Blade Runner 2049 looks amazing. A lot of work clearly went into ensuring it would: the expansive panoramas of decaying Los Angeles, every window dark, with seemingly only enough electricity to go around to run the holo-ads on the main streets; the barren deadlands and junkyards outside, stretching for miles. It was always going to be a visual spectacle, because that’s what we remember about the first one. You don’t just throw an established brand like that in the trash.
I had to get that out of the way, because the entire remainder of this is going to be about how deeply upsetting and unsatisfying it is to me in a thematic sense.
Here’s the hook: androids are still being made for slave labour on Earth and the offworld colonies, but the process has been refined – the new models are much more obedient. The old, temperamental Nexus-8s are still being hunted down by cops; there’s not a lot of them left. The protagonist is, of course, a cop and a replicant himself, referred to mostly by the first letter of his serial number, K, in a Kafka reference that I only just caught. He immediately stumbles upon a terrible secret that threatens society: replicants can get pregnant; Rachael from the first movie died in childbirth, and also maybe he’s the child? Possibly?
Everything that follows revolves around the apparently fundamental importance of not only sexual reproduction, but also the structures of cis-hetero-normative family that enshrine it. The leader of the replicant rebellion puts it in painfully clear terms: if they can have children, it means they have hope, and a future. As for family, most of the plot is about K’s search for this child’s identity, as well as his own, which may or may not be one and the same, and also his search for some kind of connection with his maybe-possibly parents, Rachael and Deckard. Niander Wallace, head of the corp that took over replicant manufacturing from Tyrell, is also desperate to find this child – as he puts it in an entirely too drawn out scene of him stabbing a naked woman to death, “we tried to breed them”.
For Wallace, replicant reproduction is the dream of a self-reproducing slave labour force, fully controlled by men like him. For the androids, it means self-determination. But why? It’s understandable enough in terms of a struggle for bodily autonomy, but replicants are still clearly being made via some undisclosed bioengineering process, Rachael’s child being a one-off anomaly that, it is suggested, she was specifically bioengineered for – surely seizing control of whatever industrial plant this is happening at is just as good? Surely that addresses the normal conditions of android reproduction, instead of exceptional ones?
The reason the movie thinks it’s not just as good is openly stated by the doctor present when Rachael was giving birth; he calls it “a miracle.” He doesn’t just mean “something that wasn’t supposed to happen;” that phrasing, the “miracle” of life, draws the entire thematic logic of 2049 into a discourse that glorifies the mystical qualities of childbirth, motherhood and family. The unspoken but painfully obvious argument, omnipresent in so much cis-het-normative cultural output, is that sexual reproduction is the goal of human life, that there is a special and unbreakable bond between biological parents and children, of which the traditional patriarchal family is the truest expression, and that this is the fundamental building block of society, the one thing that is meant to fully realize the meaning and purpose of human existence.
This discourse, and the insistence that the assigned-at-birth genders and their proper social roles it sets up for everyone are the only real expression of a mature, fully-actualized individual, is the same as the one that underpins real-life attempts by conservative Christians and various other reactionaries to outlaw in vitro fertilization, abortion, gender nonconformity and queerness. Children are our future – no children, no future. The fact that children raised in even the most gender-repressive conditions stubbornly continue to turn out gay and trans, suggesting that the future might hold something more than the dreary prison of the traditional family, is an inconvenient one. The evidence of that fact – the children themselves – must be treated as broken, punished and driven to suicide.
(Have I been too subtle in saying that I think this is a very Christian story? I mean, the immaculate conception was what tipped me off.)
Narratively, the entire weight of the movie rests on the question of Deckard and Rachael’s child, hidden away even from their parents to make it impossible for the Tyrells and Wallaces of the world to find and dissect. The framework of family informs everything – the father who loved his child so much that he sent them away; the tension between K and Deckard; K’s own domestic bliss with Joi, a commercial housewife AI manufactured by Wallace’s company.
Joi is the character I felt held the most promise, because through her presence, a point is made about femininity as a service that men can purchase. She is loyal, devoted, caring and doesn’t seem to have desires that extend beyond being with K and pleasing him – presumably those are her factory settings. On the movie’s own terms, because she cannot really participate in biological reproduction (not for lack of trying), she is ineligible for freedom. Joi is only fit to die as she lived, completely devoted to her owner.
It fucking sucks! This whole paradigm is bullshit!
I just can’t get it through my skull how you can possibly make a story that is ostensibly about the imminent liberation of the oppressed, that at the same time prescribes normative performance of some very historically limited forms of gender and sexuality as the means by which this liberation will be accomplished. It’s such an incredibly thorough failure of imagination – to be able to think about interstellar flight or semi-materialized holograms, but not of different reasons to live than to prolong the species, or of the political equality of people who were “manufactured” with those who were “born”. One wonders what other social changes remain more unimaginable than flying cars in this future.
Actually, to be perfectly honest, I think it’s worse than just a failure; I think it’s straightness holding a mirror up to itself and declaring, ah yes, this is what humanity is supposed to be about. And the rest of us? Those that can’t or won’t have children, have “real” families, be “real” people? Is everything we leave behind just worthless?
It’s not, but it would take a braver and wiser story than this one to admit it.