The Dead Space Between the Stars
An interstellar medium: cold and dark, a vacuum in which no life can survive. What better metaphor for the frigid womb, which would kill even the sound of a baby’s healthy neonatal cry. The dead space between the stars is the barren womb of a woman who cannot reproduce, which is the last worst horror of the world of Blade Runner 2049, a place already so completely overrun by vice and poverty and corruption that nothing less would stand up to the role. For the villain of the film, if his artificial humans, replicants, could reproduce on their own his already astronomical profits would soar. For the replicants themselves, reproduction is positioned as the gateway to freedom, and the germ of a revolt. Reproduction, within the implied morally superior context of a heterosexual partnership, is the fulcrum of the world.
This week marks 37 years since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was first released in cinemas. The original Blade Runner was a cult favorite neo-noir detective story set in a dark, rainy, decaying future Los Angeles. Blade Runners are specialized cops who hunt down escaped replicants. Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is led on a wild chase through the underbelly of LA, where he confronts the possibility that he himself is not all he seems.
In 2017, director Denis Villeneuve released his reboot of the iconic sci-fi film into an air of cautious optimism and understandable skepticism. Blade Runner 2049 is so much better than perhaps anyone expected. As a piece of artistic filmmaking, it rivals the original. But 2049 faced a deluge of criticism when it was released for its treatment of women characters, particularly Joi, played by Ana de Armas, the holographic companion of the main character. The real problematic nature of 2049, however, goes beyond issues of representation. The film itself is structured around traditional ideas of heterosexual romantic relationships as the primacy of reproduction in human society.
The film follows Ryan Goslin’s K, one of a new generation of replicant Blade Runners who hunt down old, disobedient models, as he tries to solve a decades-old mystery. When K discovers the remains of a replicant woman whose body shows evidence of giving birth, his supervisor, Madam, played by Robin Wright, tells him this information could unmake their entire world. She tasks him with erasing all traces of the birth, including the child, to maintain order. If replicants knew they could reproduce, they might start to get ideas about their autonomy and freedom, the logic goes, and they might revolt against the humans who use them for sex, hard manual labor, and the dangerous work of space colonization. As K begins to investigate the mystery of the replicant child, however, he falls victim to the exact radicalization that Madam fears. He begins to imagine that he is the child of the dead replicant woman. His companion Joi, programmed to maker her owner happy, feeds into his suspicion, telling him that he is special because he is the “child of a woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted.”
The replicant child is wanted in another sense: Jared Leto’s character Niander Wallace, head of the company that restarted the production of replicants after a series of revolts, also longs for a child that is the product of reproduction. In the most unsettling scene in the film, Wallace examines a new model of replicant, but declares it a failure when he is informed that they cannot conceive. He places his hand on the replicant’s naked stomach, lamenting that here, in the “dead space between the stars,” nothing would grow. He dispatches the newly awakened replicant by slicing open her belly with a scalpel and letting her bleed out. Frustrated by his failure to create self-replicating replicants, Wallace dispatches his aide to find the child that K is searching for, with the hope that it will be the key to unlocking the mysteries of conception and birth for the millions of slaves he plans to create.
Where K’s fantasy that he might have actually been born promises a chance at the humanity he never had, Wallace is candid about his view that forced labor is the only way to progress civilization—and that reproduction conveys on replicants nothing more sacred or profound than simple efficiency. In both instances, reproduction is the fulcrum of the world, as it alternately promises a surplus of world-making labor or the inspiration for a world-ending revolt. These are the highest stakes that the film can imagine, for which reproduction is the only suitable lever.
This larger logic of the world of Blade Runner informs and shapes the interpersonal story at its heart. Eventually, K follows a series of leads back to Deckard himself and learns that the child he has been searching for was Deckard’s child with the replicant Rachel. K realizes that although he isn’t special in the way that the child is, he is no longer content to be a docile servant for humans. He helps Deckard escape from Wallace and takes him to meet his adult daughter, a memory-maker who crafts the recollections implanted in replicants to make them emotionally stable. The tragedy of the story, and K’s redemption, revolves entirely around the sundering of Deckard’s family, squaring the destruction of the world with the ability of one man and one woman to create a child.
The film asserts the moral superiority of Deckard’s relationship by setting it against the, admittedly, finely drawn world of vice and corruption in which the film takes place. But here, too, the filmmakers are ultimately limited in their vision of what constitutes moral decline. The only sex for sale—human, replicant, or holographic—is provided by women and femmes. We never see replicant men doing sex work or masculine holographic avatars. The shrouded pornographic statues K encounters in the Las Vegas, ruins of the bombed-out city of iniquity and indulgence, are all pouty lips, high heels, and perky breasts. The film, in attempting to conjure the future as a seedy underbelly with no respectable surface remaining, fails to recognize that sex work not inherently immoral nor that there are plenty of worse things you might conjure to describe a world in decline. In a world of whores, then, Rachel is the one Madonna, and her story marks a clear path forward for replicants who seek their freedom—sex must be retaken for reproduction.
It seems ultimately wasteful to build a visually and thematically ambitious science fiction film, one ostensibly about the question of what it means to be human, around the very limited answer that being human means being able to reproduce, ideally within a traditional heterosexual partnership. The idea of the replicants poses interesting and urgent questions about slavery, autonomy, race science, biological essentialism, eugenics, but all are suffocated by the tragedy of the heterosexual nuclear family at the film’s heart.
Blade Runner 2049 is a “good” film. The narrative structure is clean; the mystery unravels at a satisfying tick; and it ties back to the original in a way that at least makes sense, even if it doesn’t make a difference. But why can’t we make good films about other stories? Why can’t we devote a big budget and a talented team of filmmakers to imagining a more interesting future? When do black women get to helm a major reboot? When do trans people get to write stories about their families, their relationships?
The dead space between the stars seems to me a horror that only a cis man would deem big enough to spin into a world-shattering tragedy, notwithstanding the personal, but ultimately smaller, suffering of infertility. There are plenty of women who pay good money for drugs or implants to keep their own interstellar space as barren as possible. There are women who don’t have wombs; there are men who do. The world we live in is shot through with richness, with variance, with stories aching to be told, and deserve the kind of artistic investment 2049 ultimately squandered on the most conservative, the most mainstream, the most boring vision of what really moves the world.