The Velveteen Replicant

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Blade Runner 2049 | Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is coerced out of early retirement to hunt a group of replicants gone rogue. He finds the one called Zhora by analyzing a photograph stashed among another’s personal belongings; a memento, whose technical enhancement gradually reveals a woman’s mirrored reflection. Deckard intercepts Zhora between shifts at a neo-burlesque club. Following a bit of “undercover” work about as sophisticated as Humphrey Bogart’s bookstore accent in The Big Sleep, there’s a chase in the rain that ends in open fire. Zhora crashes through a series of glass store displays, blood splashing the lining of her translucent raincoat. Bystanders surround the spectacle. Automated cop-Roombas drift in to contain the scene, intoning “Move on, move on” to the rubbernecking crush—though moving on is precisely what no one in this world can do, fixated as it is on the potentialities and perils of memory.

Thirty-five years later, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t so much update its predecessor’s concerns as literally reboot them—a fact that’s understandably disappointed critics who’d hoped that Denis Villeneuve’s take would do considerably more than pay homage to its source material. But it also fits that 2049 would end up being irrepressibly nostalgic for a film that was itself visually and narratively steeped in nostalgia. Comparing Blade Runner to Kathryn Bigelow’s baroque Blue Steel released in the same year, Steven Shaviro observes how the former’s backward gaze threatens to undermine its sci-fi status:

The film composes its broken-down future not out of elements from the past, but out of their absence. The desire for outmoded scenes and situations, for the easy legibility of conventions of genre and gender, is validated—rather than frustrated—by the irrelevance and unattainability of such scenes and conventions, and by the ostentatious artificiality of their postmodern reproduction.

Blade Runner’s ostentatious noir style, all sedative slow motion and chiaroscuro, supplants enunciation with decoration. “Like Rutger Hauer’s replicant,” Shaviro concludes, “we are left at the end of the film with marvelous, fading memories, visions that aren’t truly our own.” Such visions return in Blade Runner 2049 like long recurring dreams, inviting viewers to hold the two films together as if comparing nearly identical pictures in a magazine to number the visible differences. I, too, saw plenty of parallels on rewatching Blade Runner: The constant weather straining visibility, city air dense with umbrellas and food stalls. An enduring affinity for Johnnie Walker Black. Ads for Coca-Cola, the very brand Mad Men used to signify the emotional link between capitalism and storytelling. Archives and offices styled like palatial tombs. Severe bangs. Pictures of mothers. Clues in pianos. More clear raincoats.

Blade Runner 2049 discharges these images in a relentless and seemingly pointless recitation of its visual past. Yet the films’ central concerns are different: if, in Blade Runner, the replicants’ attempt to extend their lifespans foregrounds a problem of finitude, Blade Runner 2049 is decidedly about realness—its constitution and criteria—which the first film largely took for granted. Original power couple Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) understood their authenticity, and instead questioned the unequal conditions allotted to different forms.

The head trip of 2049, then, is plural: Humankind is threatened with the knowledge that replicants can sexually reproduce, which the film posits as transcendent, apocalypse-ensuring power. Deckard-analogue “K” (Ryan Gosling) is briefly animated by the notion that he hasn’t simply discovered this phenomenon, he’s its paragon. Not just a boy, a son. Special. Wanted. Loved. And the final head trip: K isn’t this person at all. He’s only the copy of a miracle, a decoy planted to further obscure the real child’s identity, and protect the resistance network thus implicated. But trying on the option changes him regardless.

Like the titular toy in The Velveteen Rabbit, K increasingly contemplates the difference between real and fabricated, born and made. And, as in the story, only love’s unwavering devotion is suitably powerful to effect the alchemy from one state to the other:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

In the film’s opening, as K retires solitary Nexus-7 Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), mid-fight banter differentiates their models: Obedient Nexus-9 K doesn’t run because, according to Morton, he’s “never seen a miracle.” What miracle? K seems to ask himself, as he stoically follows a series of leads that furnish further clues: yellow flowers laid in memorial in Morton’s yard reveal a burial site, which reveals bones, which reveal upon scrutiny that replicants can make babies, which reveals the L.A.P.D.’s interest in suppressing the very information sought by engineering mogul Niander Wallace (played in mercifully few scenes by Jared Leto in Halloween contacts) and his assistant-cum-assassin, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Meanwhile, K investigates his origin, confiding his findings in his girl Friday: the beautiful companionate AI, Joi (Ana de Armas).

Joi’s model is advertised throughout the city via Godzilla-sized digital billboards. Overhead, she preens and purrs, promising consumers to be whoever they want, wherever they want her. In the age of female-voiced help tech like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, a vaguely corporeal upgrade to the sentient kitchen timer doesn’t seem so far away. But unlike these assistants, Joi performs the emotional labor of listening. She solicits conversation, providing receptivity, attentiveness, and support in return. Blade Runner’s “desire for outmoded scenes and situations,” as Shaviro put it, is parodied by Joi’s entrance, wherein she sweeps into the room via a ceiling-mounted projector, serving “dinner” to her sweetheart in a 1950s silhouette. Only, dinner is a hologram resembling food, shimmering over the dorm ramen-like meal that K has prepared himself. One might recall the life of “JOI” in contemporary digital culture, as the porn acronym for Jerk Off Instruction. In the straight subgenre, women address their encouragement to the camera, POV-style; that their participation is physically remote, and even inherently illusory, does little to dampen its effectiveness.

Like a real girl, Joi works to connect with her cohabitant. It’s to her that K’s entrusted his earliest memory, which he redacts for police Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). In the memory, young K is chased through industrial scaffolding by a group of boys. They want his only possession, an engraved wooden horse. He hides it in a furnace and they pummel him anyway. For Joi, the link between Morton’s ossuary and the date carved into the base of the horse proves what she’s long suspected: her replicant K is one-of-a-kind.

To test his memory’s veracity, K pays a visit to esteemed implant designer Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri). She works as they talk, shuffling through minute shifts in a child’s birthday scene on what looks like a squeezebox accordion. Intuitively navigating the scene’s possible permutations—a sweep of frosting, or an additional face around the table—Dr. Stelline explains that what makes memories feel authentic enough to elicit human response isn’t, as people assume, a matter of sufficient, crystalline detail. On the contrary, “We recall with our feelings. Anything real should be a mess.” To demonstrate, Dr. Stelline leads K to a kind of two-way microscope, which allows them to link up on either side of the glass wall that protects her compromised immune system from fatal contamination. She asks him to summon a memory, and just let it play. Though the camera rests with K and Stelline looking into the machine, cutting between his increasing if faint agitation and her teary response to whatever she sees, the scene’s sound is overcome by the clanging footfall and high-pitched shouting of K’s memory. “Someone lived this, yes,” she says finally, wiping her face. “This happened.” K vibrates with emotion. He admits, for the first time, that he believes his recollection—and thus his origin, and his quality of being—is real. Outside, he watches snow land and melt on his palm.

This is one of both films’ favorite visual conceits for expressing a “real” feeling; a tactile encounter with precipitation. It’s as if the wet noir of future-LA exists only so characters may, in their own time, notice the sensations of weather and be transformed accordingly. We see it in the end of Blade Runner, when Roy runs circles around a pursuant Deckard, at one point pushing his head through the building’s outer wall. It’s a goofy moment, highlighting Roy’s strength with the solemnity of a pop-up book, but it also gives way to something beautiful: Roy pauses, head exposed, to feel the rain, and the feeling makes his eyes close. We pause too, sharing the brief image of pleasure before it passes, like all others, “lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Early in Blade Runner 2049, we see something similar after K presents Joi with an “emanator” wand, a portable version of her static console. With this attachment, she can go wherever she wants to, and her first destination is the building’s roof. It is, as always, raining, and Joi’s first rain results in a kind of haptic image. The water hits her skin and skitters, prompting her holographic surface to react as if wet. Like the subject of emanation, the sensation is abstract, yet perceptible.

Later, when K has lied to Lt. Joshi about eliminating “the child” he believes himself to be, Joi tells him to move her to the emanator and take the home console offline. This way, no intruder could access the sensitive data they share—of what K knows and where he is. We’re reminded that data is remembered; that technology like Joi is designed not only to store, but to retain. Memory thus imagined is susceptible to abuse, and, in a film that insists our memories make us real, takes on metaphysical significance. K hesitates; without a backup, if something happens to the wand, Joi will essentially die. Joi understands, and thrills to the prospect of having something to lose. “Like a real girl,” she smiles.

But the pursuit of realness, as The Velveteen Rabbit suggests, is not painless.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

K becomes “Joe”—an oddly analogous “real” name assigned to him by Joi—gradually, as he pieces together a new sense of his past. This past isn’t false, but we learn it isn’t his, as the film’s treatment of K’s memory veers dangerously close to the misdirecting flashback at the center of The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In Nolan’s film, this flashback also depicts a child in a grim carceral setting, and also disguises a gender-switch: We’re meant to think the story of Ra’s al Ghul’s child refers to a young Bane, when the legendary prison escapee is actually al Ghul’s daughter.

Given this precedent, it would seem to follow from her insistent doubling with Blade Runner’s unknowing replicant, Rachael, that Luv is the miracle progeny. She’s obsessed both with her own singularity and with the destined advancement of her kind, and the overly pleasing poetry of Luv being her own quarry feels consistent with the film’s narrative repertoire. Instead, Luv remains an enigmatic villain, and K—a better detective than Deckard ever was—realizes his memory happened because it happened to Dr. Stelline, the artist whose bit of herself wound its way into her work.

Faced with the frank difference between felt and true authenticity, K grieves his error in his own laconic way. In Wallace’s custody, something similar happens to Deckard. Looking to unlock replicant reproduction, Wallace bribes Deckard with a reboot: Rachael v.2.0, undead and unmistakably styled in the shoulder pads and lacquered lips that Sean Young made iconic. Deckard is visibly affected, but rejects the cipher on a technicality: “Her eyes were green,” he says. At first, this moment seems to contradict what Dr. Stelline says about memory, that its potency isn’t contingent on detail. But then we remember her rejoinder: memories rest in feeling, and feelings make a mess. This is perhaps why we remember things wrong, as certain aspects become amplified in their accrued intensity, or dim out of pain or sheer time. The Rachael Deckard meets is too clean. Her rejection isn’t a matter of Deckard having been, as Wallace says, drunk on the perfection of their first meeting, so much as it is an acknowledgment of how disorderly their romance really was—how indistinctly consent authorized their first fuck, how they swept objects off the furniture and tumbled into walls. Regardless of the miracle they apparently spawned, Deckard and Rachael’s relationship in Blade Runner was a resounding mess, nothing like the supplicant mirage Wallace offers.

Assuming, as I do, that Deckard is a replicant, was he simply programmed to fall in love with Rachael? Was their sexual relationship seeded to advance replication, with their feelings of defiance just a side effect? In HBO’s Westworld, another text focused on bio-engineered subjects who serve the human population—a theme park of pleasure models, in effect—memory also serves as the fulcrum for questioning who and what is real. Though she’s wiped after each cycle of her narrative, brothel madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) begins to suffer disturbing partial recollections. And, as in Blade Runner 2049, this play to humanity revolves around reproduction, as Maeve fleshes out fragments of a former role in which she had, and lost, a young daughter. The enduring pain of said fragments testifies to her possible consciousness. Ultimately, Maeve manages to coerce a designer into helping her escape the compound, but just as her train is poised to depart, she reneges and returns.

The season’s conclusion, in which the presiding world designer introduces an insurrection storyline, suggests that Maeve’s resistance, however moving, was also always intended. In this view, surpassed potential is really just met potential; or, in terms amenable to capitalist critique, oppositional efforts may be easily recuperated under the very systems of power they seek to resist. So the question is not only, what’s real, but also, how do you know? At what point is authenticity just part of the design—and is design so all-encompassing that it precludes the possibility of spontaneous response, or unforeseen mutation?

At the end of Blade Runner 2049, K fakes Deckard’s watery death and delivers him to his daughter’s lab. Outside, alone, he collapses on the building’s steps, turning again to the falling snow. “Once you are Real,” the Skin Horse says, “you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” K may not be Joe by birth, but the brush with love in his present outshines his memory of the past. Just as feeling ripples through Deckard’s face before he turns from love’s facsimile, knowing better doesn’t undo the change in K. In the future of Blade Runner 2049, moving on is still impossible. Love, or the dream of being loved, however brief or generic or misremembered, still has the sole power to move us irrevocably.