Perception and Reality in Blade Runner 2049

This article contains spoilers. Do not read it until you’ve seen Blade Runner 2049.

There’s a lot to unpack in Blade Runner 2049. At nearly three hours, it’s a dense, jam-packed film that says a lot about technology, masculinity and cinema itself (I’d love to read an essay about how it deconstructs film noir and even the first Blade Runner). I’m not going to attempt to cover all that here though. I don’t have the time, and having seen it just once, I’m going to struggle to comprehensively discuss the fragment of the film I want to here, never mind everything else I could mention. So instead, I’m going to focus on what the film has to say about perception and, in particular, the perception of women.

Blade Runner 2049 has already received some fascinating write-ups about its treatment of women. My personal view is that I lament the fact the film reduces women to stock, often sexualised roles, but would argue that it does so to make a point about misogyny and the treatment of women in society. The future of 2049 is, like that of the original film, one in which women are prostitutes or sexualised advertising hovering over cities for men to leer at. But while the original film pushed any critical thought about this to the sidelines, 2049 makes it its central thesis. It’s about the male gaze, the human gaze and the tragic effects they can have.

Arguably the film’s most controversial scene, and certainly the one that’s struck with me the most, is a sort-of threesome between our lead (replicant Blade Runner Agent K), his holographic girlfriend Joi and a replicant prostitute called Mariette, whom Joi projects herself into her in order to physically touch K for the first time. The scene never gets explicit and cuts before it moves into the bedroom, but it made me deeply uncomfortable throughout because it feels exploitative and voyeuristic. K is using these women to satisfy a need, and director Denis Villeneuve does everything he can to remind us of how unnatural the moment is by showing Joi and Mariette moving out of sync with each other as they caress K’s face and hands.

Here, and throughout the film, the two women seem to lack agency. They’re programmed to do what they’re doing: Mariette to elicit sex, Joi to show love towards K. K himself is no different. He’s also programmed to do a job and accept the orders he’s given without question. But just because these feelings are programmed are they any less real? K tells Joi that he doesn’t need to touch her to know his love for her is real, and isn’t that enough to show that he does love her, and in turn that her love for him is valid and real itself? After all, aren’t we as humans biologically programmed to some degree to love and desire love from others? What makes our desire to be loved different to K and Joi’s? And if we validate our sense of love, dictated it is by chemical impulses, why do we find it difficult to validate K and Joi’s, just because it’s dictated by code and circuits?

I’ve used a heck of a lot of question marks in that last paragraph because I simply don’t know the answers, and I don’t think I’m meant to. Villeneuve draws out the scene’s unease, but he also underlines its tenderness, intimacy and humanity. Even though I was creeped out, I couldn’t condemn the scene, or the characters. Neither K nor Joi are bad people. They’re lost, like so many of us are, and they feel like they’ve found a connection in each other. In a world of despair and degradation like the one Blade Runner 2049 depicts, who wouldn’t want to feel loved (emotionally or physically), even if that love is coming from circuits and code? Again, questions. Again, very few answers. Just a sense of ambiguity and unease driven by the perceptions of the characters and the audience.

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The closest the film gets to providing an answer to these issues is when it introduces Deckard, who’s hiding in a devastated Las Vegas (another area dominated by objectifying images of women). Deckard’s now haggard and alone, save for a dog. When K asks him whether the canine is human or replicant, Deckard replies that he doesn’t care; it doesn’t matter to him so it’s not a significant question. And why should it matter? Deckard sees the dog. He cares about the dog. And, as it obediently wanders around after him, we assume the dog cares about him. Whether either of them is biologically ‘real’ or not doesn’t matter. Deckard gives his dog a sense of reality by perceiving it to be real. The same could be said for K, Joi and Mariette. It all depends on your perception.

However, while perception in Blade Runner 2049 can imbue humanity, it can also remove it. One of the film’s other major female characters is Luv, the assistant of Joi creator Niander Wallace. He’s a terrible piece of work, and we come to view Luv as being just as repugnant as she essentially becomes the film’s proactive antagonist – doing his bidding for him. She’s kitted out with the power suits and perfectly dressed hair of any number of film noir femme fatales (again, a noir reading of Blade Runner 2049 would be fascinating) and looks every bit the villain. She’s not entirely evil though. There’s fierce intelligence in her and real compassion – she sheds tears as Wallace commits his various hideous acts. Through such moments, the film hints that she’s no less conflicted than K, but this is his film, not hers, so we don’t see much more of what’s going on beneath her fatale front. We’re just left with the brutal, vampy exterior that screams: villain!

Again, it’s perception. We’ve cast Luv in a role, and that’s all she can ever be in this world – just as all Joi can ever be is the docile girlfriend. We convince ourselves that Luv is more free than Joi – she seems to have more agency and isn’t chained to a hard drive like Joi is. But it’s just perception. Just because Luv has a physical form (even if that physical form is mechanic) is she really more free than the holographic Joi? Is our perception of her not as influenced by her physical form as our perception of Joi is? Do we not condemn her because of her association with the villain Wallace in the same way we warm to Joi because of her association with the hero K? Is our view of what’s real and what’s not, who’s good and who’s bad, how we see one person against how we see another not entirely dictated by the boxes our perception puts them in? Questions, questions, questions…

The tragedy of this problem is captured in the finale, where K and Deckard find Deckard’s daughter, the first child born of a replicant. She’s a sweet, pure young woman who creates memories for replicants and iskept within a glass bubble because of her weakened immune system. When Deckard meets her, she’s creating a new memory – one involving snow. Dressed in white, surrounded by white and at the centre of a snow flurry, she’s the ultimate vision of feminine purity and the perfect daughter for her father, who stayed away from her fearing that association would lead to her being hunted and killed. It was a noble intention, but by casting her as the innocent and helpless victim, Deckard removed her humanity. He’s turned into an image, a thing; not necessarily a replicant, but certainly a replica of a human being.

In the film’s haunting final shot, Deckard puts his hand up to the glass screen, unable to touch his child as she talks about how beautiful the memory she’s creating is. A combination of horror and love play out on his face as he realises what his decision has done to her: she’s a fantasy vision creating other fantasy visions for fantasy creations. In Blade Runner 2049, there’s no escape, nowhere we can hide from the destructive perceptions we place on people and the roles they have to play as a result. “Too bad she won’t live. Then again, who does?”

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The Rebellion of Kindness

This blog’s name is a direct reference to E.T., but it also represents the films and TV shows that emerged out of the shadow of that movie. You know the kind: ones where kids go on adventures, show their resourcefulness and save the day. Those movies prominently featured kids on bikes, but they were about much more than just that. They were about where those bicycles took the kids – literally and emotionally.

Following my introduction through E.T., this kind of fiction remained a passion of mine during my teen years, when I’d lap up shows like Eerie, Indiana, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Round the Twist, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and it hasn’t gone away. Because of this fascination, I started watching the Amazon Original Series Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, a sweet and charming show about three friends and the adventures they have in their early to mid-teens.

I tuned in out of mere interest because it seemed very much like a Kids Riding Bicycles kinda show. But as I finished the finale this week with tears in my eyes and a desperate yearning for the final episode to never end, I realised it had totally hooked me.

Gortimer is a delightful show. I could ramble on and on about its many incredible triumphs: the clever use of fantasy to heighten emotional crises, the bold and beautifully handled dramatic shift it takes at the end of the second season, the tough decisions and unfair problems it routinely hands its characters. I probably will return to those topics at some point, because there’s an awful lot to say about them, but for the here and now, I want to discuss something else: kindness.

Kindness seems unpopular at the moment. And that isn’t just a comment on the terrible times we live in. Even among seemingly level-headed, non-Trumpeteer people, being ‘nice’ or ‘kind’ is seen as something of an insult. Niceness is boring. Kindness is bland. Why would anyone want to be any of those things? Gortimer revels in niceness and kindness though. Indeed, towards the end of the third and final season, an entire episode is dedicated to characters talking about how good a person the lead is. (On paper, that sounds unbearable, but the show’s charm and the context surrounding it make it work.)

Every episode, Gortimer and his friends, Mel and Ranger, are presented with various emotional problems, which manifest themselves with fantastical dimensions. Ranger tries to help people too much and so ends up literally taking on the weight of the world, even developing his own gravitational pull. Mel is studying too hard for a test and crams her head so full of information that she forgets basic facts like what to call a pen. Gortimer helps out a shy student who dislikes the spotlight so much that literally nobody knows she exists.

None of these ideas are particularly new or revolutionary. Gortimer will not redefine TV or change any games, but that’s not a bad thing. We place such value on the concept that TV shows or films will completely alter the way we think about a story, medium or genre that we sometimes forget that a good story is a good story and that good characters are good characters. This will always remain, regardless of whether they have the seismic impact of a Game of Thrones or Mad Men.

By turning its attentions away from such things and focusing on a handful of kids on one street in a small suburban town, Gortimer gives its characters room to breathe and allows their decency to shine through. There are no battles between good and evil, no grand fantastical vistas or megalomaniacal supervillain plans. It’s just nice people doing nice things for other nice people. As in life, they fail, and stutter, and stumble. They’re frustrated by life and have life beat them down when least expected. But they always remain kind and there’s something strangely bold about that. There’s something rebellious about it.

I’d like to see more shows like Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street and much more coverage for them when they do arrive. We’ve become so accustomed to game-changing drama and shows driven by negativity that we’ve forgotten that good storytelling isn’t all about antagonism. Gortimer proves that kindness can generate great stories as well because kindness is something to aspire towards. Gortimer, Mel and Ranger are people to aspire towards. So if you haven’t seen Gortimer give it a go. It’ll charm you with its sincerity and leave you with the kind of warm glow that only kindness can generate.