Updated: Mar 10
Written by Kat Mildner
Keywords: High Life, Blade Runner 2049, redefining "family", the domestic vs the taboo
The correlation between biological and technological advancement is hardly new: in many ways, the story of humanity’s progress is a sometimes-conflicted marriage between the soft and visceral shell of the human body with all the emotions it contains, and the hard scientific development humans have sought - sometimes at their own detriment. Consequently, progress always occurs within systems: on a macro-level, societies, on a micro-level, intimate relationships such as family. This relationship can be fraught and steeped in contradictions.
Consider this scene from Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017): A man, not quite human but made of flesh and bone and binary code, reaches out to hold a woman, holographic and diaphanous. Her computer-generated skin flickers in and out like static against a rain that she cannot feel. Their kiss is incorporeal, yet they feel it. Is this real? Or the opening scene of Claire Denis’ High Life (2018), set on an isolated spaceship, where a father discusses humanity with his newborn baby, a girl who will only ever meet her father. It is within this framework he tells her:
“Don’t drink your own piss, Willow. Don’t eat your own shit (...) It’s called a taboo… taboo. At least it is for me, but not for you.”
Here too, what is real? In both of these examples, the boundaries of the human have been stretched to accommodate transgression. Yet, this transgression seems to be full of genuine care. In these extreme situations the two films ask what form tenderness takes? When the boundaries of what is human are stretched, must we redefine “family”?
K (Ryan Gosling) and Joi (Ana de Armas) share an immaterial kiss in the rain. (Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, 2017, Alcon Entertainment)
Monte (Robert Pattinson) holds Willow and teaches her about berries (High Life, Claire Denis, 2018, Pandora Filmproduktion)
Indeed, the worlds of Blade Runner 2049 and High Life are dystopian futures where selfhood has been commodified. In Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Blade Runner, replicants are confronted with an existential frontier: one of their own has given birth. This breaks open the world, as the replicant main character, K (Ryan Gosling), states: “to be born is to have a soul”. But can this be true? Replicants are considered subhuman, yet K and his girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificial intelligence created for pleasure, develop increasingly human-like feelings. In High Life, prisoners on death row are subjected to mysterious fertility experiments, as weird scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche) sexually assaults and impregnates the women. The focus of the film is on one of the ship’s passengers, Monte (Robert Pattinson), and his daughter Willow (Jessie Ross), a girl born of Dibs’ strange experimentation and violation of her parents’ bodies. Their humanity too, could be called into question, due to their lack of proximity to human society.
Remaking the world: the domestic vs the taboo
These relationships are marked by their alterity: in the respective social bubbles of both films, relationships are taboo. K and Joi are unhuman, and their relationship considered less real for its lack of physicality. In High Life, the taboo is simultaneously more subtle and more extreme – Monte and Willow are father and daughter, but the visual language of their closeness when she has grown up betrays a deep, almost disconcerting bond, though the limits of this is never spoken. All four characters are excluded from society – K and Joi because of their lack of human status, Monte and Willow because of the distance from Earth, and the tight cocoon from their isolation. As a response to this isolation, both pairs (re)enact traditional images of intimacy, infusing them with a new strangeness.
When Willow (Jessie Ross) grows up, her relationship with her father (Robert Pattinson) becomes discomforting - their closeness uncannily visually hinting at incest. (High Life, Claire Denis, 2018, Pandora Filmproduktion)
Monte and Willow rewrite a traditional relation between father and daughter by their solitary presence on the ship. Their lives are inherently domestic, as there is no life outside their home. High Life starts in media res: Monte, taking care of baby Willow. He performs his daily routine: a life of chores in which the highlight is always Willow. The days are punctuated by Monte’s one essential task: having to confirm that he is alive and wants to continue living. In Blade Runner 2049, K’s life is truncated between his soulless career and a home life that operates as an escapist fantasyland. At home, K and Joi play “house”. Joi is introduced as a feminine housewife, calling out for her “honey”, and bringing him a wholesome steak for dinner. The food is holographic, hiding K’s real self-prepared dinner of gruel, but the food presented by Joi emanates warmth and love; it is good, for them, to pretend. Though the viewer knows that these characters are relying on a cultural idea of married harmony dating back to the 1950s, the emotions are no less real.
Joi (Ana de Armas), dressed as a housewife, brings K (Ryan Gosling) an artificial dinner. (Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, 2017, Alcon Entertainment)
Shared spheres, secret languages
Joi and K live in a bubble existing on a referential plane not shared by other characters. Similarly, Monte and Willow in High Life also share an incommunicable sphere. These environments reveal the identities of the characters, who feel most themselves and are able to grow within these environments, which are both static in the sense that they recreate traditional cultural ideas of family and romance, and endlessly shifting in that they allow the characters to grow and experiment.
Both couples choose to believe in their unions and dedicate their lives to one another. These unions stand in contrast to lives that are otherwise menial and Sisyphean. Monte and K perform routine as absurd punishment, while to connect with their loved one is a sacred ritual. Monte explicitly chooses life over death for Willow. Similarly, K lives for his love for Joi, the only character who has faith in him. She even gives him a matching name – Joe, a ‘real boy’ name for a ‘real girl’. Instead of love existing abstractly between characters, it is expressed through acts of tenderness - the characters affirm their humanity by choosing to perform their love.
“Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do”
However, the plot dictates that the fantasy worlds which the characters create cannot escape the entropic power of the world. While Blade Runner 2049, a Hollywood blockbuster, is significantly more plot-driven than High Life, the resolutions of both films are similar. In High Life, at Willow’s behest, Monte agrees to give up life on the ship in an attempt to find something new: they launch themselves into the emptiness of space and are drawn toward the black hole that they have been circling. This ending is ambiguous: Monte and Willow, surely, are set to die. And yet the final images of the film are beautiful and serene: Monte and Willow are in a new, unidentifiable space – a visualization of cosmic nothingness, or rather, somethingness. Their faces are bathed in a warm, orange glow. As the film ends, Willow smiles. They are free.
The final images of High Life show Willow (Jessie Ross) and her father gazing tenderly at each other, having entered some other space that is neither the emptiness of space
nor the prison of their spaceship home. (High Life, Claire Denis, 2018, Pandora Filmproduktion)
Similarly, Blade Runner 2049 ends with ambiguous death. In their mission to prove that K is the miracle replicant child, both K and Joi die, deaths that once again are tinged with ambiguity. Joi actively chooses to be taken off the protective software, choosing to risk freedom of movement. She chooses to be with K, rendering her fallible: if her device is destroyed, so is she. And indeed, she is, yet death gives her life autonomy. She resists her destiny and makes her own choice. K will subsequently do the same, sacrificing himself for the real miracle child. Like Joi, this choice situates him in a community of humans and proves his autonomy too. Both characters choose to die, rewriting their codes as artificial beings made for a purpose. In dying, K and Joi define themselves as human, just as Monte and Willow choose to define themselves outside rigid norms. These four deaths are paradoxically life-affirming and highlight the importance of connection and the eternal strain for a better future. Indeed, the family is questiones in Blade Runner 2049 and High Life but the question is answered affirmatively: love is simply choosing to act with love. Artifice or biology, family is a choice.
K (Ryan Gosling) dies in the snow, after having found meaning in his existence. (Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villneuve, 2017, Alcon Entertainment)
To learn more about the researcher, please click here.
Asibong, A. (2011). “Claire Denis’s Flickering Spaces of Hostility” L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 51, No. 1, Watch This Space: Women's Conceptualisations of Space in Contemporary French Film and Visual Art (Spring 2011), pp. 154-167
Clowes, R. (2019). “Breaking the Code: Strong Agency and Becoming” In: Shanahan, T. and Smart, P. Blade Runner 2049: A Philosophical Exploration. London: Routledge. P108-126.
Hall, S. (1997). Representation & The Media. Lecture given at the University of Westminster. Transcript available through Media Education Foundation, introduced by Sut Jhally.
Haraway, D. E. (1985) A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the late 20th Century, Socialist Review. (80).