When Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner was released in 1982 the film received lukewarm box office reviews, and was later praised by film theorists and critics for its sci-fi noir depiction of replicated human slaves in a grungy, far-off future. Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 faced a similar slow-burn in movie sales, with critics not entirely sure if the film was a sequel, a stand alone film, or a cash grab to revive a movie franchise that barely had any mainstream momentum from the start.
So, what gives? Why didn't Ryan Gosling as K, a solemn, heartthrob blade runner not bring in more moviegoers? Do people no longer care about sci-fi films and Ryan Gosling's face, or is the abject horror of being replaced by replicant humans with superhuman strength and intellect no longer a threat to the average American with Trump in office?
The truth of the matter is that Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent movie—with or without soaring box office numbers—that is a patient and evocative study on the human condition and the nature of human connection.
Villeneuve and producers went out of their way to protect the secret mystery of his sequel, but it's not as juicy as you'd suspect: replicants are capable of reproducing and are therefore full-fledged beings with agency and power. This places mankind and replicants in a sticky situation since those only "born" have a soul—or at least that's what we humans have been told.
What unfolds is a poetic exploration of the small stories humans tell ourselves to keep moving forward, how we are wired to pull from our pasts to build the fabric of our futures. The original Blade Runner focused on the emotional capacities of humans like the ability to love, the ability to develop a moral compass, and the ability to sacrifice yourself for a greater cause. Blade Runner 2049 posits another theory where humans rely on memory and storytelling to build their personhood—replicants have implanted memories designed to construct their inner narratives.
Along the way there are holographic girlfriends who cater to customers' needs, gigantic holographic ads displaying naked women, and rogue "retires" who are fighting in resistance to bioengineered slaved labor.
For movie buffs, you may find yourself thinking about David Cronenberg's—the father of body horror—Existenz (1999), or another Ridley Scott picture, Alien (1979), which was met with higher box office numbers than Blade Runner; but more recent comparisons would land on HBO's Westworld and USA's Mr. Robot (of the alienated and despondent variety). In Existenz, gamers connect to a virtual game world through penetration via bio-port (resembling the texture of an umbilical cord) that enables players to experience a virtual simulation involving the transportation of self and consciousness.
Likewise, in Alien, extraterrestrial beings prey on humans to find vessels or "hosts" for their alien offspring. In Westworld, robot's bodies are invaded, abused, and discarded for human pleasure. In most cases, these shows and films explore futures where human bodies are invaded and discarded for some type of material gain, and in most cases, the bodies experiencing invasion are those of women. Body horror is known for exploring the disposable nature of the human body when used as a utility, and the stark realities of human labor (especially in dystopias), but if you're looking for a critique on the use of women's bodies as hosts and holographic girlfriend products, you'll be hard-pressed to find the politics of this exchange in Blade Runner 2049. The tragedy in 2049 isn't the use of women's bodies as a source of labored reproduction and entertainment, but the immaterial nature of memory.
If the human mind is sustained by an interface of memories, both personal memories and fabricated memories (from media, marketing, art, culture, etc.) that alter our perceptions of reality, what exactly are the material realities of our bodies? We are what we eat, or rather, we are what we remember.
My question: is there any future where a woman's agency isn't subject to labor for male pleasure?
Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.
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