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Blade Runner 2049: Birth, death, and artificial identity

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35 years after the release of Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi love story Blade Runner, an updated imagining of Philip K. Dick’s A.I. dystopia returned in 2017 when the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 hit theatres.

While enthusiastically lauded by a harangue of ecstatic film critics, Denis Villeneuve’s BR sequel also received considerable scrutiny for its lack of diversity and ‘problematic’ representations of race and gender. While I fervently agree that the notable absence of non-white characters is yet another distressing display of relentless Hollywood whitewashing – especially in a filmic setting that rehashes the dubiously fetishistic Asia-futurism of the original Blade Runner (and right on the heels of an uncomfortable, Johansson-led Ghost in the Shell) – the discussion surrounding the gender-politics in 2049 has dominantly been, in my view, frustratingly superficial.

Firstly, many critics found the misogyny of Villeneuve’s BR world ‘problematic’ and criticised the film for being populated with female prostitutes and holographic fantasy-girls. Conversely, I find the visual and narrative representations of gender in 2049 totally appropriate for an imagination of a patriarchal capitalist dystopia; Giant, neon holograms of sexualised women’s bodies, female-replicant prostitution, and fantasy-girlfriend artificial intelligence are extrapolations of the contemporary objectification, commodification, and oppression of women’s bodies that, while visually dazzling, are intended to denote a twisted and monstrous future patriarchy.

 One particular misunderstanding (as I would see it) of the film’s central theme, articulated in an i-D article, particularly grates: “ […] Not to mention that the ultimate dividing line between human women and the hyper-human replicant women is that real women can give birth. Did you get that? If you don’t give birth, then sorry, you’re not a real woman.” A deeper delve into the films thematic exploration of birth, reproduction, and naturalism struck me as missing from the dominant feminist critical conversation; more considerate analysis might lend to a reading that unearths more complex, radical political ideas in the film.

In 2049, reproduction, rather than empathy, is the new border of contention between humans and so-called replicants, and the capacity to reproduce stands as an underlying justification for humans enslavement of the latter. It’s a society built on a ‘naturalist’ hierarchy whereby the ‘born’ out-value the ‘manufactured’:

Replicants = bioengineered ‘humans’ = unnatural = “non-valuable” life = slaves

Humans = born = natural = “valuable” life = masters

Replicants are manufactured by Wallace Corporation, a total (albeit clichéd) embodiment of unaffected capitalist evil. The Wallace tower is depicted as drenched in golden liquids while the rest of the planet succumbs to a dusty and bone-dry desert apocalypse. Replicant ‘birth’ at Wallace Corp is visualised as a degrading process whereby the replicant falls out of a ziplock-bag amniotic sac, dumped into the world motherless and covered in syrupy substance. The process is somewhere halfway between biologically mammal and artificial manufacture.

Replicant ‘birth’ at Wallace Corp is visualised as a degrading process whereby the replicant falls out of a ziplock-bag amniotic sac, dumped into the world motherless and covered in syrupy substance.

The human-replicant hierarchy is disturbed, however, when K – a replicant blade runner whose job is to ‘retire’ outdated models of his own kind (replicants, who are not ‘born’ are not allowed to ‘die’ either; they are ‘retired’ instead of killed) – discovers the buried body of a replicant who had apparently undergone a cesarean section, the child’s body missing from the grave. The body reveals that replicants can somehow ‘organically’ reproduce, something previously thought impossible; a transgression which in turn validates replicant identity according to the currently instated natural-artificial hierarchy, and thus threatens to topple the final pillar upon which humans justify their superiority to, and enslavement of replicants. K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, fears that the information could start a war between humans and replicants and orders K to find and destroy the child.

In 2049, the human-replicant dichotomy whereby value is ascribed to an identity according to ‘naturalness’ and capacity to reproduce is not intended as implicitly true or acceptable. The crushing mistake in the aforementioned i-D articles take, is that she refers to human women as ‘real’ and replicant women as not.

This is to miss the point of the film entirely. The natural birth / artificial manufacture dichotomy is not intended as a valid distinction between the real and nonreal identity, but constructs the naturalist oppressive power structure that underpins the social injustice of the BR dystopia. The plot reveals an underground rebel group of freedom-fighter replicants rising up against their enslavement in a world that is clearly corrupt, evil and unjust. Joi – K’s holographic girlfriend – is not merely a male-gaze fantasy. She is a nuanced character who yearns for freedom, who risks her own mortality for that freedom and whose eventual death is meaningful, despite her un-embodied, ‘artificial’ identity.

The political-ontological dilemma at the center of 2049 recalls the radical anti-naturalism of the collective Laboria Cuboniks manifesto “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”. XF (for short) are the self-proclaimed “disobedient daughters” of ‘Cyborg Manifesto’s Donna Haraway, a “polymorphous xenofeminist collective” who “advances an affirmation of abstraction as an episto- political necessity for 21st century claims on equality [and] espousing reason and vigorous anti-naturalism […] seeks to dismantle gender implicitly”.

Though they draw inspiration from Haraway’s 1984 manifesto, their anti-naturalism behaves quite differently than Haraways pre-post-gender cyborg who “skips” an ‘original nature’ in its formation of identity. XF proposes an anti-naturalism that, rather than “skipping” the natural, simply denies the natural its deified or determinist status. ‘Nature’ exists and we are born into it, but it should not by its inherent nature-ness occupy a God-like status: nature is not ‘pure’ or inherently just, while artificiality is not. They write:

0 x 0B “A sense of the world’s volatility and artificiality seems to have faded from contemporary queer and feminist politics, in favour of a plural but static constellation of gender identities, in whose bleak light equations of the good and the natural are stubbornly restored. While having (perhaps) admirably expanded thresholds of ‘tolerance’, too often we are told to seek solace in unfreedom, staking claims on being ‘born’ this way, as if offering an excuse with nature’s blessing.”

Here, XF asserts that the ‘born this way’ naturalism of a particular – if well-meaning – liberal feminist rhetoric that intends to ‘justify’ queer identity, is actually a redeployment of the same naturalism used by the alt-right (and those otherwise inclined to misogyny and homophobia) to oppress trans and queer identity and control women’s bodies. XF argues that a conception of identity that requires nature’s “blessing” is ultimately essentialist and deterministic, and returns nature to its role as God, a controlling figure by whom we must be validated. Instead, XF purports that gender and identity is “plural”, “mutable”, “spontaneous”, and that “nothing should be accepted at fixed, permanent, or ‘given’ – neither material conditions nor social forms”. Only through an anti-naturalist stance whereby nature is not held as sacred, can we progress towards a utopian future in which identity has true freedom:

0 x 01 “Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realise that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us—the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing.”

 

As we follow K’s investigation of the missing child, we are convinced through a series of clues that it must be him himself, and that he is the miracle son of Deckard and Rachel. We thus embark on a form of ‘chosen one’ narrative whereupon K escapes his police-work enslavement to find his ‘father’, the audience all the while encouraged to become increasingly invested in his specialness and the prospect of an oedipal reunion. The film subtly places us in a comfort-zone wherein we are aligned with what we think is a special, ‘natural’ replicant, one who was naturally born. Thus we are, in some way, subtly persuaded to buy into the reproductive hierarchy and agree that born-ness, ‘naturalness’, is a sign of validity and value in K’s identity. Yet, as the mystery unravels and new information comes to the fore, the film ends by undercutting its own protagonist when it is revealed by the group of replicant freedom-fighters that K is in-fact, not the child. The films narrative reverence for, and the audience’s identification with K as the ‘chosen one’ is totally erased, our expectations of a ‘natural’ replicant hero overturned.

Only through an anti-naturalist stance whereby nature is not held as sacred, can we progress towards a utopian future in which identity has true freedom

The plot-twist leaves the audience to realise that K was, in terms of ‘purity’ and ‘biology’, unexceptional from other replicants all along. We are forced to consider that we empathised with K, that nothing has changed since we last cared so much about him. His death at the end of the film is, like Joi’s, intended as poignant and meaningful. These characters were worth caring about, whether they were ‘born’ and ‘natural’ or not.

While in 1982 audiences grappled with the possibility, and existential implications of A.I. empathy, in 2017 we are asked to directly confront our own inherent naturalism and its political implications for identity. If one is willing to treat the replicant characters of the film as ‘real’ – as we are forced to do through our identification with K and supporting replicant characters – one is invited to empathise with a variety of identities on the biological-technological scale; from born human, to manufactured replicant, to un-embodied hologram, and identities in-between. In the words of XF:

0x1A “In the name of feminism, ‘Nature’ shall no longer be a refuge of injustice, or a basis for any political justification whatsoever!

If nature is unjust, change nature!”

 

This piece was originally published as “The Anti-Naturalism of Blade Runner 2049” on the Radical Art Review

Ebba loves literature, but has a BA in the slightly lower ranked art form of cinema. Her heroes are Pauline Kael, David Lynch, Donna Haraway, RuPaul, Albert Camus, Kathryn Bigelow and Eileen Myles, to name a few. She wrote her Bachelor dissertation on cyborgs and has a soft spot for science-fiction and horror. She likes her culture mixed, high and low, pop and pretentiousness together. She spends most of her time listening to pop-culture podcasts, writing, reading, and making crappy art. She’ll be starting a master in film studies at KU in 2018.

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