Blade Runner 2049: No Future
This article contains spoilers for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 and assumes familiarity with the plot of both films. A modified version of this article appears in Jacobin Magazine.
Decades ago, Frederic Jameson claimed, “The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination.” Projected decades into the future, Blade Runner 2049 consists of a series of gorgeous visions that supersede their content, producing affects more from the alternating saturation and desolation of the screen than from story or character. The original Blade Runner emerged against the backdrop of anxieties about waning American technological hegemony and its dominance in the global order. The sequel comes when we are confronted with material consequences of climate crisis, with hurricanes, floods, and droughts threatening security and food supplies. In Blade Runner 2049, the lack of master narrative to suture these stunning images is not a flaw but rather the point, akin to the meaninglessness of the very term “blade runner.”
Post-apocalyptic fiction necessarily grapples with futurity. America is founded on the theft of land and bodies—an apocalypse for Indigenous people and the enslavement of Black people—and perpetuating accumulation into the future. Moreover, speculative fiction in general has long dealt with the fear of the colonizer to be colonized themselves—see Independence Day, for example—and the precarious policing and reproduction of the white nation. Blade Runner provides an imaginary displacement of American slavery through the Aryan-looking Roy Batty and his coterie of white slaves as well as the implication that our all-American hero is himself part of that abject category. In 2049, climate apocalypse has already happened, its anxieties contained through the fetishization of the image on the level of form and a nostalgic retrenchment into heteronormative white futurity on the level of content.
If climate crisis ends cycles of accumulation, then what happens when there is nothing left to accumulate? The opening of Blade Runner 2049 offers an answer: an eye opens and it cuts to repeated patterns, fascinating, enrapturing terraces and lattices. It’s a feast for the eyes, to be sure, but here the agricultural terrain cultivates worms like a corpse. Other images in the film overwhelm with their stark beauty—K walking through a vivid orange landscape, glittering cityscapes, a lone tree, snowflakes. Images such as the towering female sex sculptures and Giant Joi offer literal pornographic fascination. There is nothing new, only the surface, the fetish that effaces history—here literalized by references to a technological blackout.
In looking to the post-apocalyptic future, Blade Runner 2049 is deeply conservative. While the first film presented its nostalgia through its retro-futuristic noir generic mode, the second film double downs on the traditional couple-form and reproductive futurity. In doing so it requires a re-reading of Rachel and Deckhard’s relationship from assault to messianic love—this revision is not incidental but rather fundamental to how nostalgia functions; it’s not a real history but a fabricated one.
Similarly, the misogyny of the film is part of the retreat into the conservative notions of heteronormative reproduction. Indeed, as women are the vectors of futurity in this film, they fill circumscribed roles that support the patriarchal reproductive project to greater or lesser degrees, as literally reproductive, affective mirrors or sexual objects for men, or by policing the existing order. After all, this film comes at a time when the President brags about assault and the Vice President calls his wife “mother” and considers all other women potential jezebels.
Niander Wallace asks Deckhard to consider whether Rachel was specifically constructed for him to love and reproduce with, taking away her agency to a greater degree even than Deckhard’s assault, further emphasizing that the reproductive hope for the future is predicated upon fabrication. Deckhard tells K that sometimes the best way to love someone is to be a stranger, which sounds romantic and ludicrous in the way of cinematic tropes of both love-at-first sight and sacrificial love. Of course, the story is Deckhard’s, not Rachel’s; the original Rachel must die offscreen after giving birth and the copy onscreen with a perfunctory shot to the head.
K’s girlfriend Joi has no material form and is designed to be the perfect retro housewife. She emerges first as disembodied voice and then as hologram, a grotesque pantomime of the traditional couple-form—the difference being that, while she is a mirror and amplifier of K’s desires following patriarchal convention, she is non-reproductive. A provocative scene involves her hiring a replicant prostitute to provide material form so she can fulfill K’s sexual desire. Questions about whether her stated desire to do this for him is real or if her later decision to put herself at risk comes from genuine love miss the point; the film is focused on the supremacy of the image and thus the affects they produce are as real as those affected. Indeed, the sex scene draws attention most to its own technique rather than any form of romanticism or titillation, with faces and limbs blending through special effects. Joi is as real as cinema itself, a machine that reflects and produces desires.
Luv, as one of the primary antagonists, could have the potential to be a fully fleshed female character. Yet her motivation stems from fulfilling Wallace’s fantasy of being the ultimate divine slave-master and her own desire to be the angel in that narrative—in her words, “the best one.” In an extreme fetishization of the womb, Wallace utters mythological incantations over the naked body of a new-born female replicant and then stabs her in the abdomen because she is non-reproductive—a penetration of death. Luv sheds a tear as this investment bore no fruit. The scene highlights the desired (and, frankly, transphobic) future based on reproduction in the womb. Her most corporeal moment is her gratuitous death scene.
Instead of imagining a radically new kind of future after ecological collapse, the film instead retreats into an impossible immaculate conception that parallels the origin story of Christian mythology. K is not special in the sense of reproductive futurity of the mythology of the film—he is not the child that was promised—but he is the vector of the film narrative. His final pose echoes not just the snowy scene of Roy Batty’s demise but also Jesus on the cross; the film is explicit that our protagonist is the most human in his sacrifice, the moment of no-future.
If what is at stake here, and in American mythology more generally, is the policing and reproduction of the white nation when threatened with demographic and climate crises, then the film must transcribe slavery onto white bodies and marginalize people of colour. The fantasy of Blade Runner is slaves who have to prove their humanity in an ontological sense—if you stab a replicant, do they not bleed?—because they’re quite literally non-human. This parallel effaces the very real humanity of actual enslaved people and reduces them to their energy and capital. The imperative to have to prove one’s humanity is legitimized here since the difference is in the body itself and by extension their reproductive capacity. Slavery, of course, required reproduction through rape, which also explains the disavowal of the rape scene in the original film—it would be too real. Imagine, too, if the replicant Wallace births in the hopes of reproducing his slave army were a Black woman; it would break the fantasy of collapsing the struggle of American slavery with the reproduction of whiteness.
Blade Runner 2049, more so that the original, does include some characters of colour. Yet they are contained outside the project of reproductive futurity. The name of Robin Wright’s character, Joshi, is a common Indian name, meaning “astronomer” in Sanskrit. Rather than have an Indian person play the character, this potential racialization is precluded by casting a white woman. Moreover, she is a human who literally polices the existing order; her only sexual overtures are to the non-reproductive replicant K. Barkhad Abdi plays a Black man who works on the black market of information and goods, a caricature of the swindler in the bazaar. Lennie James’ character, the aptly named “Mister Cotton,” is a Black Fagin running an orphanage of child labourers; children in the film are corrupted and abused by a racialized Other rather than nurtured by the avatars of a desirable kind of futurity. If the American project since its genesis involves reproducing the white nation, racialized people and the wrong kind of white people are threats that must be expelled or contained.
Consider Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival, which also posits a no-future to reproduction and whose couple-form occurs mostly in a narrative lacuna; the film destabilizes linear temporality itself to mark the child for death before she is born. The HBO series Westworld also grapples with fears of automation but imagines a kind of non-reproductive futurity. In the latter, apocalypse has been replaced with a slick acceleration of technology coupled with the retrograde colonial fantasy of a Wild West terra nullis. Imagined (no-)futures proliferate in contemporary narratives, containing or sublimating our collective fears and desires.
Thus, back to Jameson: “The atomized or serial ‘public’ of mass culture wants to see the same thing over and over again, hence the urgency of the generic structure and the generic signal.” Blade Runner 2049 is not new or innovative but rather an intensification of classic science-fiction and post-apocalyptic tropes. The film relies on its own legibility vis-à-vis genre so it doesn’t have to develop characters or have an original story. Jameson’s assessment, only a few years before the original Blade Runner, is even more relevant in today’s culture of memes, adaptations, and franchises; there is no reproduction, only recycling. The figure of futurity, Deckhard and Rachael’s child Ana, is a memory-maker—she fabricates and copies the past—and lives in a sterile glass cage; the only future implied in her final scene with Deckhard is more repetitions of Blade Runners. Each iteration of Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like tells the same stories with ever more aestheticized and fetishized images and spectacular special effects, copies of increasing scale and intensity like Giant Joi. These cultural forms are reproduced with a thickening of mediation analogic to the inverse of reproducing the white nation: the increasingly ideological justifications for the attrition of Blackness in the move from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. If Blade Runner 2049 wrestles with climate catastrophe and the end of accumulation, it can only look back: there are neither new lands nor new narratives, with the future a machine that looks backward to the past because it lacks the resources to construct a future.