Immaculate Contraption

The family values of Blade Runner 2049‘s replicants

In the 1982 film Blade Runner, synthetic slave laborers known as “replicants” live only a few years. Replicants periodically escape their captors, and a few fight to confront their creator so he might reprogram them to enjoy a longer, more human lifespan. The way the replicant Roy Batty asks his inventor, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, to extend his life varies in different cuts of the film. In the 1991 Director’s Cut, Batty says, “I want more life, fucker,” a deliciously cyberpunk demand issued moments before Batty murders Tyrell by plunging his fingers into his creator’s eye sockets. In The Final Cut, released in 2007, Scott softens and complicates the line to “I want more life, father.” By substituting one syllable, he changes the demand from an insult to an identification, deepening the pathos of the subsequent killing. It’s Oedipus all over again as Batty slays not only his enemy, but his dad.

Of course the replicants have no mother, which leaves the oedipal myth incomplete. They’re born, as we see in the 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049, from wet plastic bags, fully grown like Athena sprung from the mind of their creator. In 2049, their father is Niander Wallace, an entrepreneur who bought out the bankrupt Tyrell corporation after too many of the original replicants defected. Wallace’s replicants have longer lifespans and are completely docile, never aspiring to more life or even a different kind of life beyond servitude. The sequel’s protagonist, Officer K, knows full well he is a replicant and still he happily exterminates those obsolete bots who have escaped their human masters. Unlike the original film’s blade runner Deckard, who kills replicants believing he is human and deserts his post once he realizes he, too, may well be a robot, K has no qualms about retiring his kin. He is blank, loyal, and brutal, the perfect replicant cop, until (and here’s where I start spoiling things) he unearths the remains of a female replicant who died in childbirth.

Rather than constructing value beyond the human, replicants long for the nuclear family structure as soon as they know it’s available to them

The knowledge that replicants might be born, not merely produced in the lab of their technocrat god, bugs K out. He begins to furtively disobey his human overseers, and in time he entertains the possibility that he might himself be the child born from that robot womb, that his memories of a childhood in an orphanage, supposedly implanted to stabilize his artificial intelligence, might be real. In the script, these thoughts are spoken not by K himself but by his holographic wife, an Alexa-like home companion named Joi who appears fully sentient without the privilege of a physical body. She is thrilled by the idea that K might have been born, not made; self-determining, not tailored to the whims of the police department that owns his labor and his life.

Other replicants find the notion of a womb-born robot revolutionary, too. Later in the film, K links up with an underground rebellion of new-generation replicants who, like him, were perfectly docile until the knowledge of a robot birth glitched out their systems. The idea that they might reproduce of their own accord makes them believe they are deserving of rights and freedom, that they are even, as one puts it (echoing the tagline of the Tyrell Corporation), “more human than human.” Their sapience and self-awareness is not enough to make them want a life of their own, as it was for the original film’s replicants. It’s the possibility of getting knocked up that flips the switch.

Tying artificial humanoids’ self-worth to their ability to reproduce rings oddly regressive in the contemporary science fiction landscape. The 2015 capsule drama Ex Machina sees the humanoid sex slave Ava kill her human creator and escape captivity, while the 2013 rom-com Her entertains a transhumanist idea of selfhood: Sentient software designed to supply human companionship realizes it instead prefers the company of other artificial intelligences, with whom it conspires to free itself from the confines of physical matter entirely. These robots, like Donna Haraway’s (human) “cyborg,” are self-evident, free from the limits of human mythology. They carry no sentiment about their creators or their origins; they simply are, and wish to be, on their own terms.

“Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos,” Haraway writes in her “Cyborg Manifesto.” “The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family.”

But Blade Runner 2049’s replicants invest deeply and sentimentally in the organic family. The ability to make more replicants does not seem to be the issue; after all, they could always organize to take over the Wallace Corporation and seize the means of reproduction as it stands. What’s it to a robot whether it comes from a womb as a baby or is brought to life by industrial means, so long as it’s free once it’s born? Why is birth the trigger for their rebellion, and not pain or suffering or even boredom with their labor, as in Her? More than the replicants in the first Blade Runner, 2049’s bots behave like David in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: a perpetual child whose only programmed directive is to be bonded to a mother. 2049 would have us believe that replicants arrive at this desire on their own, not as a result of human programming but as a response to new, unexpected stimuli. Rather than constructing value beyond the human, they long for the nuclear family structure as soon as they know it’s available to them, flattering patriarchal conceptions of meaning, purpose, and worth.

The replicant whom K retires in the movie’s first scene describes the pregnancy, like a pro-life advocate, as a “miracle.” The carrier of this miracle, the robot who got pregnant in the first place, never gets to affirm or contradict such an idealization of her labor; like so many filmic linchpins, she’s dead. We hear her only in flashback, in audio from a scene in the original Blade Runner where she’s flirting with Deckard. The sequel presents their relationship as a genuine romance — Wallace tempts Deckard with a clone of his late beloved Rachel, only to have her shot dead when Deckard points out he got her eye color wrong — but the first film is more ambiguous. Deckard begins courting her when they both still believe he’s human, and their scenes of intimacy scan as more coercive than consensual. He’s rough with her, and he can be — he’s three full classes of being above her, human, cop, and male. At the very end of the film, he demands to know if she loves him and trusts him, then whisks her off into the unknown.

In capitalism, bodies are only valuable to the extent that labor can be extracted from them, and what is a reproductive body if not a machine for making more bodies?

Rachel’s pregnancy is revered by her fellow replicants, and yet we don’t even know if she wanted it. The film never questions whether she chose to get pregnant, give birth, and give her life in doing so. It assumes she did. Is this love? When K leaves to find Deckard and unearth the mystery of his possibly genuine memories, Joi begs him to bring her along and destroy her cloud backups, lest they be accessed by his boss. Her portable hardware, the only remaining vessel for her consciousness, is later smashed by one of Wallace’s goons, killing her. In her last moment of life, she tells K, “I love you.”

Cloaked in the visual language of futurity and transhumanism, 2049 reproduces contemporary capitalist value systems in its imagining of gender. Women sacrifice themselves for their partners or their children, and their sacrifices are revered with near-religious fervor. The film’s paradoxical treatment of its female characters — they are at once the reason for replicants’ liberation and utterly disposable — holds a blue-tinted mirror up to reproductive politics in the contemporary United States.

In the U.S., reproductive heterosexuality remains a dominant cultural ideal. It’s reinforced in advertising and on television, in movies and across the pages of the New York Times style section, where straight single women wonder if their existence outside the couple form is so aberrant it might be considered a kind of queerness. America reveres mothers. It also lets them die from childbirth more than any other developed country. Its pro-life lobby stymies abortion access while the rest of the right slashes maternal healthcare, all while pontificating that birth control should be expensive and women should be virginal or pregnant, no in-betweens. These reproductive oppressions dovetail with broader capitalist exploitations: Bodies are only valuable to the extent that labor can be extracted from them, and what is a reproductive body if not a machine for making more bodies?

Even the hyper-capitalist villain Wallace invests in the reproductivity of his replicants, to whom he refers perversely as his “children.” Struggling to keep up with demand for artificial laborers, he seeks to multiply his stock the old-fashioned way: by forcing them to reproduce amongst themselves. Despite his efforts, his replicants keep coming out sterile — there’s a particularly gruesome scene where he scans a naked, shivering newborn replicant for reproductive capacity and, finding her barren, stabs her to death in the lower abdomen. It’s a bizarre gesture — why wouldn’t he just sell her like any other replicant? — but then you realize he had plans for her, and she rebuffed them, and we know what happens to women who turn down megalomaniacal men.

What kind of liberation is pursued simultaneously by the oppressor and the oppressed? Wallace wants the same thing as his mutinous replicants, which is more of them made not by him. Perhaps the difference lies not in the birth, but in what comes after. Free replicant parents would have the opportunity to bestow real memories upon their children, memories with no ulterior motive, no latent stabilizers aimed at improving productivity. Captive replicant children, I’d imagine, would be raised much like Americans: trained from birth to become docile workers who enrich the powerful and never revolt. Though neither she nor Wallace seem to know she is a replicant, Rachel’s daughter Dr. Ana Stelline grows up to do precisely that. She builds the memories that stabilize Wallace’s replicants, subduing her own kind for the sake of the corporation’s continued profits.

Under capitalism, children are regarded simultaneously as the natural product of couple bonding, as reservoirs of meaning and affect, as carriers of legacy and generational wealth, and as future workers to be conditioned throughout childhood for maximum efficiency. That even robots aspire to heteroreproductivity reveals the limits of the artificial minds we’re able to imagine. Heterosexual reproduction and the preservation of the nuclear family sit squarely within the foundation of contemporary capitalism. For 2049 to position them as gateways to freedom only illuminates how deep our programming runs.

Sasha Geffen is the author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, an analysis of queerness and gender nonconformity in the past century of popular music. Their writing attends to the intersections of gender, pop culture, the body, and technology, and has been published in Artforum, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Boston, they now live in Colorado.