Blade Runner 2049 is dystopia, but its human connections reflect our best hope

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Mar 26, 2021, 6:00 AM EDT (Updated)

The long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 has now been out in theaters for a week, and fans of the film are still unpacking all of its various metaphors and meanings. It's a big film full of big ideas, from the nature of human existence to what nutrition could look like in the dirty future to the prevalance of mass marketing. For me, though, one particular subplot really stood out, and got me thinking about how I live my life and how we might live all of our lives in the very near future.


Over the course of the film, protagonist K (Ryan Gosling) and co-star Deckard (Harrison Ford) both utter a version of the same line: "I know what's real." In Deckard's case, he uses it to defend his relationship with Rachael (Sean Young) when confronted with the idea that perhaps their love was somehow a product of engineering, not free will. In K's case, most believe that he's rebutting the suggestion that a crucial childhood memory had been implanted in his brain. But it could also easily be a reference to something else, and it's that something else that I want to talk about.

I cried three times during Blade Runner 2049, a film I didn't expect to cry in at all. I saw it in a room full of fellow film writers (as a leaking roof provided the sound of rainfall, which was a very atmospheric experience), and I think I was the only person who cried at all during that screening. The last time I cried was due to the film's emotional ending, which I won't spoil here. The first two times I cried were thanks to K's relationship with his virtual girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). 

I cried because I know what's real.

A little more than a year ago, I checked in to a hospital due to a condition called "toxic neuropathy." As I understand it, it means that the nerve centers in my body were essentially poisoned, which led to numbness and ultimately muscular degeneration. Basically, I couldn't walk for several months, and could barely do things like type for some of that time. I had to retreat to rural Texas to stay with my parents, who were my caretakers and support system. I also had another support system. I had Facebook and Twitter, and all of the people I knew via those platforms. 

I don't talk about this condition much in the public sphere of the internet because I really don't want to bother people with it. I'm OK now, but seeing Blade Runner 2049 reminded me of what the virtual world gifted me during that terrifying and troubling time. I have friends I've met through Facebook and Twitter and right here on SYFY WIRE who I've never met in "real" life. I've never shaken their hands or hugged them. In some cases, I probably never will. They've made my life immeasurably better anyway. In some cases we just joke about Twin Peaks. In others, we talk for hours about football or late-night TV. I went through a breakup two years ago, and two of those friends called me on Skype to make me laugh for six straight hours so I'd feel better. 

Now, back to the issue of K and Joi, where it gets even more personal.

I'm in a relationship (I use that word because I really can't think of a better one and it's as good a word as any) right now with a woman I've never met in "real" life. I hope I will someday, but for the moment we text and chat. We talk about our hopes and delights and insecurities and fears. We get to know each other. We connect. If the whole internet crashes tomorrow, if we have a "blackout," as the characters in Blade Runner 2049 did, does that still count? Do all of my other online friends?


I know what's real.

Blade Runner 2049 exists in an alternate future, 32 years away from now. We can't possibly know what our actual future will look like when we get there, or if we'll even arrive. We may have virtual girlfriends and boyfriends and all manner of other synthetic love machines by then. We may have nothing. K has Joi. The last thing she says to him in the film is "I love you."

Well no, that's not actually true.

The last thing Joi says to K is a line from mass-marketed advertising. A nude version of her flirts with him as he wanders through the city, and that's when it becomes clear: Joi is a product. She's not unique to K. Even after all of their adventures and anguish and love together, she's a commodity, packaged and sold to be "everything you want to hear." K, being a replicant, is also a commodity. Does that mean what he felt for her, and what she felt for him, is any less real?

No. Because one day the dirty, scary, crumbling future is going to hit us. One day we're going to arrive at a place where, to quote Cameron Crowe, "the only true currency in this bankrupt world" is going to be what we can feel. In the smog-coated, grub-eating, dangerous alternate future presented in this film, I found hope in K and Joi. Because emotion, and connection -- however distant -- might be our only hope. So, Blade Runner 2049 made me cry.

Because I know what's real.