Blade Runner, the Sequel that Answered the Question, and Issues with Cyberpunk and Race
It’s generally considered a cinematic classic. Blade Runner (1982) is one of those movies that even now elicits surprise in certain quarters if you admit you never saw it.
It’s a masterpiece of a film, visual in its imagery, and it deals with a simple science fiction concept:
Are constructed humans, well, human?
In many ways, of course, this is an analogy for racism…in an all-white movie that used, as cyberpunk is prone to do, much Asian imagery and very few Asian actors (Firefly had the same issues in a different way).
But it was also 1982, and a lot of people are willing to forgive the movie through the lens of history.
For those who have not seen it, Harrison Ford plays a Replicant Hunter, colloquially called a Blade Runner. A slave catcher, in other words. Of course, it’s justified in this case; the replicants murdered 23 people off world, stole a shuttle, and four of them are now loose on Earth.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Deckard falls in love with the replicant Rachael, an experimental model programmed with fake memories to make her believe she is human.
And it ends with the final replicant saving Deckard’s life and dying in the rain; an iconic image in cinema.
But it left an open question, a question that might have been as much fanon as reality:
“Is Deckard a replicant?”
A question asked and intentionally left blank. A question asked in the white spaces that, nonetheless, defined the movie.
Blade Runner 2049 and The Question
When the sequel was announced, fan reactions were decidedly mixed.
And they boiled down to one basic thing:
How did you do a sequel to Blade Runner and not answer The Question? Ford was coming back, so we knew Deckard was going to be in the movie.
The star of the 2017 movie was a young Blade Runner, known only as K. Unlike Deckard, K knows he’s a replicant with implanted memories. His only relationship is with his AI assistant, who manifests as a lovely and submissive woman.
We find out that Deckard opted out from society, and that Rachael…died in childbirth. (Replicants aren’t supposed to be able to reproduce, but she was an experimental model).
The plot turns into a hunt for Rachael’s child, because they hold the secret of self-replicating Replicants. Those who know history might be reminded of slave breeding programs that went into high gear after importing slaves from Africa became less, shall we say, unacceptable.
K thinks he’s Rachael’s child. He is, of course, wrong.
The story is about servitude and rebellion.
And it doesn’t answer The Question.
Instead, Blade Runner 2049 turns squarely towards the fans and unhesitatingly asks us a different Question:
Why did you ask in the first place?
Yes, it appears Deckard is likely a replicant.
But the question “Is Deckard a replicant?” hinges in its very existence on a concept:
Replicants aren’t human.
Blade Runner 2049 ably invites us to consider the basic fact that they are human…just like every other oppressed minority.
And in that regard, the movie succeeds ably. In other regards, though, it has its own issues.
Race, Gender, and Continuity
One creative decision made by the film makers with which I thoroughly agree was the decision not to fix the timeline.
Blade Runner 2049 explicitly does not take place in our world. It takes place in an alternate timeline that splits off at some point in the past. This allows it to revel in shameless retrofuturism, to present a future in which, for example, PanAm still exists.
And it allowed the film makers to care entirely about continuity.
Which, unfortunately, brought about a downside.
Blade Runner was, as mentioned, very white. And so is Blade Runner 2049. In order for K to be believable as Deckard and Rachael’s child, he has to look at least vaguely like the original actors.
Most of the other major roles in the movie would be, shall we say, poor representation. The submissive AI (who is fridged) being Asian would be an absolutely awful stereotype, the kind of thing that rightly creates outrage.
There are prostitutes. Can’t really make them Asian either, or we’re into the China Girl stereotype.
Which, of course, is an issue with the writing and the kind of characters presented, and it ties into another issue with Blade Runner as a whole.
It’s profoundly sexist. The female characters in Blade Runner 2049 include a submissive AI, three prostitutes, and a couple of rather butch rebels. Rachael’s actual daughter is the only interesting one, and she has to live in a bubble because, it turns out, replicants don’t reproduce very well.
We never see or even hear of the concept of a female Blade Runner.
And unlike the race issues, this might have been fixed. In fact, much of this movie would have been stronger if K had been a woman. The submissive AI being male would have been a subversion, and thus more interesting.
K as a woman would have dealt with every aspect of the plot in a different, and more interesting way.
But I suspect that the filmmakers made the unfortunate assumption that, well, their audience was mostly. Men.
Which might be true, but I think it got in the way.
Blade Runner 2049 succeeded at many levels; it made us face ourselves as fans and understand why the Question should never have been asked. Ryan Gosling was an able lead and everyone in the movie performed well. The visuals were perfect.
But it fell down in other ways, some of which were inherent in the basic concept.
At the same time, it ended as it needed to end. With a replicant dying in the rain.