Bright Lights Film Journal

Vibrant Matter in <em>Blade Runner 2049</em>

K and Joi: Dennis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 resists our contemporary moment of political and cultural polarization that exploits difference as a cudgel to reinforce (inevitably racialized) hostilities. The film instead forwards a vision of social and material difference that is not overcome by elision or homogenization, but is embraced by its amplification. When radically advocating for others, Blade Runner 2049 suggests, we radically advocate for ourselves.

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“I thought the audience deserved one human being on screen that they could establish an emotional relationship with,” Harrison Ford, in 2001, said of his character Rick Deckard, the chief detective of Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 film Blade Runner.1 Called out of his own retirement, Deckard must exterminate – that is, “retire” – a handful of bioengineered beings known as “replicants” who, having infiltrated Earth from an “off world colony,” resemble humans in every way save their lack of empathy. Summarily executing these human lookalikes, pejoratively called “skin jobs,” Deckard unexpectedly falls in love with a replicant named Rachael who has been gifted scraps of a past life by her creators at the Tyrell Corporation.

These “implanted memories” create the basis, what Dr. Tyrell calls a “cushion,” for an emotional inner life. The more a skin job can recollect, the more lifelike it becomes precisely because remembrance fuels sentiment. Scott’s Blade Runner, then, ties our humanity to our emotionality; it is a film about emotion, an (e)motion picture. A replicant as sentient as it is sapient, in turn, threatens a collapse between the real and the unreal. In a world dominated by simulations, reality itself becomes hallucinatory. Indeed, as media theorist Giuliana Bruno, in her article “Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner,” writes: “With Rachael the system has reached perfection. She is the most perfect replicant because she does not know whether she is one or not.”2 By the end of Blade Runner, Rachael is human enough to cry, to fear, to love, and, as discovered in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049, human enough to conceive.

That film begins with Officer KD6-3.7, a new-generation Nexus-9 replicant created by the Wallace Corporation after the “blackout” of Dr. Tyrell’s operation, carrying out routine police work. These newer, more obedient prototypes are collaborating with the LAPD in eliminating still at-large replicants. These models are even more perfect than Rachael because they acknowledge their own inauthenticity, and thereby, their own servility. “Are you telling me no?” Lieutenant Joshi, head of the LAPD’s Retirement Division, at one point scolds K. “I wasn’t aware that was an option, ma’am,” he responds. For his (its?) part, K discovers the skeletal remains of Rachael that disclose her pregnancy buried near an industrialized farm outside Los Angeles. Before doing so, however, K must retire an out-of-date Nexus-8 replicant, Sapper Morton. In an ironic twist, the sequel to Blade Runner – a film in which characters variously struggle to prove their humanness – opens with a replicant targeting one of its own. The viewer here gets an episode of replicant-on-replicant violence, synthetic skin-on-synthetic skin.

The notion expressed by Ford that spectators require a “human being on screen” with whom to connect is thus challenged by Villeneuve. In 2049, even the blade runners are copycats. “How does it feel killing your own kind?” Morton asks K before being retired. “I don’t mind my own kind because we don’t run,” K says. “Only older models do.” A hierarchy of being is erected in Blade Runner 2049. “The world is built on a wall that separates kind,” Lt. Joshi informs K. “Tell either side there’s no wall – you bought a war.” The humans of Blade Runner, sitting atop that social pyramid, are preceded by different classes of replicants (Nexus-6, Nexus-7, Nexus-8, etc.), and further down are robots, machines, and holograms. These physiologically and materially diverse beings inhabit a hyper-stratified society teetering on the brink of a civil war. “Am I the only one who can see the fucking sunrise here?” Lt. Joshi exclaims, fearing others might discover Rachael’s half-human child. “This breaks the world.” Beings of all kinds, when confronted by questions of identity and social difference, tribalize. The words “fuck off skinner” are aptly scribbled on the door to K’s apartment. The schismatic dystopia of 2049 reflects unto audiences the cultural polarities of their own historical moment. Even Lt. Joshi’s analogy of a society built on a wall is charged with racialized political innuendo.

If, in Blade Runner, that wall partitioned replicants from humans, in 2049, it is far more stratified, not only separating people from replicants, but replicants from other replicants, holograms from other holograms. The inhabitants of Villeneuve’s dystopia maintain stability by staying walled off from one another. Yet the more gradated any hierarchy – the more sprawling a wall – the greater the possibility exists for transgression, for unexpected cross-border play. An enlarged surface area only increases opportunities for its permeability. Thus, much more so than its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 inhabits a gray area, an in-between space where “species” meet: gestating replicants, humanlike holograms, and artificial blade runners. In doing so, it resists Lt. Joshi’s fatalistic hypothesis. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner calls not for a sublimation or homogenization of social difference, but for its intensification. The film reveals (and revels in) the shared “thingliness” of all (non-)living beings. Everything around us – ourselves included – is composed of matter, of matter that matters. Blade Runner 2049 thus offers a counter-narrative to our present-day politics of tribalism. It proffers a post-humanist egalitarianism by amplifying and celebrating its protagonists’ diversity.

The Joi of Being

Joi

The most interesting character introduced into the Blade Runner canon in Villeneuve’s 2049 is a commercialized hologram named Joi; not a skin job, but a light-job. Developed by the Wallace Corporation, Joi – her name says it all – is a customizable live-in romantic companion capable of remedying that paradoxical sense of loneliness experienced by any city dweller, who, despite being surrounded by people, struggles to make contact with anyone. “You look lonely,” her advertisement says, “I can fix that.” Blared upon digitized billboards on every street corner, Joi satisfies the (specifically male) urbanite’s discontent by, ironically, compelling him to retreat further inward, by confining him to his apartment.

To “materialize” for any viewer, Joi requires a projection device. The standard model, the kind owned by K, is a ceiling-mounted projector that restricts her movement not just to one’s apartment, but to a square footage. Shackled herself, Joi is to be enjoyed in solitary confinement. “I’m getting cabin fever,” she even says. Once projected, Joi can assume a variety of voices, wardrobes, and physiques to meet the needs of her (its?) purchaser, that is, owner. Ineluctably, Blade Runner forces spectators to confront issues of (non-)human bondage. Before K’s eyes, Joi transforms into a prim housewife, a flapper, and a male-fetishized “playgirl” with perfect bangs, belly shirt, and sultry accent. From one angle, then, Joi distills the quality of her urban milieu, a postmodern pastiche of male desire. She is even advertised as “everything you want to hear / everything you want to see.”

“Unmoored” Los Angeles, 2019, in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

The pastiche of Blade Runner, an axiomatic feature of its position as a postmodern text, is a well-researched topic. “The postmodern aesthetic of Blade Runner,” Bruno writes, “is thus the result of recycling, fusion of levels, discontinuous signifiers, explosion of boundaries, and erosion.”3 The Los Angeles of 2019 is a place unmoored from any spatial, cultural, or temporal coordinates. Chinese merchants comingle with goths and Hare Krishnas; shimmering Coca Cola ads alternate with eroticized images of Japanese models; industrial refuse swamps the streets of high-tech business districts. The narrative itself is a hodgepodge of cinematic genres: film noir, dystopian, sci-fi, martial arts. Blade Runner playfully (and self-consciously) revels in its blend of cultural codes and clues. In Blade Runner 2049, little has changed. Still asphyxiating in industrial smog, Los Angeles teems with blue-haired punks, Soviet ballerinas, and Atari logos. This decaying pastiche of a cityscape, if anything, has only grown. Aerial shots of the LA skyline reveal an urban expanse sinking under the weight of its own rot. The metropole seems too big to fit everyone, a strange mix of claustrophobia and urban sprawl. In both films, LA exists in a state of cultural schizophrenia. Its miscellany, however, imbues it not with a dynamism, but with a stasis. Indeed, the city is literally crumbling before our eyes. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles has already become a topography – the topography – of postmodernity, a postindustrial wasteland that, having reached the “end of history,” has nowhere left to go. Per the logic of late capitalism, the city is condemned to fester in its own neon-lit pastiche.

“A strange mix of claustrophobia and urban sprawl”: Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049

In this light, then, Joi juxtaposes her urban setting. The hologram exhibits an alterability that keeps her ontology in a state of flux. Every Joi-prototype is programmed to record “data memories” of her given partner, thus allowing her personality to evolve in tandem. No two Jois are alike; her identity is on a constant (re-)edit. Unlike a replicant, Joi is not a knockoff, but a shape-shifter; less of a pastiche and more of a changeling. A postmodern pastiche, despite its manifest variability, is a fixed genre defined foremost by its mischievous imitativeness, whereas Joi is a genre-less “text” characterized by her adaptability. She doesn’t haphazardly borrow from different cultural archetypes so much as she fully, albeit momentarily, becomes them. Her continual mutations, of course, only reiterate her non-humanness. Yet, in contrast to Rachael, Joi is aware of her own artificiality. The female hologram lacks what many replicants seem to desire most, that is, an aspiration to become human. Joi exhibits little interest in overcoming her own “lesser” material limitations to achieve a higher stage of development, to move up the hierarchy of kind in Blade Runner. Joi is comfortable in her own translucent “skin,” which exists in a permanent state of becoming. The hologram carouses in her own ontological volatility.

Tellingly, the gadget K purchases for his Joi-model as a faux anniversary gift is called an “emanator,” a remote control (a joystick?) that frees Joi from her ceiling apparatus and makes her portable. The most human thing desired by Joi is, in fact, a modicum of mobility. This notion of “emanation,” furthermore, imbues Joi with a dazzling yet ethereal quality. She exists as an immaterial material that can be beamed out momentarily before fizzling into nothingness, a sexualized light show. Joi startles, captivates, and disappears; she is a motion picture within the motion picture. The hologram “incarnates” evanescence without a corporeality. Hence, K walks through her, hugs across her, kisses past her. Joi can offer him nothing of substance except, of course, love – the loftiest immaterial material thing of all. “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” she says to K. Her affection – like her being – is a flicker of passion for this lonely skin job.

“Joi and Mariette move out-of-synch in a lambent, unbalanced fusion”

Unsurprisingly, then, the most mesmeric sequence of Blade Runner 2049 is a soft-core sex scene in which Joi invites an ostensibly human prostitute, Mariette, to K’s apartment, where the three of them engage in intercourse – a “cross-species” ménages à trois. In a CGI hat-trick, the holographic image of Joi superimposes itself on the prostitute who begins kissing K. Their imagistic convergence, however, is not stable. Joi and Mariette move out-of-synch in a lambent, unbalanced fusion just as timorous lovers might. Their eyes, smiles, and advances unevenly bisect one another as they awkwardly adjust to the rhythm of each other’s bodies before exploring the body of another. A skin job, in other words, is found simultaneously making love to a human and to a hologram, who themselves have already achieved a kind of virtual penetration. This sequence offers a literal consummation of the social hierarchy in Blade Runner 2049. Its various “species” collapse into one mess of gangly, digitized limbs.

The amorous trio is briefly found in what the posthumanist theorist Donna Haraway calls “ontological choreography.” In her landmark studies, The Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet, Haraway argues that different taxonomies of life exist in a material and conceptual entanglement without a predetermined distribution of agency. The identities of ontologically dissimilar beings emerge only out of interspecies exchange, hence the notion of choreography – an ongoing dance of being and becoming. “Relationship,” Haraway writes, “is multiform, at stake, unfinished, consequential.”4 Caressing K’s head, Joi and Mariette choreograph a sensual dance of being as their hands, trying to maximize their time on, with, and through their male partner, irregularly intertwine as they become sexually one. A hologram becomes a human becomes a replicant. Here, Blade Runner 2049 suggests that it is the practice of love that can tear down barriers separating kin and kind. This lovemaking sequence concurs with Haraway’s supposition that love is “a nasty developmental infection” that can, even against our otherwise clannish instincts, overpower our natural/cultural legacies of difference.5 It calls for an intensification of affection among (non-)living things. These characters’ graphic dance of love celebrates the ontological mélange envisioned by Haraway when “species” finally meet.

Commentators have already drawn a parallel between this episode and a sequence from Spike Jonze’s Her, in which its protagonist Theodore Twombly, another disaffected male urbanite, has disembodied sex with an intelligent operating system named Samantha, who, like Joi, can evolve accordingly with her partner. Their virtualized lovemaking, however, is far less interesting than the sort encountered in Blade Runner 2049 precisely because of its lack of corporeality. The embodied encounter in Villeneuve’s film destabilizes the presumed ontological fixity afforded by corporal bodies. That sequence gives mass to light particles; it digitizes human flesh; it eroticizes K’s silicone texture. It exhibits the elasticity of ontology by variously toying with beings’ corporeality. Meaningfully and materially, different beings literally – to borrow a Deleuzian term – fold into one another. A far more apt comparison, then, would be Björk’s 1999 music video “All Is Full of Love,” directed by Chris Cunningham, that portrays a romantic encounter between two robots. Its recurring imagery of pistons pulsating with white fluid, thrusting mechanical pelvises, and shapely metallic curvatures imbue these steely machines with a sensate, fleshy corporeity. Metal breathes, and androids climax. Blade Runner 2049, like Björk’s cybernetic tryst, lays bare the mutability of bodies, the inherent animacy of inanimate matter. In both cases, tellingly, it is love that overcomes material and ontological difference.

“Metal breathes, and androids climax”

A “Real” Boy

For all her self-confidence in her own non-humanness, Joi nevertheless convinces K that he is, in fact, Deckard’s long-lost child being sought by the Wallace Corporation. “A real boy needs a real name,” Joi tells him. “You’re too important for K.” So she calls him Joe. After noticing that a wooden horse totem, which appears in one of his implanted memories, bears the same date (06/10/21) inscribed on Rachael’s grave, K begins to doubt his status as a replicant. After his first sexual encounter – a jarring introduction into his own corporeality – K even fails a reentry test into LAPD headquarters. The film, leading the viewer to believe K is more “real” than it appears, seemingly yields to Ford’s logic that avers spectators require an on-screen human with whom to relate emotionally. For K, the main role his Joi-model plays for him, then, is a humanizing agent, a personal soothsayer. “I always told you,” she repeats, “you’re special.”

Yet even if K was Deckard’s storied progeny, he still would not be a “real boy,” that is, a human proper. He would be the child of Deckard and of Rachael, who is, as revealed in Blade Runner, a bona fide skin job. K, in other words, wants to verify whether he is a genetic anomaly, a kind of centaur: half-man, half-replicant. Ironically, it is Joi, a thing whose identity is defined by its uncertainty, who helps persuade K that he too is an ontologically jumbled being. Fittingly, then, Joi suggests reading K a passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a centauric literary work composed by two fictional writers, John Shade and Charles Kinbote, in both poetry and prose that interrogates and thematizes its own authorship. Fractured identity thus becomes an aspirational ideal in Blade Runner 2049. K doesn’t want to prove that he’s a purebred so much as he does a crossbreed. In a way, he wants to be more like Joi – a being without fixed ontology. Villeneuve’s film extols hybridity; it conceptually devalues biotic and material homogeneity.

“A self-sustaining life force”: K discovers the bees

In pursuit of his genetic origins, K heads to Las Vegas, where Deckard fled after the downfall of the Tyrell Corporation. There, K meanders through a desert landscape reminiscent of a forgotten Nubian kingdom: crumbling statues, abandoned palaces, and hieroglyphs of an ancient gambling culture (e.g., roulette tables and jukeboxes). This sequence literalizes Morpheus’s description of the world circa 2199 as a “desert of the real” in The Matrix. K finds himself amidst the ruins of a bygone reality conquered by urban phantasmagoria. Only in the desert – on the periphery of his postmodern dystopia – does K discover a self-sustaining life source: a massive bee house full of honeycomb and swarmed by bees. The mass extinction of animal life is repeatedly alluded to throughout the Blade Runner series. “It must be expensive,” Deckard famously says of Rachael’s artificial owl in Dr. Tyrell’s lair. Both Deckard and K, tellingly, own horse totems – one made of origami, the other of wood – that act as material palliatives for the disappearance of animal life. The fetishization of animalia in Blade Runner suggests these characters’ longing for greater biodiversity. Indeed, K is particularly struck by Deckard’s bedraggled canine. A discontent with the ecological status quo of postmodernity pervades these films. Thus, in 2049, characters variously seek a destabilization of their social order’s biotic hierarchy. K, for example, vies to prove that he’s a human-replicant crossbreed, while Dr. Wallace labors to equip skin jobs with self-generative capacities. For good or for ill, Villeneuve’s protagonists hope to complicate normative understandings of procreation. If Blade Runner thematized emotionality, its sequel does fertility. Blade Runner 2049 is about an urge to create mixed creatures, to upend fixed categories of being.

Brought back to Los Angeles, however, K learns that he is not the product of Rachael’s immaculate conception. After the events of Blade Runner, Deckard and Rachael went into hiding, whereupon she became pregnant and died after a caesarean section performed by Sapper Morton, at whose residence they stowed her body. The replicant underground, a revolutionary freedom movement led by wayward skin jobs, then scrambled the DNA records of Rachael’s baby girl to make it appear as if she birthed a boy. Confused and crushed, K momentarily contemplates suicide on a bridge in a rainstorm, a neo-noir throwback to Deckard’s drizzly meanderings in Blade Runner. A gigantic Joi advertisement then materializes before K and unintentionally reminds him of the affection he once harbored for his own hologram, which was destroyed in the scuffle at Deckard’s casino. Recalling a memory of his own – that is, a non-implanted recollection – of what Morton said to him before his retirement: “You’ve never seen a miracle,” K resolves to sacrifice himself to reunite Deckard with his hybrid offspring, thus himself becoming a kind of non-human miracle worker.

“A gigantic Joi advertisement materializes before K”

In this instant, K accepts his physiological condition as a replicant, as a synthetic being that is no more human than the larger-than-life billboard trying to seduce him. That gigantic hologram nevertheless reaffirms K’s capacity to fall in love with an immaterial being, not with a someone but with a something. The collapse of authenticity threatened by a sentient skin job in 2019 doesn’t seem as existentially vexing in 2049. In this newer Blade Runner, the “truth” of life becomes accessible to all things. Replicants suffer; skin jobs deliver babies; and holograms have sex. A distinction is thus erased between humans and humanoids, between simulacrum and reality, and the world, it turns out, doesn’t collapse in on itself. Blade Runner 2049, in other words, precludes the human from determining our value of the real. Just because Joi is less “human” than K, doesn’t make her any less real, that is, less ontologically significant. In Blade Runner 2049, any being, whether (im)material or (re)produced, merits the same sort of ethical and political consideration. The film resists the anthropocentrism of postmodern thinkers who place an ontological primacy on humankind. “Did it ever occur to you that’s why you were summoned in the first place?” Dr. Wallace asks Deckard, suggesting that he too, despite Ford’s expressed wishes, is a bioengineered replicant designed for impregnating another replicant. “All to make that single, perfect specimen. That is, if you were designed. Love or mathematical precision?”

For its part, Blade Runner 2049 refuses to indulge Dr. Wallace’s false choice. The film suggests that there needn’t be any such epistemological or ontological gap separating humans from material, math from love. It affirms the shared thingliness of all that is (non-)living. Those configured by a string of equations (i.e., Rachael, Joi, K) exist not along a ladderized gradient beneath humans, but in a planar continuum alongside them. These things cannot escape the same ontological significance extended to people. Blurring the lines between personhood and thinghood, Blade Runner 2049 reiterates that we are all composed of matter. “There data makes a man,” Joi, scanning a genomic code, says to K. “A and C and T and G. The alphabet of you, all from four symbols.” For Joi, K is made up of matter, maybe not living, but meaningful, fascinating, vibrant matter; matter that matters.

Vibrant Matter

Blade Runner 2049, consequently, affirms the project launched by Jane Bennet in her ground-breaking study Vibrant Matter. In her work, the political ecologist sought to “cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality” in all forms of material being, a capacity to recognize the “vital materialism” that ensconces us.6 The stuff of our daily lives (ourselves included) possesses what Bennet calls a “thing-power,” that is, a vibrant immanence that inflects not only our daily experiences, but also our sense of self.7 Indeed, it is the very things of Blade Runner 2049 that shape the identity of its replicant-protagonist: the dead tree outside Sapper Morton’s residence, the wooden totem of K’s recollections, the blast furnace in which he hides it, old photographs of Rachael. These objects become the wellspring of an individuality; K’s identity is a mosaic of inanimate material. Indeed, K himself is but synthesized silicone. This human lookalike reminds spectators that all of us are but “walking, talking minerals.”8 Hence, Blade Runner 2049 enlivens photons and ennobles skin grafts. “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do,” Freysa, the leader of the replicant underground, tells K. Like Kafka’s Odradek, the feisty spool of thread in his short story “The Cares of a Family Man,” K (whose name itself pays homage to the protagonist of Kafka’s absurdist novel The Castle) signifies a thingly vitality. These lively yet inert beings intimate the ontological multiplicity of all things, what Deleuze describes as the “hint of animal in plants, and of the vegetable in animals.”9 Villeneuve’s film, in other words, undercuts the supposed metaphysical supremacy of mankind. Blade Runner 2049 reaffirms that people are just “oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, phosphorous, and other elements of Earth’s crust in two-legged, upright forms.”10 There is, in fact, nothing at all special about us.

This ontological levelling, however, does not necessarily devalue the significance of human beings. “The fear is that failing to affirm human uniqueness,” Bennet writes, would “authorize the treatment of people as mere things.”11 Yet such a biotic and material equalization is achieved not through a demotion of the human, but by a promotion of the very elements from which humans are constituted. In Blade Runner 2049, the shared materiality of all (non-)living beings is elevated. The film advocates for the properties of light, metals, and minerals, and, in the process, reminds us of our own thingliness. In doing so, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t demote humans to the level of things so much as it tries to promote things to the level of humans, establishing our connection to the physical world not by difference but by similarity. Per Bennet, “there is no necessity to describe these differences in a way that places humans at the ontological center or hierarchical apex” of any social order.12 The film thus proffers an ontological equality.

If, from one angle, Villeneuve’s film depicts a society collapsing under the weight of its own social, cultural, and biotic stratification, from another, it exposes a postindustrial space in which a radical multiculturalism is taking shape. The “cross-species” relations cultivated by Joi, K, and Deckard reveal the potential for divergent (im)material beings to sustain a sense of community by affirming rather than eliding what differentiates them. Their social harmony, ironically, is driven by inharmonic means, a coherent order of incoherence in which difference is not challenged but recognized and, thereby, celebrated. It would even be a mistake to refer to these on-screen personages as characters. They are what Bennet calls “actants,” things that “can do something,” that “make a difference,” that “produce effects.”13 Indeed, the narrative of Blade Runner 2049 unfolds as a skin job, inspired by a hologram, reunites an ex-cop with his half-human daughter. The things of the film exhibit a thing-power, a distributive sense of vibrant agency. Blade Runner 2049, thus, uncovers our intrinsic inextricability not only from each other, but also from the larger material world. It promotes a subtler “awareness of the complicated web of dissonant connections between bodies.”14 The film challenges the politics of balkanization.

“Playful topography”: Decker encounters Pris in Scott’s Blade Runner

If the political thrust of Scott’s Blade Runner had been an on-screen enactment of Frederick Jameson’s writings on postmodernity, then Villeneuve’s sequel insinuates a politics of synergy that, perhaps, offers a way out of the crumbling cityscape of late capitalism. The cultural, temporal, and spatial heterogeneity of Los Angeles in Scott’s Blade Runner, while raising legitimate aesthetic and philosophical questions, is a fundamentally playful topography. The viewer here recalls Deckard’s clumsy handling of “cityspeak” at a Japanese noodle bar, his daydreams of unicorns, the quirky “toys” of a prematurely aging geneticist, and the violent exhibitionism of Zhora, Pris, and Roy’s exploits. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” Roy says in an operatic, hyper-textual monologue before being retired. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter near the Tannhäuser Gate.” A classic postmodern text, Blade Runner, like a Calvino novel, delights in its indiscriminate scrambling of cultural clues and conventions; its seriousness is somewhat undercut by its own self-conscious silliness. This sort of playfulness, however, is largely absent from Blade Runner 2049. The discovery of a once-pregnant skin job threatens a full-scale war between humans and replicants, an outcome only guaranteed by K’s refusal to eliminate any evidence of the child. The film suggests that the cultural irreconcilabilities occasioned by postmodernity inevitably beget cataclysm. The stakes, then, are higher in 2049 than in 2019. The pastiche of modern society, once playful and beguiling, has been weaponized; it has become a source of deep-seated hostility and, even worse, holocaust.

That K rejects exterminating Deckard’s child, who, it turns out, is Dr. Ana Stelline, a memory designer safeguarded by the replicant underground in an antiseptic compound due to her alleged immune system deficiency, is significant because it signals his desire for greater pluralism. K resists succumbing to the fatalistic logic of Lt. Joshi, who rejects a scenario in which different beings can peaceably co-exist. Yet the only viable future in Blade Runner 2049 is one in which dissimilar “species” learn how to operate in concert. Indeed, unless difference is embraced, LA circa 2049 stands to implode. The call for an intensified diversity in Villeneuve’s film, then, is not platitudinal, but survivalist. His protagonists gradually recognize that “in a knotted world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself.”15 The political thrust of Blade Runner 2049, like Bennet’s Vibrant Matter, is a call for an expanded notion of self-interest. Radicalized social synergy spurs radicalized empathy.

For her part, Ana, working as an independent subcontractor for the Wallace Corporation, defies protocol and bases her blueprints for replicants’ implanted memories on actual events – her own. Thus, Anna has already begun the project of linking herself to other material beings. Her work actualizes the curious series of words repeated by K upon reentering LAPD headquarters: “Cells interlinked within cells interlinked,” which, it turns out, is an intertextual reference to lines from Nabokov’s Pale Fire.16 Anna is interlinking – folding – herself into other beings. She is an on-screen distillation of a vital materialist who refuses to differentiate herself along ontological lines, but rather leans into her genetic ambiguity. She recognizes that “the starting point of ethics is less the acceptance of the impossibility of ‘reconcilement’ and more the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality.”17 Indeed, Ana is first encountered lovingly studying a holographic beetle. When Roy, at the end of his soliloquy in Blade Runner, famously says: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die,” he alludes to the shared vulnerability of all (non-)living things. Everything that surrounds us, ourselves included, is exposed to elemental forces that will ultimately pulverize us into nothingness. All beings are headed straight for nonexistence, subject to erosion by rain. Such fatalism is, indeed, a wellspring for a radically inclusive ethics that accords value to everything.

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”: Roy’s famous speech in Scott’s Blade Runner

The final image in Blade Runner 2049 of Deckard’s hand on the translucent encasement housing his half-human daughter is, in fact, an image of walls collapsing. Deckard here recognizes his own participation in a diverse web of being in which fixed ontological categories no longer hold. Villeneuve’s protagonists variously realize that their untenable social order “built upon a wall” separating kind from kind must be overcome if they want to save themselves. A politics premised on an expanded self-interest, then, offers a way out of the decaying cityscape of postmodernity. Indeed, Ana, a vital materialist, is literally a creator of alternative spaces. This human/replicant spends her days configuring yet unrealized topographies in which virtuality, materiality, and humanity exist in harmonious interexchange.

Ana’s “unrealized topographies in which virtuality, materiality, and humanity exist in harmonious interexchange”

Thus, Blade Runner 2049 resists our contemporary moment of political and cultural polarization that exploits difference as a cudgel to reinforce (inevitably racialized) hostilities. The film instead forwards a vision of social and material difference that is not overcome by elision or homogenization, but is embraced by its amplification. When radically advocating for others, Blade Runner 2049 suggests, we radically advocate for ourselves. The politics of synergy, perhaps, offers spectators what George Lucas, the creator of another sci-fi epic on which Blade Runner unmistakably riffs, would call a new hope – a means to overcome our present-day tribalism, a way to circumvent our collective devolution into the LA of 2049. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner offers a glimpse into a stage of historical development that might proceed the “end of history” – a post-post-history – in which humans and material, “vibrant matter and lively things,” populate a network of smarter, more sustainable sociocultural engagements.18

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All images are screenshots from the film.

  1. Julia Alexander, “Blade Runner 2049’s director weighs in on the replicant theories of the original,” Polygon, 8 (May 2017), https://www.polygon.com/2017/5/8/15580958/blade-runner-2049-rick-deckard-replicant. []
  2. Giuliana Bruno, “Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner,” in October 41 (Summer 1987): p. 68. []
  3. Ibid., p. 65. []
  4. Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2000), p. 30. []
  5. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 16. []
  6. Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 14. []
  7. Ibid., p. 2. []
  8. Lynn Marguils and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 49. []
  9. Cited in Bennet, p. 8. []
  10. Ibid., p. 49. []
  11. Bennet, p. 12. []
  12. Ibid., p. 11. []
  13. Ibid., p. viii. []
  14. Ibid., p. 4. []
  15. Ibid., p. 13. []
  16. Anthony Lane, ‘“Blade Runner 2049’: The Mysteries Deepen,” New Yorker (October 2017): https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/16/blade-runner-2049-the-mysteries-deepen. []
  17. Bennet, p. 14. []
  18. Ibid., p. vii-viii. []