Blade Runner 2049 & the Future of Human Sexuality
Let's get one thing out of the way right off the bat. When I heard they were making a sequel to Blade Runner, a formative film in my early engagement with sci-fi, I pretty much screamed in rage.
Yeah, I was not on board.
Why? First of all, I'm pretty sure there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who ask why I would be mad about a sequel to Blade Runner and those who totally get it.
Okay, so I'm being a little sensational. Let me explain myself. But before I do, fair warning: I'm about to spoil the ending of the original Blade Runner. But then again, the movie came out in 1982. So, if you haven't seen it yet ... well ... (deep breaths, Mikel ... it's okay ... remember to love people).
First of all, the fact that seven versions of Blade Runner have existed throughout the years has never really helped the movie. But still, it's been a widely influential sci-fi/neo-noir film. The strongest version of the film is the Director's Cut, in my view, wires and all. The Final Cut that was released on Bluray in 2007 is fine as far the story goes--it's quite faithful to the Director's Cut. But the overcooked newly imposed CGI placed on top of the already amazing miniatures and matte paintings of the original film just didn't work for me.
One thing is consistent with those two versions at least: the ending. The end of the Director's Cut of Blade Runner leaves us with a fascinating question: is Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) a replicant or is he a human? Replicants are technologically advanced bio-engineered machines. They look human, even have human memories, but they are actually machines. The ending of Blade Runner is left open to interpretation as Deckard runs off with Rachael, a replicant he's fallen in love with.
The mystery of the ending is one of the things I've always loved about the original film. Is Deckard simply a machine engineered to destroy his fellow machines, or is he a complicated and rather dark human being. I think the film can support either reading. But there are some key implications depending on which way one interprets the film.
Central to Deckard's job as a Blade Runner (or rouge replicant hunter) is that he administers a test to be able to identify if someone is a human or a replicant. This is a very crucial aspect of the story. The test hones in on someone's ability to empathize. Replicants don't do as well in the empathy department. This is their tell.
Tigger Warning: Before I go one, I should caution that my analysis is going to deal with the topic of rape. I recognize this can be a trigger for some people and I want to allow readers to opt out if they would like to. Also, I want to unequivocally express that under no circumstances do I condone rape.
There's a pivotal scene in the original film that changes context depending on how one interprets the ending of the film. Deckard essentially forces himself on Rachael, who resists at first and then gives in. It's an important scene in either interpretation.
If Deckard is a human, then a strong argument can be made that he raped Rachael. And while Rachael is a replicant, not a human, the reality still remains profoundly disturbing, though potentially consistent with Deckard's worldview that has allowed him to exterminate so many other replicants in his line of work: a lack of empathy for replicants. Dark, but consistent. We're left with the question then of why Deckard chooses to run away with Rachael in the end and are his motivations pure or not. In this reading, I'd have to say Deckard is not a hero.
But what if Deckard is a replicant himself? If the crucial sign that someone is a replicant is their lesser ability to empathize, is the scene between Deckard and Rachael a rape? It seems to me that one of the essential ingredients to making love is empathy for the person with whom we share such an experience. But if replicants are lacking in empathy, are they capable of truly making love? Or put more simply, are machines capable of making love? This reading leaves a lot more questions about Deckard and his feelings toward Rachael and even her feelings toward him. It's still dark, but this is film noir after all. But how we might feel about Deckard and his behavior likely changes in this reading if we see both him and Rachael as non-human.
With the mystery of the ending of Blade Runner left unanswered, audiences have been free to react to the sex scene in the film and the notion of who Deckard is and what it says about him if he is either human or replicant. How people interpreted the film was a revealing insight into how audience members saw things. I'll admit that I've long held the interpretation that Deckard is a replicant himself. For one thing, it feels like a satisfying twist to the plot (and feels true to Philip K. Dick's fabulous novel the film is based on). But I also recognize that choosing this interpretation likely reveals how I see things. Seeing Deckard as a replicant allows me to see that sex scene as something complicated and not quite human given the exchange between two beings lacking empathy for each other (though, it is then fair to ask if they are even capable of love). Or maybe it's just the fact that I feel like if Deckard was a human, than what he did to Rachael--even though she's a replicant--still means he's an asshole, to my mind. And I just don't want to root for an asshole. After all, I believe the choices we make say as much or more about who we really are as they do about any situation we are in, which is why I am unilaterally opposed to things like rape and torture.
So, this is why I screamed when I heard a sequel was in the works that included Ford as Deckard. That instantly messed with my head. After all, replicants are supposed to have a three-year lifespan. How could Deckard still be alive and decades older if he was a replicant? Or were they answering the question that Deckard was human after all, and did I really want to go see a film that resolved the mystery by, in my view, painting Deckard out to be a rapy asshole? As long as the mystery remained, the film seemed to exist in a "Schrodinger's Character" scenario where he was both until one settled on an interpretation. The sequel meant an interpretation had been picked for us. Because of this, I have spent much of the last year rolling my eyes at the news coming about the developing sequel.
So why did I see it?
Well, I am a sci-fi fan. I'm a Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners) fan. And I'm a huge fan cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Doubt, The Village, Fargo, and so many others). So, seeing the trailers, I felt like I ought to at least see the film to give it a fair shake and see what this talented team managed to put together. After all, as far as I was concerned, it's mere existence was already like opening Schrodinger's box. The damage was done. So, let's see what we got here.
So I took the plunge and saw the film.
And ... dear God ... I think I like it!
Okay, subtle spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 coming up now!
What the creators of Blade Runner 2049 managed to do was to navigate a difficult reality of what an aged Deckard means in the context of the original story. He can't be a replicant since he's lived longer than three years, right? But with subtleness and incredible plausibility, 2049 offers up a new view of Deckard and the replicants as a whole in a previously unavailable context to us. In this sense, the new film is actually a perfect sequel. It properly expands on the original rather than simply living in its shadow and functioning as a nostalgia piece (though it falls into some nostalgia with some cameos of the original cast). And the story doesn't shove in our faces new information about Deckard. We have to slowly piece it together as we go, gaining new insight into who Deckard is and the messy world in which replicants and humans live side-by-side.
The most fascinating aspect of 2049 to me is that the film also expands on the concepts of sexuality and love in a bleak technological noir context. It's a lonely reality even as it is a world crammed with people and replicants shoulder-to-shoulder. And while the notion of sexual contact between humans and replicants existed in the original film, 2049 takes things a step further with the reality of emotional relationships with completely artificial and non-corporeal digital beings. I think a much longer academic article can--and should--be written on this aspect of 2049, including the notion of replicant sexual surrogacy for a non-corporeal digital being.
And before you dismiss this all as perversion masquerading as intellectual curiosity, I think it is worth remember that sci-fi often addresses important questions about where we are headed. Her asks us about love with non-corporeal digital beings and the isolation this creates in its own way. Ex-Machina has a character (and the audience) falling in love with an android that is nakedly an android (literally), and who ends up seeming most disturbing when she covers up her exposed robotic body with human-like skin. These films ask us about where we are headed as a species. What does it mean to love another being that is non-human? Are we losing our humanity? This is a reality we will face--are already facing--as a species. Don't believe me, here's just one very creepy article (there's plenty more out there).
2049 succeeds as a brooding cyberpunk film that is worthy of careful attention. The film did not perform well at the box office on opening weekend. The studio behind it admits it overestimated the film's audience given the cult following of the original (read more on that here). I think they should have seen that coming, though. Especially given the nuanced and open ending of the original film. But 2049 is still likely to end up being a lasting bit of cinema that while not lucrative like yet another Transformers or Marvel flick, will be long remembered by cinema and genre fans when most of those other films will have been completely forgotten (read more on that prediction here). After all, that's exactly what happened to the first Blade Runner.
That being said ... this 2049 skeptic has been won over. I crave thoughtful science fiction that isn't targeted at children and mass markets. Honestly, I've lost track of what Marvel movies are out. I keep coming across them on Netflix and thinking, I should watch that. But, somehow, I'm just never in the mood! Meanwhile, while I may have my issues with the fact that the studio system still can't get it into their thick heads that not everything has to be part of a franchise, I am glad that the 2049 team managed to make a film that is quite worth watching multiple times and discussing at length. As far as the exploitation of previously developed intellectual property goes, 2049 stands as a solid example that sometimes it can be done well, even if most of the time it is not. Maybe it would be nice if more people would go see it. I agree with Thompson over on Midnight Pulp when he writes, "I don’t want to oversell it, but it would be a drag if we sent the message to Hollywood executives that they can’t make sophisticated big budget movies like this without losing their houses."
Was this a fluke? Was I wrong to be so negative when first hearing the news of the Blade Runner sequel? I don't know. I still feel quite justified in my feelings considering how most sequels tend to turn out. Maybe we can find out if lightning strikes twice. After all, they are rebooting The Matrix. And I want to scream, "Dear God, why?" But maybe I will be proven wrong again.
But I kind of doubt it.