The original Blade Runner was a postmodern film noir. It had a noir movie’s nihilism and pathos, its archetypes of character, plot, and visuals. The events of Blade Runner make sense within that framework, they are justified as story choices and pay off narratively and conceptually within it. Los Angles 2019 seen from 1982 was a decaying dead-end of sterile images and simulation. From culture and architecture that loops back on and consumes itself, through empty rotting buildings and a few overcrowded streets, everything is second order and running out of time between its quotation marks. Everyone wants to defect. Human beings want to leave the dying Earth for the Offworld Colonies, dying Replicants want to escape their handlers and get back to Earth to escape their pre-programmed obsolescence.
Rik Deckard is not, to quote one of those Replicants, “a good man”. As the opening text crawl of the movie makes clear they are a state executioner of escaped slaves. As the movie makes clear, they’re not very good at it. Deckard’s violent, incompetent, systematically constructed and exploited masculinity may be human or it may be a simulation of humanity, or at least manhood. Critiques of Blade Runner that reduce that to a biological question diminish rather than ring-fence the idea of humanity. The spectacularised, aestheticised slo-mo killings of women that Deckard stumbles through – and Deckard only kills women, the men are taken care of by other means – are a contrast to the realtime depiction of their grimacing, sweating, shaking, bellowing murderer who never makes the clean shots that would cinematically cauterise the violence.
Blade Runner 2049 is a blockbuster sequel. That’s a very different framework from either postmodernism or noir. Blockbusters must offer spectacle, catharsis and closure. They must have heroes and villains. And they must have a heterosexual nuclear family at their core, however constructed. When a film noir story is continued within this framework it causes problems. Deckard goes from hard-boiled killer and seducer to nobly absent father and widower. The film is not without critical potential: Deckard’s replacement, Officer K, is trapped in mausculinity-as-violence-for-capital by the disciplinary cybernetics of circuits of images of desire. The giant and pocket-sized holograms that this entails have drawn criticism for being exploitative, but this is a confusion of depiction with endorsement.
Where Blade Runner 2049 does become reactionary beyond the collateral damage of mapping from noir to blockbuster is in its central mystery, which replaces the original’s abstract question of the worth and construction of identity to a concrete one of simple parentage. Building on this, its MacGuffin is the replacement of escape from the infinite replicating capacity of technocapital with embracing the nine-month reproductive capacity of its subjects. The nihilism of the original Bladerunner was liberating, in its own way. The sequel’s restoration of the yoke of reproduction is played as hopeful and even revolutionary but is in fact cause for despair. In 2049 both the system and the defectors are obsessed with faith and fertility. Defect from the human security system and you are personally responsible for ensuring the continuity of the replicant race. No matter who wins, the future for replicant women is The Handmaid’s Tale.
Haven’t they suffered enough?