When making a sequel to a beloved film, filmmakers often turn to familial lineage as a way of connecting their new characters to the old. If Star Wars has taught us anything, it’s that family sagas are a captivating lure, and in mysterious sequels, someone is always probably conveniently related to someone else. The plot of Blade Runner 2049 revolves around the search for the child (or children, it's not really clear) of Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and replicant Rachael (Sean Young). But the new movie relies on a sentimental hook that simply doesn’t exist in the original film, and because of that, the sequel’s story loses some emotional credibility. By expecting us to accept a love story that's essentially based on sexual assault, Blade Runner 2049 is asking its audience to buy into one of the most damaging ideas behind rape culture.
Taking place 30 years after 1982’s Blade Runner, the new film stars Ryan Gosling as K, an LAPD detective who is also a part of a new, more obedient generation of replicants. As a blade runner himself, K is tasked with hunting down older runaway replicants, just as Deckard was three decades prior. But K’s first encounter in the film leads him to the buried bones of Rachael, the replicant love interest from the original movie, and her body shows signs of having died in childbirth. The idea that replicants, created for slave labor, can reproduce—that they have a future to look forward to and fight for—could throw their universe into chaos, K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), warns. And it unsettles him personally. Unilke in the first movie, in Blade Runner 2049’s future, replicants’ memories are created from scratch by law. But as he investigates, K stars to wonder if his memories may be real, even if they aren’t his, and if they are, whether he may himself be the replicant child he’s looking for.
Eventually, K finds Deckard hiding out in an abandoned, rust-colored wasteland of what was once Las Vegas. Though Blade Runner 2049 never answers the pivotal question of whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant, it seems he and Rachael understood the dangerous implications of creating (partly) replicant offspring, and he split off from his pregnant robot love before their child was even born. His monastic Vegas existence is a matter of protecting both himself and his unseen progeny. But Deckard’s mien, once K discovers him, is that of a person perpetually in mourning. Ford’s acting later in his life has gotten particularly grim and grumpy, but here he’s laced Deckard with melancholy and romantic sadness.
The trouble is that supposedly epic love the new movie presents Deckard as mourning simply didn't exist in the original Blade Runner. It’s not that their relationship was never fully established, but that the original movie’s “romance” plot actually makes you like him less. Given the question of Deckard’s possible in-humanity, it might be the intention, but the “love story” that the sequel tries to retroactively establish is, looking back, far more sinister. Sure, they rode off into the sunset, at least in the original theatrical cut, thanks to some hokey, re-used footage from The Shining. But Ridley Scott’s “Final Cut” ends on a darker, more ambiguous note, with Ford anxiously nodding and the elevator doors slamming shut.
Rewatched with current eyes, Deckard and Rachael’s “love scene” is an incredibly problematic distraction from what is otherwise a sleek and engaging sci-fi film. It's going too far to even call it a sex scene, let alone a love scene, since what we're actually watching is a rape. As Rachael is playing the piano, Deckard sneaks up behind her and kisses her on the cheek. Jarred by his advances, she swiftly gets up to leave, but he blocks her exit. He then grabs her violently, shoves her against a wall, and kisses her. He then, in some kind of threatening role play, orders that she say “kiss me” and “I want you.” It’s uncomfortable just how violent the scene actually gets. Young’s Rachael never looks comfortable, let alone in the mood. She seems frightened for her life.
One could chalk this up to the old, male idea that women, even android women, want to be dominated in the bedroom, but details from the original production suggest that the scene only took a forceful turn when a softer approach failed to work on set. According to the 2007 documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, Young and Ford had little chemistry during the initial takes, so the planned love scene was scrapped and Scott suggested that Ford get rough. As Young recollects in the doc, after tenderness failed, Scott told Ford to push her up against the wall. "I remember being really surprised," Young says. "I think I was crying afterwards too."
The coercive scene cheekily fades into a shot of one of the film’s giant, skyscraper-height geishas, so perhaps Rachael’s role as a plaything for the film’s male lead wasn’t a totally oblivious choice on Scott’s part. (This characterization does go against its source material, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which Rachael knows she is a replicant and seduces the blade runners who come after her to her own advantage.) Yet the film and its sequel construct a world where women—human, replicant, or holographic—are still trapped by the whims of male desires. Blade Runner 2049 tries to amend this underlying sexism through the character of Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s holographic companion and virtual girlfriend. There’s an interestingly creepy scene in which Joi uses a the body of a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) to simulate a physical encounter with K. But for all of Joi’s added agency, she still, in essence, doesn’t exist.
K’s ability to love, his devotion to Joi, and their more developed relationship are intended to be the result of Deckard and Rachael’s ability to fall for one another. If replicants can learn to love, so can holograms, right? And if Joi feels love, then she must exist, yes? But while a big part of the new Blade Runner’s plot relies on the belief that Deckard and Rachael fell in love in the first, their “love” is the result of a coercive sex scene. It makes for a better theology that the first replicant-human child is the result of a genuine love rather than forced sex, and Deckard’s emotional torture and isolation seems to require that he loved Rachael. What we'll never know is if Rachael truly loved Deckard, but the trope of a woman falling in love with her rapist reeks of misogyny. By basing the sequel’s emotional core on the original’s damaging romantic subplot, 2049’s more affecting, human qualities are tarnished by a troublesome “no means yes” mentality that one can only hope will die out long before we actually reach 2049.