Though it has now haunted me for nine months, when I first saw Blade Runner 2049, I did not find it very impressive. The Blade Runner of 1982 is a mad miracle of a movie and a hard act to follow. Though it would not likely be considered a very good film by most conventional metrics, it is widely regarded as a classic. In terms of plot and theme, it borders on incoherence, but it creates such an indelibly moody array of impressions that it gets by on something like the strength of Ridley Scott’s deranged personality. Yet Blade Runner is little use as an interpretive guide to its belated sequel, for though they share a name and a handful of cast members, when it comes to the stories they tell, the ideas they explore, and the way they do so, the two films have little to do with each other. Blade Runner 2049 may be ambiguous, diffuse, but it is far more prosaic than its predecessor, as Scott’s wildness gives way to the cold, clinical, calculating eye of Denis Villeneuve. Perhaps there is something lamentable about this. It certainly takes some getting used to. Blade Runner functioned like its own Voight-Kampff test, provoking a series of visceral responses to probe your humanity, but Blade Runner 2049 is glacial, cerebral, more evocative of contemplation than emotion. Enough comparison, then: suffice to say that, like too few sequels, Blade Runner 2049 demands to be considered on its own terms. When those terms are accepted, it reveals itself to be something richly rewarding.
Not unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s kaleidoscopic novel Pale Fire, which it references repeatedly, Blade Runner 2049 invites a myriad of readings. I cannot claim to have covered them all here, nor would I want to. The facets of a great film only come into view with the passage of time, and though nine months is a long time for an essay to gestate inside a film critic, Blade Runner 2049 is still relatively young. In this essay, I will investigate the film along four axes of interpretation that, though distinct, interlink with and build upon each other. First, along archetypal lines, as an account of interactions between primal forces of technology and nature, masculinity and femininity, order and chaos. Second, as an unconventional retelling of the biblical Christmas story, centering on a miraculous birth that brings about spiritual awakening and upsets political and economic systems. Third, as a retelling of the Pinocchio narrative, revolving around the attempts of artificial beings to become truly human. Fourth, and finally, as an account of romantic love as the impetus for the soul’s ascent to transcendence.
ONE. Do Androids Dream of Holographic Women?I was the shadow of the waxwing slain By the false azure in the windowpane; I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
In the first moments of Blade Runner 2049, an eye opens and Officer K (Ryan Gosling) awakens at the wheel of his flying car. Though it is never made explicit whose eye we first see, I believe it is that of Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), a seemingly peripheral character whose significance will become clear as we look closer. In the final moments of Blade Runner 2049, Officer K dies on the steps outside Stelline’s workplace amid falling snow, and inside, Stelline watches a simulated snowfall.
The paired juxtapositions of K and Stelline that bookend the film draw an obscure, noetic connection between the two characters and suggest something beyond K’s limited existence. However, the film begins when K wakes, when he is born, and ends when he falls asleep, dies. Its three-hour runtime is a lifetime, Solomonic in its brevity, following a self’s consciousness from beginning to end. As K and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) say, “It was a day.” Or, in Stelline’s words, the film’s last: “Just a moment… Beautiful, isn’t it?”
The antagonism between replicants and blade runners, artificial humans and the real humans tasked with hunting them down, is central to both Blade Runner and the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired it. In Blade Runner 2049, this conflict is complicated and concentrated in K, who is both replicant and blade runner, a hunter of artificial people who is himself artificial. These kinds of profound contradictions and conflations are what linger in the imagination long after the closing credits have rolled.
Our first vision of California 2049 is of solar panels arrayed like petals of white roses. K’s journey begins with a flight through the heavens, over concentric circles of celestial reflectors, and continues with a descent into the clouded unknown to find a farm and a tree shrouded in fog. This first movement is an elemental one, from the air to the earth and water – from reason, order, technology to material, chaos, nature. At the farm, K encounters Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a fugitive replicant whose dual occupations as protein farmer and medic tie him to sustenance and preservation, the most basic of bodily needs. The tree is a rare symbol of nature in a barren world, and this primal scene is both Eden and Gethsemane. The tree is an icon of an idyllic past and a source of forbidden knowledge, but it also recalls the cross on which Christ hung, foreshadowing K’s self-sacrificial passion. It is beneath the tree that K discovers the impetus of the plot – evidence that a replicant reproduced, which should be impossible. His investigation into the origins of the miraculous child will double as an investigation into origins of all sorts.
Upon discovering the box, K reports to his superior, referred to only as Madam (Robin Wright), and goes to Los Angeles: a movement from the farm, the basic unit of civilization, to the city. Madam tells K to “come on home,” a motherly turn of phrase positioning him, at this point in his development, as little more than a compliant child. K is not “of woman born” – as Joi puts it, quoting Macbeth – but like the protagonist of the Scottish play, his fate may be determined by a web of maternal influences. In his apartment, the nurturing Joi greets him with, “I missed you, baby sweet.” When K surmises that he is the miraculous child, she dubs him “Joe,” telling him, “Your mother would have named you.” In Blade Runner 2049, mothers give their children life and names, shaping them in deeply significant ways. Yet there are other influences at work. Like Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff, the replicant child was born by C-section, untimely ripped from her mother’s womb – a birth both natural and unnatural. Children are products of two parents: nature, the great mother, and culture, the great father.
K’s investigation begins with mother nature. When he probes through records of the distant past, the archivist tells him, “What’s there is thick milky.” His return to Sapper’s farm is a return to the womb, symbolized by the slit in the plastic seal of the crime scene. He finds baby pictures in a tin box marked “Neptun” – god of the sea, the chaos from which life emerges. The past is associated with femininity, nature, chaos. The future is linked to masculinity, technology, order. In Blade Runner 2049, the conflict between these forces is often gendered accordingly.
On the one hand is the replicant resistance movement, an enigmatic organization that seeks to upend the established order and first makes its presence known through a trio of women, again recalling a certain Scottish play by a certain bard. The figurehead of this side is another mother, the one-eyed Freysa (Hiam Abbass). Opposite her is the sinisterly paternal Wallace (Jared Leto), who is naturally blind and, as a result, literally sees the world mechanically. Because he is only interested in utility, he kills an infertile replicant woman without a second thought. To Wallace, reproduction is not significant or sacred in itself. It is a means to the creation of a subhuman slave force, in the service of civilization. Wallace’s oppressive industrial agenda is oriented towards a future of technological advancement – to spread man’s empire across the stars, to “storm Eden and retake her.”
In Blade Runner 2049’s thoroughly artificial society, a wooden horse is a key talisman of the natural world. “It’s from a tree,” one character remarks in curious awe. (Another exclaims, “You’re rich, my friend” – evidently, real wood is a lucrative rarity in this future.) In a crucial flashback, a group of boys try to forcibly take this symbol of nature from a girl – a microcosm, along the same gendered lines, of the film’s larger conflict, in which masculine entities attempt to co-opt feminine life-giving power for their own ends. Villeneuve’s films tend to critique misguided male instincts and celebrate female resilience. For example, contrast Hugh Jackman’s obsessive father in Prisoners with Amy Adams’ courageous mother in Arrival. However, in the end, the binaries are never so straightforward as they appear at first glance, and Blade Runner 2049 is no exception.
K’s search for his mother leads him to his father, and his next significant movement is from nature to culture. The wooden horse was fashioned by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the hero of Blade Runner and the child’s father, and it is this toy that allows K to track the fugitive Deckard to Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world. Upon his arrival, K deploys a heat-seeking drone to lead him to sources of life and finds beehives among towering statues of women. Bees are insects with a hive mind and a matriarchal hierarchy, suggesting a growing ambivalence about maternal control that curtails independence. However, in a touch that suggests new complications, Wallace’s henchmen wear gas masks that make them look like insects with mandibles. The binary is beginning to reveal new facets: there are positive and negative elements to both the masculine and the feminine. Wallace is evil and tyrannical, but Deckard is a father who genuinely wants the best for his child. Freysa purports to desire freedom for all replicants, but, like Wallace, seeks to use K as a pawn. There are overtones of Oedipal anxiety in the way she urges him to kill Deckard, the man he thinks of as a father. Like any individual moving from the simplicity of childhood to the complexity of adulthood, K finds himself caught in the middle of several dichotomies at once. To mature properly, he must resolve them.
In a strikingly stylized scene, embers from a fire in the wilderness become the skyline of the city, once again complicating the dilemma by suggesting a fundamental connection between the primal and the civilized, the natural and the constructed. The association of the chaotic with the feminine and the orderly with the masculine is also muddled by the role of the female Madam, whose imperative to keep order leads her to deny the reality of the miraculous birth altogether. “This didn’t happen,” she says, insisting, “The world is built on a wall that separates kind.” Appropriately, then, a defining feature of the film’s vision of Los Angeles is a massive wall that keeps out the sea. It is in this realm of aquatic chaos, beyond the bounds of societal structure, that gender signifiers are turned topsy-turvy. Wallace’s fixation on producing replicant children already marks him with a serious case of womb envy, and his violent right-hand woman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), exhibits a similarly serious case of penis envy. During their final confrontation, she penetrates and kisses K before he is able to plunge her into the sea.
K’s journey, which began with an elemental descent, concludes with a corresponding ascent. After saving Deckard from the chaos of the waters, K brings him into the clouds to meet Stelline, whose celestial name relates her to stars. But more on that later; for now, it is enough to note that K has become truly mature by denying Wallace and Freysa, the negative elements of the masculine and feminine, and instead uniting Deckard and Stelline, their positive counterparts. With this union accomplished, K is truly mature, having come full circle and completed his journey from childhood to adulthood. As an independent individual, he is no longer defined by his nature as an artificial creation. When K dies in the snow, his story, in one sense, is finished. In another, it continues beyond him.
TWO. The Replicant NativityWhat moment in that gradual decay Does resurrection choose? What year? What day? Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape? Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
Like many Ridley Scott pictures, the original Blade Runner is haunted by Biblical references – the nail driven through Roy Batty’s hand and the dove he releases to the heavens upon his death, for starters. Though stories of human creators and their creations naturally raise larger questions about mankind’s maker, Blade Runner’s allusions, in keeping with Scott’s tumultuous vision, function less as calculated tenets of a cohesive thesis and more as a series of haphazard, agonized reflections on origins, personhood, theism. Villeneuve, on the other hand, has something more concrete in mind, and when one considers the broad strokes of its plot from the right angle, Blade Runner 2049 borders on the allegorical.
A woman from an oppressed people group should not be able to have a child, but miraculously gives birth. The oppressed people want to use the child to further their political cause. A man named Joe – who is not biologically related to the child, despite appearances to the contrary – is charged with protecting it from an evil ruler. Oh, and the child is, as I say every Sunday when I recite the Creed in church, “Born, not made.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Blade Runner 2049 envisions a future longing for something lost in the past, and in so doing contrives a world in which any birth is miraculous. Its chilly, inhuman, artificial society acts as a stark frame for the beauty of nature’s simplest elements – a lone flower growing up out of barren dirt, a toy horse made of real wood, a dead but pretty tree. Villeneuve’s previous film, Arrival, was similarly focused on the sanctity of birth, the most fundamental organic process, culminating in the decision to bring new life into the world despite the inevitability of suffering. Yet for all Blade Runner 2049’s obsession with origins and parental figures, in its synthetic world, real families with real mothers, fathers, and children are in short supply. K is routinely subjected to a post-traumatic baseline test in which an automated voice asks a barrage of aggressive questions to measure his emotional responses. “What’s it like to hold your child in your arms?” “Do you feel that there’s a part of you that’s missing?” “When you’re not performing your duties, do they keep you in a little box?”
Real humans are almost entirely absent from Blade Runner 2049, which approaches its story primarily from the viewpoint of the oppressed replicants. When the dying Sapper berates K for killing his own kind, his reply is simple: “I don’t retire my own kind because we don’t run. Only older models do.” The replicants of Blade Runner rebelled against their subhuman status and limited lifespans, but the replicants of K’s generation are defined by obedience and acceptance of their role as slaves. They truly act like machines, not “more human than human,” and unlike their more spirited forebears, they lack a sense of selfhood and wonder at the world around them.
Sapper accuses, “You new models are happy scraping the shit because you’ve never seen a miracle,” and a miracle is precisely the impetus for K’s liberation from his lifeless existence. Something as simple as a picture of a mother holding her infant takes on all the significance of a religious icon. Like Christ casting the moneylenders out of the temple, the arrival of the miraculous replicant messiah is a financial concern to the economic and political powers that be. Madam orders K to destroy all evidence of the birth, but he is uncharacteristically reluctant. “I’ve never retired something that was born before,” he says. “What’s the difference?” she asks incredulously. “To be born is to have a soul, I guess,” K persists, but Madam is glib, dismissive: “You’ve been getting on fine without one.” Still, the question lingers. Are replicants merely machines, purely physical persons, or does something immaterial make their lives sacred?
The advent of the replicant Christ child brings about K’s spiritual awakening and plays into the larger conflict between Freysa and Wallace, the resistance and the tyrannical regime. These two factions fit neatly into the contours of the Christmas story. Wallace, first introduced killing a newborn replicant, is King Herod, enacting slaughter of the innocents in his search for the miraculous child. As the maker of synthetic slaves and foodstuffs, he is the economic ruler of Blade Runner 2049’s world and its false god. In advertisements, we see his logo stamped on foreheads like the mark of the beast. He lives in a vast, cavernous building evoking a temple. “An angel should never enter the kingdom of heaven without a gift,” he tells Luv. “Can you at least pronounce, ‘A child is born?’” Wallace frequently refers to his new replicants as angels – “good angels,” as opposed to “bad angels,” their more independent ancestors – and in one sequence, Luv assists K from above, killing his assailants with missiles from the heavens. When Luv murders Madam, she turns on the lamps, remarking, “Too dark in here,” masquerading, like Satan, as an angel of light.
Yet while Wallace and his minions are clearly evil, visual parallels clue us into the untrustworthy nature of Freysa and her replicant resistance movement. Deckard is imprisoned in Wallace’s lair and K meets Freysa in a church. In both locations, watery reflections of light ripple across the walls. Though both factions want to discover the child, neither seeks it for the right reasons. Wallace only wants to produce more children as slaves; Freysa only wants to oppose Wallace. Both are preoccupied with the material world; the replicant resistance finds K because a prostitute puts a tracker in his coat. His intercourse with her ties him to the realm of the body – a tie that saves him from death, but also demands that he kill Deckard, his father.
Like the Jews who believed Christ had come as a conquering king to free them from Roman rule and establish an earthly kingdom, the resistance wants to use the child for its political cause: “If a baby can come from one of us, we are our own masters.” The replicants wish to break free of their roles as subhuman slaves, but in a sad irony, their devotion to this cause strips them of their freedom and dehumanizes them. Freysa puts it in stark terms for K: “Our lives mean nothing next to the storm that’s coming.” Like Sapper, she speaks of the replicant birth with something like religious reverence: “I saw a miracle delivered. A perfect little face crying up at me.” Yet she interprets the miracle as an occasion of wrath rather than grace, describing the child’s cries as “mad as thunder,” prophesying, “she will lead our army.” That feminine pronoun undoes K’s belief that he was the child born to Deckard and Rachael. Freysa informs him, “I dressed her in blue when it was time for her to go” – a bit of misdirection (blue is the traditional color for a male baby) that mirrors misconceptions about the role of the messiah, who is not a military leader but a meek and lowly shepherd of sorts, playing an unexpected role that confounds those who expect a revolution of systems rather than souls.
K’s excursion to Las Vegas in search of Deckard befits the references to the Christmas story. The pyramid of the Luxor recalls the holy family’s flight into Egypt, and he ultimately finds the retired blade runner in Caesar’s Palace, which evokes the right historical time period. K’s search into the past ends up being an attempt to restore the family unit by reuniting father with daughter. (Is it too cheeky to suggest that Deckard’s hiding place in the radioactive wasteland of Las Vegas is meant to evoke the nuclear family?) K thinks he is Jesus, and Joi thinks he is Joseph, christening him “Joe.” However, the Biblical role he ultimately fills is that of John the Baptist, going before to prepare the way and turn the hearts of the fathers to their children. Freysa says, “We all wish it was us. That’s why we believe,” but by accepting that he is not the child, K overcomes this subtle egoism to become truly self-sacrificial, living out the Johannine maxim, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Early in the story, he is mindless and obedient like the origami sheep Gaff makes for him, but by the end, he becomes a follower of the good shepherd and acts the part of a sacrificial lamb, stabbed in the side like Our Lord. Though K is not Christ, he can be Christlike, as all Christians are, per C.S. Lewis, “little Christs.”
The real Christ child is Ana Stelline, Deckard’s daughter, whose first name means “grace,” and whose surname is derived from “star,” the celestial herald of the nativity. We first meet her in a simulation full of sunlight and green trees, a vision of Edenic beauty. She makes the memories that are implanted in replicants. When K comes to see her, she works on a birthday party scene, slyly signaling that she is setting the stage for his rebirth. He asks if she ever uses real memories, and she demurs that it is illegal to implant real memories in replicants, evading the question as Christ often conceals His true nature in the Gospels – though she does smile, “There’s a bit of every artist in their work.” To be born is to have a soul, and through her memories, Ana gives bits of her soul to those who were not born but made. This act of kindness allows replicants to have “real human responses,” granting them the capacity to become more than machines. Freysa claims, “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do,” but it is K who interprets the miracle correctly and acts in accordance with Ana’s soul, choosing to save rather than kill, enduring death to gain new life.
THREE. A Real BoyA system of cells interlinked within Cells interlinked within cells interlinked Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
Like Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, another tale about artificial beings’ desire to be real, Blade Runner 2049 is a science fiction reworking of the story of a puppet becoming a real boy. The Pinocchio narrative is fraught with spiritual undercurrents – after all, it could be said that all religion aims at reaching a reality beyond earthly experience – and has its roots in Catholicism. This interpretation of Blade Runner 2049 dovetails neatly, then, with the Biblical reading.
Both narratives begin with a celestial event heralding the birth of a new being. The Disney film Pinocchio opens with the song, “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Its plot is set in motion when Geppetto, the kindly puppet maker, prays to this star that his creation will become a real being and the Blue Fairy descends from the heavens to animate the marionette. This essay has already made note of how Ana Stelline’s surname has its roots in the language of stars, and it is not hard to see that she fills the role of the Blue Fairy, granting K the ability to become a real boy. However, in both Blade Runner 2049 and the Pinocchio myth, the conversion of artificial being to reality is accomplished not in a singular moment but in an arduous process. The Blue Fairy and Stelline imbue Pinocchio and K with the capacity to make themselves real, but they must actualize this potential by their own efforts. At first blush, the lyric “Anything your heart desires will come to you” may sound like typical Disney hokum, but it may also be true, in which case one must be very careful about what one’s heart desires. Pinocchio and K must train themselves to want to be real, rather than settling for the false satisfactions that would seduce them.
Thankfully, they are not on this journey alone. The Blue Fairy supplies the first supernatural aid, but they are also assisted by partners with whom they can dialogue: Jiminy Cricket and Joi. Though Joi seems to do some of the work usually assigned to the Blue Fairy in Blade Runner 2049, as the image above would suggest, she primarily fills the role of Jiminy Cricket, acting as the conscience on K’s shoulder, stoking the fires of his desire to be real. When Luv asks whether K is satisfied with Joi, his simple response is significant: “She’s very realistic.” For K, satisfaction is equated to reality.
“We’re all just looking out for something real,” Madam tells K, but reality in Blade Runner 2049 does not simply mean physicality, as it so often does in our materialist society. Upon realizing that K has Joi, a replicant prostitute teases, “You don’t like real girls.” Joi enlists this prostitute as a surrogate body so that she can have bodily intercourse with K, but corporeal and incorporeal soon begin to antagonize each other. It is true that, by virtue of not having a body, Joi lacks a certain reality that the sex worker has – but there is more to reality than the material, and the prostitute’s connection to the replicant resistance highlights her undue emphasis on the physical. “I’ve been inside you,” she taunts Joi. “There’s not so much there as you think.” Yet she, in turn, may not be so much more of a real girl than Joi as she thinks. As in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the reality of artificial beings in Blade Runner 2049 is measured by subjectivity, symbolized by motifs of dreams and the unconscious. Joi encourages K, “It’s OK to dream a little, isn’t it?” Elsewhere, the post-traumatic baseline test asks K, “Do you dream about being interlinked?”
K’s investigation takes him to the waste processing district, a vast landscape of refuse and trash. This passage of the film is an expression of K’s attempts to avoid becoming detritus of the world, to rise out of the garbage and believe himself significant. After being attacked by scavengers and crash landing in the junk, K is knocked unconscious, and as we did at the beginning of the film, we once again find him asleep at the wheel of his flying car. A panicked Joi tries to rouse him, befitting her role, and he experiences another awakening from unconsciousness. Continuing the Pinocchio references, in the trash district we find an orphanage where children are used as slave laborers, recalling the puppet show where Pinocchio was imprisoned and forced to perform – complete with a Stromboli type who tyrannizes those beneath him while presenting an affable face to the authorities.
K, meanwhile, is escaping from his own prison of enforced servitude by forming an identity for himself. When first meeting Luv, K remarks, “He named you. Must be special.” To have a name is to be special, and while K is initially reluctant to accept what he thinks is true – that he was the product of the miraculous birth – Joi insists that he is special, a real boy who needs a real name. She is removing his marionette strings and pushing him along to become a genuine individual. After returning from the orphanage, K tells Madam that he destroyed the child as she requested: “He was set up like a standard replicant, put on a service job. Even he didn’t know who he was.” This final break with his role as blade runner thrusts him out into the unknown of the real world, where he is forced to determine for himself who he is. Though K longs to be special, this process is also daunting, intimidating, inspiring as much dread as hope. The baseline test asks, “Do you like being separated from other people?” – and then demands that he repeat the phrase “Dreadfully distinct.”
K’s journey takes him to Las Vegas, a natural analogue to Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island if there ever was one, where he meets Deckard – who, though, irascible, is not quite a jackass. “He reads. That’s good,” Deckard remarks sarcastically when K recognizes a quote from Treasure Island – the book by Stevenson, though of course it is also the name of an establishment in Vegas. Literacy, as Frederick Douglass might attest, is a prerequisite to enlightenment – to true freedom of the mind, not only the body. Deckard and K fight in a defunct nightclub lounge, among holographic ghosts of the past – and while K killed every assailant he previously tangled with, here he suppresses his natural instinct to fight back, allowing Deckard to strike him, earning his trust with an act of self-abasement. As K’s surrogate father of sorts, Deckard fills the role of Geppetto. While he did not literally make K, and is not even his biological father, he shapes the younger blade runner in significant ways.
K introduces himself by his old moniker, Officer KD6-3.7, but Deckard brusquely cuts him off: “That’s not a name, that’s a serial number.” Like Joi, Deckard pushes K to accept his role as Joe. In his attempts to save Deckard, K bursts through a wall – befitting his role as a breaker of walls. Unfortunately, he is unsuccessful, and like Geppetto, Deckard is lost in the belly of the whale. Wallace is analogous to Pinocchio’s satanic Coachman, who reduced wayward boys to donkeys and sold them as slaves, just as the blind industrialist sees replicants as subhuman workers. However, his watery lair also frames him as an analogue to Monstro, the giant whale who swallows Geppetto, and from whose belly Pinocchio must rescue him. Both films conclude with the son heaving the father out of the ocean and dying in the process.
One of the ambiguities that lingers from the first Blade Runner is whether its hero, Rick Deckard, is a human or a replicant. The debate is so immaterial to the film’s greatness that director and star hold differing viewpoints, and Blade Runner 2049 understands that the question is only a red herring. The opening title cards describe replicants as “bioengineered humans,” immediately disposing of the distinction between them and their non-bioengineered counterparts. This is a film with little interest in real-life implications of artificial intelligence. I am sure sharp, insightful articles could be written about its depictions of various technologies, but it is more intriguing to me as metaphor, less science fiction and more fairy tale or myth. Striving to become more human is a universal, profoundly human pursuit, even though we are all “real people.” What makes K and Deckard real, then? Both orient themselves towards the transcendent rather than the immanent. Wallace argues for determinism – that Deckard was designed to fall in love with Rachael to bring about the miraculous birth of their child, which he refers to only as a “specimen.” Deckard sidesteps the question. “I know what’s real,” he says. No matter where his love for Rachael sprang from, he knows it was genuine.
If Deckard and K were only focused on the immanent, they would be incapable of self-sacrifice, but their shared focus on higher things allows them both to die and to be saved. As the film’s focus splits almost evenly between K and Deckard, the two blade runners are increasingly paralleled, linked visually and thematically. Both travel into the depths of the chaotic unknown, where K saves Deckard from drowning and imprisonment and Deckard saves K in his turn, calling out his name – “Joe!” – as he drags him out of the waves. “You should have let me die out there,” he reprimands. “You did,” K replies. “You drowned out there. You’re free to meet your daughter now.” The two blade runners who go to Ana in the end are both dead to the world. “All the best memories are hers,” K says, returning the wooden horse to Deckard. Paradoxically, K cements his identity by letting it go. To be a genuine self, he must be true to something beyond himself. He may not be special, but he is real.
FOUR. A Romantic ReadingAnd all the time, and all the time, my love, You too are there, beneath the word, above The syllable, to underscore and stress The vital rhythm…
I have saved for last what I find most enduringly and personally fascinating about the film. Last year, while writing a novel, I fell in love with one of the characters. It turns out that, beyond the classical myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, there is little serious literature on the nature of such a perplexing and unusual situation. Joshua Gibbs’ essay, “To Have a Crush on a Fictional Person,” offers what I find a uniquely compelling account of a phenomenon that is not so rare as it seems. Now we also have Blade Runner 2049.
According to Gibbs, “To crush is to imagine the beloved person is present when they are not.” The “crush,” by Gibbs’ definition, is not aimed at illicit gratification of sensual desire. Instead – if the spiritual validity of the experience is to be asserted – it is an ennobling exercise, for “The beloved sits upon the shoulder of the man with a crush, judging all he says or does; the man who gives little thought to himself and the man who cannot see himself as a character in a story would do well to have a crush.” The essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but its applications to Blade Runner 2049 are not difficult to discern. Joi is K’s crush, the beloved audience who sits upon his shoulder. It is true that Joi is a product, which invests the film’s central romance with troubling dimensions, highlighted by the bitterly ironic advertisements that pepper its backdrops. All the same, in the last section, I noted that I interpret Blade Runner 2049 as allegory or myth rather than science fiction, and viewed through this lens, K’s Joi reminds me of Dante’s Beatrice or Petrarch’s Laura, women who, idealized in their lovers’ poetic imaginations, were speculative, eschatological visions more than flesh and blood human beings. The specifics are unclear, but one gleans that Joi’s reality is shaped by K’s imagination, and Blade Runner 2049 reveals itself to be an examination of what Gibbs calls “the imaginative work which precedes love.”
Though Joi is not physically present, K acts as though she is. Though she has no physical power, he acts as though she does. When she moves to sit down, he moves to make room for her. When she reaches to take his hand, he offers it to her and lets her guide it. When the baseline test asks – “What’s it like to hold the hand of someone you love? Did they teach you how to feel finger to finger? Do you long for having your heart interlinked?” – it is Joi who K thinks of.
K goes out of his way to make Joi happy. He buys her a gift, an “emanator” that frees her from the confines of their apartment. “Honey,” he says, “You can go anywhere you want in the world now. Where do you want to go first?” Perhaps it would be too generous to say that K’s motives are primarily altruistic. Nevertheless, while Joi meets an emotional need in his life, bringing her to the rooftop where she experiences rain for the first time offers him no immediate, material, sensual benefit. “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” she says, but he demurs, “You don’t have to say that.” Though Joi is unavoidably shaped by K’s desire, he does not desire to limit her or keep her in a state of servitude. “I want to be real for you,” she says. “You are real for me,” he says. Both Joi and K are unreal persons who wish to be more real than they are. In the previous section on Pinocchio, I noted that Joi fills the role of Jiminy Cricket, encouraging K to become more real. However, as in Pinocchio, the dialogue goes both ways. Joi tells K that he is “a real boy now,” but later asks him to erase her data from the apartment console so that she lives solely in his gift. K is reluctant because of the risk involved: “If anything happens to this, that’s it. You’re gone.” “Yes,” Joi replies. “Like a real girl.” Joi is willing to accept the danger of mortality to be real, and though K would rather keep her safe, he honors her desire.
“What’s the occasion?” Joi asks when K presents her gift. “Let’s just say it’s our anniversary,” he answers, although it is not. The relationship between K and Joi is, fundamentally, pretend – but pretending, done properly, is practice for reality. K’s later acts of self-sacrifice are possible because, with Joi, he practices subordinating his desires to those of another, valuing another’s happiness in addition to his own. To say that K’s love for Joi is not ultimately sufficient in itself is not to deny the validity of the initial experience, nor to downplay its significance. It is a necessary preparation – as Gibbs puts it, “The crush is practice for the difficult work of love.”
Yet the promise of the crush, like so many things in Blade Runner 2049, only finds its fulfillment and consummation in its ending. The relationship between K and Joi is ultimately untenable, but its illusory nature does not negate the reality of its effects. Before smashing the emanator and killing Joi, Luv echoes her earlier words to K: “I do hope you’re satisfied with our product.” However, this time the direction of the taunt is ambiguous. It may be directed at K, but it may also be directed at Joi. After all, both are manufactured, meant to mutually satisfy each other – but paradoxically, by carrying out this prerogative, both K and Joi become more than products. Throughout the film, Joi’s activation by K is always announced by the opening bars of Profokiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” but this musical cue is absent from her final appearance to plead for his life. Ensouled by love, Joi has grown beyond her programming to attain autonomy, personhood, evinced by the selflessness of her last moments and words – “I love you.”
What remains for K is to stay true to his love after her departure, and the parallels drawn here between K and Deckard are illuminating. After the loss of Joi, the two blade runners are taken by Freysa and Wallace, who try to win their loyalty by tempting them with facsimiles of their loves. Wallace offers Deckard a false Rachael, who caresses his cheek, asking, “Don’t you love me?” This gesture mirrors both Joi and the prostitute who was her surrogate body. The same replicant sex worker, a member of Freysa’s resistance, tries to comfort K after the loss of his love, and though K is physically intimate with her for a moment after regaining consciousness, he quickly refuses to accept her as a replacement. Indeed, it hardly seems a stretch to say that K initially moves toward the prostitute thinking of her as Joi’s body, and stops touching her when he remembers the spirit has flown. This rejection harmonizes with his rejection of the replicant resistance, which would have him lose his humanity by exchanging love for a cause. They, like Wallace, are focused on the needs of the body, but K and Deckard choose to focus on matters of the soul.
Deckard rejects the false Rachael because her eyes are the wrong color – “Her eyes were green,” he tells Wallace. The windows to the soul are significant in Blade Runner films, both of which open with close-ups on eyes. “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” Roy Batty soliloquized in the original film; eyes are not only windows through which the world can see the soul, but windows through which the world enters the soul and shapes it. Here, they are indicators of the ersatz Rachael’s falseness, and similarly, when K sees a giant holographic advertisement of a naked Joi towering over him, her eyes are black and empty. Yet, per Wallace, “Only I know you love pain. Pain reminds you the joy you felt was real.” Seeing a false Joi reminds K of his true love for his Joi – and this true love is what inspires him to save Deckard, for whom he also feels something like love.
Like Joi, K is ensouled by loving someone else, and this love liberates him from the bondage of self so that he can live on in another. As Dante puts it, “Love is nothing else than the spiritual union of the soul with the object loved.” The film ends on an image of Deckard because K’s final acts are fundamentally self-sacrificing, other-oriented; thus, his story does not end at his death. At the conclusion of Blade Runner, Batty died with his head bowed, looking down at his own tears getting lost in the rain, but in the final moments of Blade Runner 2049, K dies on his back, looking up to the sky and the falling snow.I’m reasonably sure that we survive And that my darling somewhere is alive
The snowfall links K to Ana, as discussed in this essay’s opening paragraphs, but it also finally links him back to Joi, whose first response on the threshold of a new kind of existence was a profoundly human one – to catch rain in her hand and look to the heavens with wonder. After first encountering Stelline, K goes outside and also looks upward as he catches snow in his hand. “Oh, you don’t even smile,” said the replicant prostitute upon first meeting K, but the work of Joi and Ana is to move him beyond the boundaries of this programming. Ana’s work gives him the capacity – “I can give you good memories to think back on and smile” – and Joi models the proper behavior for him to emulate even when she is absent. Charles Williams explicates the Divine Comedy thus: “[Dante] has to become, by his own will, the [love] which was, by God’s will, awakened in him at the smile of Beatrice; he has to be faithful to that great communication in the days when Beatrice does not smile.” The adolescent experience of romantic love begins Dante’s ascent to God. The smile of Beatrice is a vision of perfection, but a faint one, for we cannot truly see perfection till we are perfect; “The ideal can never satisfy us until we are ideal.” That Dante cannot linger in the delight of the crush forever does not invalidate the experience; it merely means that the crush points to something beyond itself. Dante begins by contemplating the smile of Beatrice and the love it communicates; if he is to be faithful to that communication, he must end by becoming one with that love.
K smiles only twice in Blade Runner 2049 – first, when he watches Joi feel rain for the first time, and second, when Deckard, newly saved from the sea, asks him to give an account of his actions. “Why?” he asks. “Who am I to you?” K only smiles; the answer may be too ineffable for words. He smiles because he is pursuing the love planted in him by Ana and awakened in him by Joi to its fulfillment. He smiles because, on both occasions, he is simply doing something to make someone else happy. K dies on steps leading upward, and perhaps he smiles because his soul is ascending to become one with the love that animates it, the love that turns the sun and the other stars, the love that found expression in his love for Joi and Deckard. Perhaps this is too romantic. Perhaps K is, after all, nothing more than a material being, a machine that returns to nothing once it ceases to function. But it’s OK to dream a little, isn’t it?