If a film is like a dream, then the images in that dream might be a good place to start: images of rain and sea, water, the symbol of birth and death. Of dust, dryness and colour, and vast space, of chilling winter and endless snow. But this is a peopled space – whatever we might take a person to be. In Blade Runner 2049 Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford appear as rather lonely men (or ‘men’) surrounded by vital, important women ( or ‘women’) appearing in all the ways a woman might seem to a man: as mother, wife, daughter, leader, sex object, lover – and threat. So nearly every role worth watching is played by a woman actor. One exception is the luciferian figure of ‘Wallace’, the new creator of replicants, but he matters less, I think, than the woman in this film.
The men are associated with dryness, and are generally reactive, if not actually passive in the case of Ford. Sure, Gosling goes through the obligatory role of detective/assassin of replicants, but there is something weary about this, and the film’s subject is somewhere else, with the women, who are quite differently presented. Are they, in their various forms, the man’s ‘symptom’ as Lacan or Zizek might have it – the external thing that man relies on for his ontological consistency, the thing that must not disintegrate or fade if the man is not to lose his footing ? There certainly seems to be some kind of struggle going on here, between the apparently male subject position of the film as a whole (Ryan Gosling) and the very active, sometimes nightmarish females who dominate the action and threaten, cajole or entice the men. They kill, make love and lead armies -which is more than Gosling or Ford will do. They appear, shimmer and fade from view as obscure virtual objects of (male) desire. And they give birth.
Compared to that, the theme of ‘real people’ having ‘souls’ comes up, but just to be brushed away. Perhaps the men, or male replicants are asking the film’s real question: do these women have souls? The secret of the woman is that unlike the man, she does not rely on the symptom, on something outside herself. The men ex-sist, but the woman insists. And there is another rather Freudian theme: are the memories I have really mine? – do they represent a real experience, or have they been appropriated by me in a kind of wish fulfilment? For the character Gosling plays the anxious questions are in large part about origins: who am I? where did I come from? And none of the men can fathom the question of birth: the knot at the heart of the film, the question of how new life could be created by a woman or a replicant.
The film is designed, it seems, as a link in a chain of sequels, judging by the end scene. Not the masterpiece some have been hailing it, and not without its longueurs, but an intelligent and mainly absorbing attempt at a dialogue with the original Blade Runner film, if not the Phillip K Dick story. Finally, a ‘political’ image that lingers with me: in the film we discover an army of child slave labourers, toiling away on the outskirts of the big city, piecing together electonic bits under a slave driving master. The bad conscience of our wired world, the actual labour of children that make the virtual possible.