Blade Runners Rick Deckard and Officer K couldn’t be any more different. Deckard is a fundamentally flawed being who has little interest in life, a depressed shell of a man, wrapped up in the lingering mystery as to whether or not he is a replicant. K, not exactly a spry fellow himself, is almost immediately revealed to be a replicant whose only job is to exterminate other generation models. Deckard’s journey is one of revelation in his embracing of humanity, while K longs for a mere ounce of it. Even the respective films start with vastly different declarations.
Blade Runner opens with the industrialized cyberpunk dystopia of 2019. It’s overstuffed, crowded, intoxicated by smog but it is filled with glimmers of life. Lights flicker as far as the eye can see, a neon glow paving the wet concrete streets. One eye in particular gazes out at the urban decay. Swirling flames, crackling lightning engulfing the roof of humanity. It is the perspective of the replicant Roy Batty, longing searching for the answer to further his own existence. Life surrounds him but none is his.
The opening moments of Blade Runner 2049 reiterates the imagery of an eye. Only this eye is cold, looking out toward an empty landscape. Sterile and white with shades of dirt. The only sign of life is a single farmer, a replicant named Sapper Morton. Morton tells K in his final moments “You’ve never seen a miracle.” K is a living creation but he hasn’t experienced life, his only purpose is to serve others. A stricter, plot heavy narrative confines both our viewing experience and the window into K’s existence. We watch as K’s vehicle swoops and swerves through the thudding constructs of Neo-Los Angeles. Like Roy Batty, K hovers around passing signs of life but never able to access it. On his street excursions, we hardly see any rooftops. If we do, there are even larger buildings towering over them, adding a claustrophobic sensation. Hundred story buildings function as pillars of entrapment. It is an existence determined by strictness and isolation.
But K doesn’t spend as much time wandering the familiar dystopian streets of Neo-Los Angeles. Director Denis Villeneuve has this new Blade Runner walk-through the clustered waste of 2049. K’s work experience is comprised of garbage piles the size of mountains, sterile clean hallways of authority or the blistering rebuke from human citizens. Though we hardly see him interact with any humans, it’s clear there is little respect for him.
K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, tells the replicant he’s gotten along fine without a soul. After all, replicants are like any other machine. “They’re either a benefit or a hazard.” The only constant in K’s life is a hologram, Joi, his personal partner though she falls under binary identity. The two understand one another but it’s unclear to what ends. How much of Joi is simply a product fulfilling a client’s needs? Where does the coding end and the identity begin? What is clear is she is with K every moment. K wants Joi to be there, and she wants to be with him. They have the longing for more of themselves, specifically Joi who desires physical autonomy. She walks out into the rain, drops of water pass through digital form. In a surrogate love sequence, K and Joi join through proxy of another replicant. Physical sensation isn’t the point here, as Joi can sync with a host but cannot feel like a physical form can. They embrace one another through passion and emotion. A yearning desire for companionship isn’t necessarily their purpose, but it becomes part of who they are. To long is to be human. That loneliness and emotional reach is key to the world of Blade Runner. We all want to exist, but even more so want someone to understand our existence on our terms.
Deckard’s journey is introduced with fever dream style vignettes. Free flowing instances transport us through Neo-Los Angeles, a decrepit city with hues of art deco, neon and constant rain or smog. It’s damp and murky, with a grimy texture that is felt in every frame. Even hunting the various replicants, Deckard’s existence is drawn out, meaningless, and void of a legitimate purpose. He takes lives for a living, forced to do so again by an uncompromising police force. “No choice, pal.” Deckard never takes the time to appreciate a life of his own or anyone else’s. Not that he wants to, anyways. When tasked with retiring another replicant, Rachael of the Tyrell Corporation, he forces himself upon her and keeps her hidden. He provides no interest in her own autonomy, a complicated, controversial foundation. It’s understandable to see why it makes people uncomfortable as Deckard thrusts her against a wall, completely disinterested in Rachael’s uneasiness.
Deckard bares minimal care for the replicants he exterminates. It’s not until Roy Batty fails to find an answer to longer lifespan does he put the literal fear of god into Deckard. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” Batty gawks at Deckard, hanging for his life, finally understanding what he’s done to the beings he’s made a career out of killing. Roy stands atop the edge of a building, looking down at the man trying to end his life, and he still decides to save Deckard. In that moment, at the end of his own existence, Roy taught Deckard the value of life. Not just his own, but all. Gaff seals the deal when he arrives at the aftermath. “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”
Deckard can never take back what he did to Rachael but he returns to protect her from further harm. Instead of forcing her to his will, he asks her. “Do you trust me?” She replies, “I trust you.” So he’ll cherish her, as long as he can.
Rachael was special. Capable of creating life, Rachael is a human creation in and of herself. But as we would learn in 2049, Deckard and the replicants come to a saddening revelation, “Sometimes when you love someone, you have to be a stranger.” So Deckard and Rachael separate. She carries life at the expense of her own. He carries guilt and isolation. It is, admittedly, a dated binary reading of gender and autonomy, but I think it still works for the purpose of the film’s emphasis on life.
Which takes us back to K. As his journey through the world of 2049 continues, structures dissipate. Less focus is put on plot, instead gifting K with emotions and a new name: Joe. The foundations of story are still laid at his feet, the constant surrounding of digital reality and structures causing him to pursue an ideal of humanity, only for 2049 to constantly warp that foundation beneath him. We feel the world more than we did before. Emphasis is placed on the vignette style sequences of Deckard’s journey. Humanity was never one for structure, anyways.
If Joe was a replicant, his orders are to serve and retire. If he were part human, he would have a bigger part to play. The LAPD wants him to exterminate his own kind. Niander Wallace craves Joe’s identity to populate the stars. The replicant uprising want him to kill Deckard. As K, one of Wallace’s next generation replicants, Joe was always supposed to obey. “More human than human” was no longer a motto, but a warning to those seeking subordination. Replicants aren’t viewed as bodies but commodities without agency. Joe was tasked to kill this mythical human-replicant hybrid, briefly convinced he was the very thing he was hunting, went rogue and discovered he was yet another replicant after all. Frustrated and alone after losing Joi, what else is left? If Joe can’t make an impact in his own life, maybe he can make an impact for someone else. By saving Deckard and reuniting him with the life he created with Rachael, Joe committed an act of pure selflessness.
“Who am I to you?” Deckard asks Joe. It doesn’t matter. Joe sits outside in the snow as Deckard walks inside to meet his daughter. Joe knows he can fit into the preconceived notions of “humanity” but found contentment at his ability to make a difference on his own terms. He dies alone but not without purpose. His part in the story mattered, more than he could ever realize.
Joi and Joe may not have been “real” by human standards but what defines reality anyways? What defines a soul? No one else will share his experience with Joi. But his actions were tangible and carried consequences. They may not have been felt immediately by anyone else but they were real to him. Joe fought his own identity. Joe was more human than human. Like Deckard, Joe’s journey forged his soul. All it took was a moment for these people to choose who they wanted to be.
“Just a moment. Beautiful, isn’t it?”