Originally published on October 12, 2017; republished in celebration of Director Ridley Scott’s 80th birthday.*This article is filled with spoilers for Blade Runner 2049. Please proceed with caution.*
Could Rick Deckard and Officer K be any more different? In characterization, the two represent wholly different approaches to characterization. Deckard is a fundamentally flawed being who has little interest in life. K is almost immediately revealed to be a replicant whose only job is to exterminate other replicant 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 statements.
Blade Runner opens with the industrialized cyberpunk dystopia of 2019. It’s overstuffed, crowded, intoxicated by smog but it is filled with life. Lights flicker as far as the eye can see. One eye in particular gazes out at the urban decay. It is a human perspective of the replicant Roy Batty, longing searching for the answer to more life. Life surrounds him but none are 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 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, passing signs of life but never able to access it. We hardly see any rooftops, if any, adding an almost claustrophobic sensation. Hundred story buildings function more as pillars of entrapment.
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 society’s waste. K’s work experience is comprised of garbage piles the size of mountains, sterile clean hallways and rebuke from human citizens.
The LAPD force has no respect for K, we hardly see him interact with any humans. 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, his life partner and if we’re putting it in human gender terms, “girlfriend.” the two understand one another but perhaps not on the same terms. To what terms Joi is a product fulfilling a client’s needs is unclear. What is clear is she is with K every moment and he wants her there, and she wants 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 skin. 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 we do. 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.
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, 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 foundation and one worth discussing. It’s easy to see why it makes people uncomfortable as Deckard thrusts her against a wall, completely disinterested in Rachael’s uneasiness.
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” 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. Roy stands atop the edge of a building, looking down upon the man trying to end his life and decides to save him. 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 “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 for as long as he can. Rachael was special. Capable of creating life, Rachael is truly 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.
Which takes us back to K, or Joe, as Joi liked to call him. 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, causing him to pursue an ideal of humanity, only to constantly warp that foundation beneath him. We feel the world more than we did before. Emphasis is placed on the vignette style fever dreams 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 his identity to populate the stars. The replicant uprising want him to kill Deckard. As one of Wallace’s next generation replicants, K 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. It doesn’t matter. It’s what was right. Joe sits outside in the snow as Deckard walks inside to meet his daughter. Joe knows he can never be part of humanity but found contentment at his ability to make a difference on his own terms. He dies alone but not without purpose.
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 real and had consequences. They may not have been felt immediately by anyone else but they were real to him. For a fleeting moment, Joe gained his own identity. Joe enacted with free will. Joe was more human than human. Joe found his soul.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures / Sony Pictures