Blade Runner 2049 warns us of a future of artificial humans and artificial sex—but that reality has already begun.
The movie premiered last weekend to great critical acclaim. And although many of the reviews focused on its vision of a dystopian future, it also offers a bleak commentary on the state of relationships and sex in the twenty-first century.
Ryan Gosling stars as Officer K, a “replicant”—essentially the perfect android imitation of a human being—assigned to hunt down rogue replicants. He’s on a quest to discover what’s happened to the characters of the original Blade Runner. During his assignment, K begins to question the dystopian future of L.A. in 2049, dominated as it is by advertisements, sex, and artificial intelligence.
The film quickly reveals that Gosling’s girlfriend “Joi” is a hologram, the perfect virtual lover who panders to his every whim. She is at first physically limited to Gosling’s apartment, but he soon purchases the ability for her to leave the apartment. Joi is portrayed as a disturbing vehicle for wish-fulfillment. She shifts appearances every few seconds according to what she believes he wants, from stereotypical housewife to punk rock girl and back in seconds. Gosling doesn’t seem to mind, however, playing along with the mirage in his dingy apartment.
Later on, he hires a fellow replicant—one of the “pleasure models”—to serve as a body into which Joi projects herself. In an unsettling scene, Joi’s face flickers over the other woman’s as she and K have sex. The film draws the viewer into its world so deeply that it’s difficult to remember that these are really just three computer programs closely simulating human sexuality.
One of the most stirring moments of the film occurs when a giant, surreal version of Joi steps out of a billboard to reach out to K. His version of Joi had just “died”—her hard drive had just been destroyed—so the appearance of this new larger-than-life version guts K. The scene of a billboard enticing K shows 2049’s reality: sex and relationships are treated as just another product that can be purchased. K’s Joi seems perfect, but she’s just the same as everyone else’s. K’s illusions are finally crushed as he realizes he has wasted his waking hours on something that was simply a product designed to fulfill his base desires.
But K is the norm in the movie’s imagined future. Instead of dealing with another imperfect being, nearly everyone in 2049 chooses to purchase a product they think is an improved version of the real thing. When happiness and sex are for sale on the open market, who would stay with someone merely human?
This isn’t merely a fictional dystopia, though. The impulses that fuel them are deeply human, and some people are already trying to create such relationships for themselves today.
First world countries are already far along the path to artificial sex. In Japan, many young people, particularly men, have withdrawn from the dating world altogether. There’s even a word for the country’s vast population of reclusive young people: “hikikomori.” The youth population in Japan, and increasingly in Southeast Asia, is abandoning relationships, social groups, and real life altogether. Thanks in no small part to increasingly immersive virtual reality—including pornography—Japan is in the midst of a serious fertility crisis. And other first world countries may not be far behind.
The “pleasure model” replicants and holographic girlfriends seen in Blade Runner are being realized as well, as a growing number of businesses develop increasingly life-like dolls created solely for the purpose of satisfying their owners sexually and emotionally. As David Levy, author of Love and Sex and Robots, who is enthusiastic about the trend, describes: “I believe that loving sex robots will be a great boon to society. There are millions of people out there who, for one reason or another, cannot establish good relationships.”
His enthusiasm is misplaced. In reality, these sex robots are a grotesque replacement for human contact. Levy spends little time exploring why people can’t establish good relationships; he notes that they turn to sex robots “for one reason or another.” But these “reasons” are really just self-absorption and lust. Futurists like Levy believe there’s nothing special about human relationships, nothing redemptive, nothing that can’t be replaced by a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence and a Stepford Wife-like servility.
Between the universal prevalence of pornography in Western culture and the rapid advancement of “sex technologies,” we’re heading decisively toward the cold dystopia of Blade Runner 2049. David Levy believes we’ll get there by 2050, which only leaves us a few short decades to reverse the trend and preserve some semblance of human relationships.
Image: Columbia Pictures
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