Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), explores many of the same topics, including the development of advanced biotechnology and the (in)ability to distinguish between humans and bioengineered replicants. Like Scott’s Blade Runner, Villeneuve’s 2049 considers how ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’ identity is constructed. Because replicants’ physical appearances do not immediately identify them as nonhuman, the human characters in 2049 appear to be obsessed with developing methods through which to reliably track replicants, with various forms of biometric data such as DNA and serial numbers serving as the primary means through which to identify a replicant. The biometric data used to track replicants is highly invasive: Wallace Corporation maintains extensive DNA records of each generation of replicants, and the serial number assigned to each individual replicant is engraved on their bones, meaning that their social identification is permanently incorporated into their bodies. One of the primary questions being raised by 2049, then, is how biological characteristics can be used to shape and reinforce concepts of identity.

Image: The body of Rachael, the replicant mother, is identified using the serial number printed on her bones. Screenshot from Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049, Columbia Pictures, 2017.

The problem that the use of biometrics poses, Pramod Nayar argues, is that it forces individuals to identify themselves in terms of their biological traits “by constantly calling upon their bodies to identify, present, validate, show their ethnic membership, lineage and familial ties, all on one ID card”.[1] The implications of this constant need to present one’s body for verification is that it frames bodily identity within “a larger dataset of what all bodies are”,[2] or what certain bodies should be. In 2049, replicant bodies are expected to be stable, predictable, and controllable, and their biometric data is used to ensure that they remain this way. Baseline tests are one method used to track the physiological and emotional state of the replicants. When the protagonist, a Nexus-9 replicant named K, fails a baseline test, his supervisor at the LAPD, Lt. Joshi, warns him that the “scan said you didn’t look like you on the inside”[3] and insinuates that K will now be ‘retired’ unless he can escape from the city. What 2049 demonstrates, then, is the potential for biometric data to be used as the justification for the subjugation, control, and even execution of individuals who fail to meet specific biometric criteria.

The human characters in 2049 continually attempt to reinforce the biological distinction between humans and replicants. One of the ways through which this biological boundary is reinforced is through the rhetorical association of replicants with ‘artificiality’. Throughout the film, humans call attention to replicants’ bioengineered bodies using derogatory terms such as “skin-job” and “skinner”.[4] These derogatory terms emphasize the replicants’ ‘artificial’ skin, in comparison to the presumed ‘authenticity’ of human bodies. In Elana Gomel’s discussion of posthuman ethics, she argues that the use of dehumanizing language can have important ethical implications, noting that it can be “a powerful linguistic tool for (re)drawing the boundaries of our biological species and thus facilitating extreme violence”.[5] Because human society in 2049 relies on replicants as a source of slave labour, rhetorical techniques are employed to justify the violent and oppressive treatment of the replicants by using language that reinforces the idea that replicants are inherently ‘inhuman’ because of their biological differences.

Image: Baseline tests monitor the physiological and emotional state of replicants. Screenshot from Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049, Columbia Pictures, 2017.

While the discovery of a replicant that had given birth threatens to dismantle the boundary separating humans and replicants, Niander Wallace, the CEO of Wallace Corporation, obsesses over creating fertile replicants, arguing that colonizing space will require “more replicants than can ever be assembled”.[6] Replicant reproduction is therefore seen as a new source of labour that can be used to support the human economy. Catherine Waldby argues that through the ascription of “biovalue” to bodies, “[b]odily matter that is deemed socially valueless can be redeemed by working its biological qualities in the interests of those whose bodies count in the social order”.[7] While replicant bodies are considered to be ‘socially valueless’, fertile replicants represent a new potential source of biovalue. In Sherryl Vint’s discussion of the reproductive value of replicant bodies, she argues that “Blade Runner 2049 makes visible a contemporary social fantasy of biology fully woven into capitalist production”.[8] This ‘fantasy’ that capitalist production will be able to extract value from biological life serves as Wallace’s justification for exploiting fertile replicants as a source of biovalue.

With the emphasis that the society in 2049 places on biological identity—both through the use of biometric data and in the ascription of biovalue to fertile replicants—it is unsurprising that replicants view themselves in terms of a biological hierarchy. Because the replicant child exists beyond the biological boundary separating humans and replicants, the child is considered by replicants to be evidence that they are “more than just slaves”.[9] This new biological status appears to be the only way for replicants to escape human oppression: for example, when K begins to believe he might be the replicant child, his AI companion Joi insists that since he is “a real boy now” he is “too important” to use the initial from his serial number as a name.[10] And yet, even though it is eventually revealed that K is not the ‘real’ replicant child, this discovery does not cause him to return to his role as a blade runner; instead, K chooses to act independently of the LAPD, Wallace Corporation, and even the replicant uprising group by reuniting the replicant child with her father. While 2049 depicts the problematic consequences that biometric data and biovalue can have on identity, the film also reinforces the idea that an individual’s ability to make autonomous choices exists beyond their biological identity as either ‘human’ or ‘nonhuman’.

Image: DNA records are used to track the replicant child. Screenshot from Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049, Columbia Pictures, 2017.

Films like 2049 play an important role in discussions relevant to critical posthumanism. By depicting the way that biological factors are used to differentiate between humans and replicants, 2049 demonstrates how ‘human’ identity is constructed in relation to biotechnological developments. As Elaine L. Graham notes in her discussion of posthumanism and popular culture, “[t]he ethical and political task rests in a better understanding of the social interests and future aspirations that lie behind these various depictions of human and post/human futures”.[11] As our own society increasingly relies on the collection of biometric data and the ascription of biovalue to biological material, explorations of how biotechnology could affect concepts of human and nonhuman identity in films like 2049 can influence our approach to biotechnological advancements and allow us to consider the potential ethical implications of identifying individuals in terms of biological boundaries.



[1] Pramod K. Nayar, ‘The Body, Reformatted’, Posthumanism, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014, p. 102.

[2] Nayar, ‘The Body, Reformatted’, p. 83.

[3] Denis Villeneuve, director, Blade Runner: 2049, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017, 1:24:25-1:24:27.

[4] Villeneuve, Blade Runner: 2049, 14:22-14:24, 16:23-16:24.

[5] Elana Gomel, ‘Science (Fiction) and Posthuman Ethics: Redefining the Human’, The European Legacy, vol. 16, no. 3, 2011, p. 341.

[6] Villeneuve, Blade Runner: 2049, 42:03-42:06.

[7] Catherine Waldby, The Visible Human Project: Informatic Bodies and Posthuman Medicine. London: Routledge, 2000, p. 157.

[8] Sherryl Vint, ‘Vitality and Reproduction in Blade Runner: 2049’, Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, issue 1, 2020, 15-35, 16.

[9] Villeneuve, Blade Runner: 2049, 2:05:47-2:05:50.

[10] Villeneuve, Blade Runner: 2049, 1:15:16-1:15:18, 1:15:30-1:15:32.

[11] Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 37.