This review contains spoilers for Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Arrival.
What does a world after climate catastrophe look like? The opening of Blade Runner 2049 offers one answer: K (Ryan Gosling), a bioengineered being — a replicant, in the franchise’s terminology — charged with hunting down and “retiring” older models, dozes off as his self-driving vehicle flies over a stunning landscape of latticed terraces. It’s a feast for the eyes, to be sure, but when he lands, we learn that the land only cultivates worms — like a corpse.
Other images overwhelm viewers with their stark beauty — the vivid orange air that permeates Las Vegas, Los Angeles’s glittering cityscape, a lone, dead tree on the protein farm, snowflakes that melt on K’s hand. The towering female sex sculptures and the holographic ad for Joi, a computerized housewife, provide pornographic fascination. Dig beneath these enrapturing surfaces, however, and you discover that the world of Blade Runner 2049 is barren.
This sterility contrasts with the importance the movie places on reproduction. Picking up thirty years after the original, Blade Runner 2049 follows K as he investigates the child of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young). Since at least one member of that couple is a replicant, their daughter seems like a technological impossibility. Her very existence offers new hope for the nascent rebellion as well as for industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who yearns to develop a self-reproducing android to exponentially grow his workforce.
This movie arrives at a moment when we are facing the material consequences of climate crisis. Hurricanes, floods, and droughts threaten our homes and food supplies, making the future seem even less certain. Yet despite all its futuristic trappings, Blade Runner 2049 offers a conservative response to these collective fears, calling for a return to an imagined past of whiteness and traditional gender norms.
The sequel’s opening titles explain that Wallace has saved humanity by developing synthetic farming and building a new, obedient model of replicant to provide the labor for colonial expansion. This backstory illustrates how post-apocalyptic fiction, ostensibly concerned with the future, also invites its audiences to grapple with the past.
The first Blade Runner displaced the United States’ original sin — its enslavement of black people — on to Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the Aryan-looking rebel leader, and his coterie of white slaves. The sequel maintains these images of whitewashed slavery but twists them in a new direction.
Both films grapple with the replicants’ “realness,” offering a futuristic retelling of the ancient story of slaves striving for equality. In the original, the Voight-Kammff test, a series of questions meant to evoke emotional responses, was supposed to separate human from robot.
In the sequel, however, K summarizes the dividing line between replicants and humans as the difference between things that are made and creatures that are born. Proving one’s humanity, then, depends on the ability to produce children.
In a disturbing sequence, we watch as a new replicant falls from her plastic womb onto the hard, concrete floor. Fully adult, she struggles to adjust to her new world. After examining her, Wallace stabs her in the abdomen, killing her because she is, like all his creations, unable to reproduce. Imagine if the filmmakers had cast a black actor in this role: how would audiences have reacted to that techno-slave narrative?
Blade Runner 2049, more so than the original, does include some characters of color, but it places them firmly outside the reproductive realm. In fact, most police the existing order, pointedly reversing the racialized power dynamics of American slavery.
Lt. Joshi, K’s boss, bears a common Indian name meaning “astronomer.” By casting Robin Wright to play her, however, the filmmakers whitewash a potentially racialized character while also assigning her the task of policing the existing — and almost entirely white — order. Furthermore, she makes sexual overtures only to the replicant K, which keeps her outside the reproductive realm.
Doc Badger (Barkhad Abdi) works on the black market of information and goods, presenting a caricature of the swindler in the bazaar. More pointed, however, is Mister Cotton (Lennie James), the black Fagin who oversees a workhouse where child laborers dismantle old electronics. He explicitly tells K that none of these children will enjoy the glittering future that humans have built in their off-world colonies.
In Blade Runner 2049, racialized people — both people of color and replicants — must be expelled or contained: the movie foregrounds the plight of white slaves while simultaneously marginalizing actual people of color.
Trad Wives of the Future
Aside from Lt. Joshi, the other women who appear in Blade Runner 2049 exist only in relation to male desire. In this, the movie says more about the present than the future: after all, we have a president who brags about sexual assault and a vice president who believes all women are potential Jezebels.
K’s partner Joi (Ana de Armas) has no material form. She first appears as a disembodied voice, then as a hologram. In fact, she’s confined to K’s apartment until he buys an emanator, a device that projects her wherever he travels. She’s designed to perform as the idealized housewife; together, she and K make a grotesque pantomime of the traditional couple, albeit one that can never reproduce.
In a provocative scene, Joi hires Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), a replicant sex worker, to become her body and fulfill K’s sexual desire. Questions about whether Joi actually wants to do this or if her feelings for K are “real” miss the point. The sequence, which draws viewers’ attention to its special effects rather than its romantic or titillating content, shows that the film is more interested in the images it can create than the story it can tell. Indeed, Joi is as “real” as cinema itself — a machine that reflects and produces desire.
Luv, one of the primary antagonists, could have been a fully developed character, but the filmmakers decided to ground her motivation in her desire to become Wallace’s “best one.” She betrays her own kind — and her own horror at watching Wallace treat other replicants as disposable — in order to become exceptional.
But the film’s misogyny is most on display when it revises the original movie’s rape scene. In the first installment, Deckard pushes Rachael against a wall and orders her to tell him she wants him. Blade Runner 2049 transforms this assault into a messianic love story that produces the impossible replicant child.
When Deckard narrates the gap between films for K, he explains that sometimes the best way to love someone is to become a stranger. His romantic — yet ludicrous — statement plays on the cinematic tropes of both love at first sight and sacrificial love, but, more importantly, it refocuses the franchise’s narrative arc on Deckard. Rachael dies off screen after giving birth, reminding viewers that a woman’s primary value is her ability to bear children. After the child comes, the mother has fulfilled her value.
Intensifying Rachael’s passivity, Wallace asks Deckard to consider if she was specifically programmed to meet him and bear his child. This suggestion reinforces the film’s foundational idea that the future depends on rewriting the past.
Indeed, Deckard and Rachael’s daughter Ana (Carla Juri) is a memory-maker: she fabricates the past, using her own childhood as raw material to give new replicants three-dimensional backstories.
Yet Ana lives in a sterile glass cage. If the future requires heterosexual reproduction, it is unclear how she could participate: the film elevates and mythologizes heterosexual love without offering alternative models of reproduction.
Instead of imagining a radically new kind of future after ecological collapse, the film retreats into mythologies of immaculate conception and self-sacrifice.
Though K is not the child that was promised, he is undoubtedly the film’s hero. His final pose echoes not only the snowy scene of Roy Batty’s demise in the original film but also Jesus on the cross: Blade Runner explicitly states that our protagonist becomes “real” only in his sacrifice, in a moment that seems to foreclose on the possibility of his future.
Blade Runners All the Way Down
Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival also foregrounds the dead-end of reproduction. There, he destabilizes linear time itself in order to mark the child for death before she’s even born. The HBO series Westworld conjures a different kind of future threatened by nonreproductive automation, through a retreat into the colonial fantasy of a Wild West. Imagined no-futures appear everywhere, revealing capitalism’s inability to overcome the challenges of the present.
Frederic Jameson wrote that “the . . . ‘public’ of mass culture wants to see the same thing over and over again.” Blade Runner 2049 is neither new nor innovative but rather, a rehash of classic sci-fi tropes. The film relies on genre so it doesn’t have to develop new characters or tell an original story. Jameson’s assessment, which he made only a few years before the original Blade Runner came out, is even more relevant in today’s culture of memes, adaptations, and franchises. There is no reproduction, merely recycling.
The only future made possible by Blade Runner 2049’s final scene is more and more Blade Runners. Each iteration of Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like tells the same story over and over again: with ever more beautiful images and stunning special effects, copies of increasing scale and intensity proliferate, like the giant projections of Joi that confront K on the streets of Los Angeles.
Blade Runner 2049 tries to wrestle with climate catastrophe, but it can only look back: there are neither new lands nor new narratives because we lack the resources to construct a future in which we can live.