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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