Warning: This post contains spoilers for Blade Runner: 2049.
There's one particular scene in Blade Runner 2049 that I can't stop thinking about.
In it, Officer KD6.3-7 ("K" for short), Ryan Gosling's blade runner, calls sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) over to his apartment for a futuristic sort of service: she is to be the stand-in body for his holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). This means that K will have sex with Mariette's body while pretending that it is in fact Joi's physical form. It's something Mariette's clearly done before — she walks assertively into the room, and assumes a position so that Joi can superimpose her digital reflection onto her. The flickering back and forth between the two women's faces as Mariette walks towards K is like a walking, talking Madonna/whore complex come to life.
This isn't a totally unprecedented idea. In Her, Spike Jonze's 2013 movie, Joaquin Phoenix' character requests a similar service so that he can get physical with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his operating system that he has fallen in love with. (In the end, it doesn't work, and he has to settle for this.)
But what makes the Blade Runner scene so interesting though, is that it takes place between three digital beings. K, as we find out early on in the film, is an improved version of the very replicants he's supposed to be hunting down, as is Mariette. And Joi is a computer system à la Siri. Which brings me to the question at hand: Can replicants actually consent to a sexual encounter?
Westworld brought this question to the fore in its premiere season, when host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is brutally sexually assaulted in the very first episode. Female hosts, we discover, are around to service human men who visit the park — there, they can have sex (whether the host is willing or not is inconsequential), rob, and murder with impunity.
Much the same can be said of the Blade Runner universe, in which female robots and replicants are largely commodified for the sexual enjoyment of men. The porno-centric universe Denis Villeneuve has imagined almost makes The Deuce's Times Square look tame by comparison. These women don't talk back, they don't make trouble, and they definitely don't say no. Male replicants, for their part, are also bound to their programmed obedience. As we see from K's repeated baseline tests, he has to maintain a consistent frame of mind in order to be allowed to remain in active service.
In both cases, the hosts and replicants are highly evolved robots programmed by humans, which, as Tina Horn wrote in the context of Westworld, brings up its own set of questions: "Consider the rape of Dolores, and the probability that robot rape is commonplace in this amusement park. Can a robot actually consent to sex? Can a robot refuse sex? Is there such a thing as consensual robot sex if the robot is programmed to consent? Is there such a thing as raping a robot if the robot’s resistance is programmed?"
But you don't know the half of it. Blade Runner 2049 focuses much of its attention on the concept of a replicant's ability to naturally reproduce. If in fact, a replicant could give birth to another, it implies that new replicant would cease to be a man-made product. They would just be a new kind of being — different from humans, perhaps, but a sentient one nonetheless. In that case, how does the programming even work? Does the pre-programmed algorithm get passed on to the offspring? Or are they born with human-like sentience which enables them to make their own decisions?
In an attempt to parse what can only be described as a mindfuck, I reached out to Mackenzie Davis for her thoughts on the matter. "I guess that depends how much you believe in their consciousness — if their consciousness is just an algorithm that’s been pre-programmed or if they have a consciousness that begins as a seed and then grows through life experience, which implies that that’s sort of their soul," she said in a phone call. "That’s a toughie."
It definitely is. Because in a world in which consent between two human participants is still being debated, bringing maybe-sentient robots into the equation almost seems premature. The good news is that we have 32 years left until 2049 to figure it out.
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