teleology has been replaced by utilitarian fulfillment. The replicants are stand-ins for what Modern Man increasingly approaches every day: philosophical zombies capable of impeccably emulating human action but who lack conscious thought and, resultantly, an authentic will of their own. This is our starting point. Square one. Officer K.
The women of 2049 are separated categorically into three types: artificial intelligence, replicant, and human. If classical metaphysics applied to the world of Blade Runner, those categories would exist on a scale from real to less-real, with human at the top, AI at the bottom, and replicant somewhere in the middle. But Blade Runner doesn’t quite seem to operate that way—the replicants are probably much closer to the top than they ought to be, possibly sharing that peak with humans.
In any case, we have five women in the movie. K shows some degree of interest in all of these women, and they’re all important to the overall plot of the film even if they service its themes in varying degrees. First, we’ll give a brief outline of these characters in order from least to most relevant, and then take a look at comparing how their presence in the story impacts K’s alienation in the world of Blade Runner.
Lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright, is K’s boss at the police station and the only woman to fall into the category of human. Amusingly, she’s also one of the least important women in the film. Joshi, both childless and apparently loveless, has exchanged fulfillment of her womanly duties with the prospects of a lively career in public service. She’s presumably quite powerful at police HQ, capable of keeping under wraps the horrible conspiracy brought to life by K’s investigation. She is also, as is revealed in the scene the two of them share at his apartment, deeply lonely. She would have to be, considering the degree of alienation 2049’s world requires of its inhabitants in order to be believable.
Second-least important of the women K directly interacts with is Stelline, a doctor of memories contracted by the evil genius supervillain (Jared Leto) to create the artificial memories that are implanted into his production line of replicants. For the sake of the plot, she’s probably the most important person of the movie, for reasons that are largely irrelevant to this analysis. For K, however, she’s a mildly attractive women, the key to his investigation, and, most obviously, she’s literally untouchable. She has to spend her entire life behind glass due to an auto-immune disorder or some sort.
Next on the list, the third-least important woman of the film: Mariette, a replicant prostitute played by Mackenzie Davis. Ostensibly tasked with leading K into the hands of some cell of replicant anarchists, Mariette also happened to be the prostitute hired by K’s live-in girlfriend somewhat late in to the film. She’s sarcastic and flippant, somewhat unafraid of danger, and as we found out at the end, a member of some sort of replicant cult who wait for the intercession of a messiah to lead them out of servitude. Exactly what that means remains ambiguous, given that replicants seem more than capable of altering their programming enough to begin thinking for themselves, and considering that all of the replicants we see in 2049 are paid for their services according to the principles of reasonable market exchange.
Now we get to the last two who are effectively of equal importance. Our supervillain’s secretary/assassin/sales associate named Luv is a deadly replicant and K’s main foil throughout most of the film. She’s only slightly psychotic and spends much of the movie shadowing K, using him to track down what she seems to be looking for. She’s tough, she’s menacing, and she’s any sad man’s dominant girlfriend fantasy brought to life, complete with both business-casual attire and a form-fitting bodysuit.
Lastly is, of course, Joi, the artificial intelligence K purchased at some point prior to the events of the film. Designed to be a customizable companionship AI, K uses her to keep his barren apartment a bit less empty. Unlike the others on this list, she is purely artificial and lacking even in the most basic elements of human freedom. She’s confined to holographic emitters, limited by her programming, and, in essence, only a more sophisticated appliance: a pretty, amusing, fun, pandering, expensive answering machine that looks great wearing yellow Teflon ponchos.
Blade Runner 2049’s uniqueness reveals itself with how believable most of this technology is. An artificial intelligence as sophisticated as Joi almost exists today; the only thing lacking in the current world is the holographic technology necessary for her to manifest in front of us without the use of AR glasses or a VR headset. But ‘person’ behind the lightshow? We’ll have something similar to that before the decade is out.
The last woman, left unseen save for flashbacks, is Rachel. Her importance on both the plot and the themes relevant here are intertwined, since she’s the only replicant known to have produced offspring the way humans do: by giving birth. This makes Rachel the only mother seen in either Blade Runner movie, and amusingly, she’s not even a human being.
Rachel, however, isn’t a character in the new film. She’s reduced to the status of being a matter of historical record—motherhood, something clearly important as it sets the whole plot of 2049 into motion, is not something anyone really believes in anymore. Human women don’t seem to do it, if Joshi is any indication, and human men seem more interested in reproducing the human genome in synthetic form, using replicants to fill in the holes in their economy. Meanwhile, a booming sex trade exists comprised of these synthetic humans and used, presumably, by humans and replicants alike.
But Rachel is the key to the whole issue. Love, in classical terms, has always served a purpose greater than simply servicing the two people who experience it. It binds together man and woman, creates a family through sex, and maintains that family through the growth of that bond. Love is not a combination of chemicals and matter, although in some respects it operates through those things. As the people get older, the love changes in how it manifests but not in form.
Missing from any potential relationship in 2049 is that love. No woman that K interacts with can have kids. Women are free to pursue their interests and dreams, as Joshi embodies, but in exchange they have nothing left waiting for them at the end of the day, and no one to carry on their legacy or lineage at the end of their lives. Men, too, are cornered by their libidos, which instigate them to find love even if it is only to fulfill one aspect of that bond, but are offered instead the glib facsimile of a loving partner in the form of sex-on-demand.
What is of even greater horror, perhaps, is the Joi system itself. Everyone recognizes that love has been drained from the world and replaced with the hyper-flat simulacrum of sexual pleasures. Emotional connections are so rare that artificial intelligences are designed by corporate interests to simulate wifeliness and caretakers. This reflects capitalism with an honesty that’s hard to come by; the market recognized where the demand was and suitably powerful corporate interests expanded to fill the gap. The only thing the denizens of 2049 lost in the process was their dignity.
This is why that iconic trailer shot of the billboard-sized Joi remains one of the more haunting images in the film. K knows it’s all a charade. He knows it’s all a sham. And at that point, after his Joi has been destroyed by Luv (in an amusing but ultimately empty set of puns), he’s come to recognize genuine bonding where it’s possible even if he’s missed out on all opportunities due to the circumstances of his existence. This kicks off the final sequence of events in which he saves Deckard from torture and death and reunites him with his daughter.
Now, think about all of this. When Blade Runner 2049 came out, feminist critics asserted that it wasn’t an enjoyable film for women because women are ineffectual and robots throughout most of it—and worse still, the most likeable woman in the whole film is a glorified kitchen appliance that the protagonist carries around in his pocket. That’s a fair assertion, but it’s hardly a criticism; it’s not an enjoyable film for men in that regard, either. The only men in 2049 are washed-up has-beens incapable of saving themselves or emotionally-stunted machines who can only pretend to be human. This is why the world of Blade Runner is the world of feminism; women have been absolved of their biological imperatives, and men have been released from their duties as husbands or fathers. It is only ironic to the Modern mind to find that this obliterated any semblance of a meaningful life, and that it rendered the distinction between real humans and their artificial imposters impossible. It is only ironic to a Modern mind to find that removing the basis of family from society turns interaction into a series of emulations, simulacra, and idleness.
The question for contemporary audiences is, will we survive to the point that the more fantastic aspects of Blade Runner cease to be fictions and become realities? We’re certainly close now, with increasing automation, post-industrial capitalism, wanton secularism, the present and absurd dialogue on gender and sexuality, attack on the traditional family, and the increasing pressure on educators to pretend like men and women are sexless automatons. But still today bastions of faith survive to ensure that we don’t succumb entirely to the automated future: A Benedict Option, if you will, to keep at least one hand grasped on sanity even while the other flails around to maintain our balance.