Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner helped me understand humanity. The film is rightly lauded for its detailed world-building and hypnotic score, but it is also a philosophical treatise about human identity (seriously, Ridley Scott’s oeuvre has spawned a whole academic subfield). Humans unfortunately have a tendency to tribalism, defining some members of the species as sufficiently worthy of respect while excluding “Others” on the basis of race, gender, or religion. Blade Runner argues that the ability to feel empathy towards other forms of life is key to humanity. Indeed, in the world of 2019, bounty hunters use the Voight-Kampff machine to detect replicants (or androids) by measuring their empathy.
Yet, Blade Runner ends with a twist. (SPOILER ALERT for Blade Runner). By the end of the film, we come to realize that the replicants value life just as much as the humans, if not more so. Whereas many of the humans in the film come across as world-weary and heartless, the replicants possess a joie de vivre as they cherish all aspects of life, even pain. Ultimately, the film asks viewers if we are human, if our empathy extends to replicants.
Blade Runner didn’t need a sequel, but nevertheless Hollywood, obsessed with reboots, remakes, and relaunches, decided to make one. Fortunately, Blade Runner 2049 is not a simply a retread of the previous film (see, The Force Awakens). Warner Brothers allowed director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) to stay true to the contemplative tone of the original, but also go in new directions. This is a Blade Runner film, but it’s also a Villeneuve film.
Blade Runner 2049 is not a perfect film, and I don’t quite agree with the hype surrounding it. For one thing, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack leans too heavy on ambiance and too light on the melody (although nothing could ever match Vangelis’ original score). At 2 hours and 44 minutes, the film is – and sometimes feels – long. Where the original film had an impressive narrative economy, Blade Runner 2049 sometimes wanders into narrative cul-de-sacs. 2049 also lacks the sheer zaniness that made the original so memorable. In short, if you go into Blade Runner 2049 expecting it to be as mesmerizing as the original, you’ll likely come out of the theater disappointed.
SPOILERS for Blade Runner 2049 follow. I highly suggest watching the movie without reading any spoilers beforehand.
That said, if you treat Blade Runner 2049 as a work that engages with the ideas and questions of the original (updated for 2017), it’s a much more rewarding experience. If the original was focused on questions of humanity, this new film is more interested in individuality and identity. Blade Runner 2049 forces the characters – and the audience – to ask what makes us special. 2049 is a future in which individuality and identity seem especially at risk. Life – both human and replicant – is often treated as disposable. Identity itself is mutable. One character literally merges her identity into another’s in order to please her lover. In a world where people are little more than products, why should any of us believe that we are special?
Blade Runner 2049 approaches these questions through a twist on the Chosen One trope. Science fiction and fantasy are littered with stories in which the hero is “chosen” by prophesy or noble birth (Harry Potter is probably the most famous example). The problem with this trope is that the character is deemed “special” not because of superior intellect or morality, but rather because of fortunate birth. Science fiction author David Brin argues that this type of storytelling implicitly justifies elitism. At first, Blade Runner 2049 seems like it is yet another “Chosen One” story. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) believes he/she is special because of the unique circumstances of birth, the first offspring of a human and replicant (Deckard and Rachel from the original film). The audience is lulled into thinking that the movie is about K’s quest to uncover his heritage. Characters even tell him that he is “special.”
Interestingly, the film then turns this on its head. We learn that Blade Runner 2049 is not in fact K’s story. He does not come from noble birth. There is no reason to think that he is any more or less special than the thousands of other characters we see on screen. Thus, K has to find a new meaning for his life. The answer seems to come when another character tells him that dying for a cause you believe in is the most human thing one can do. K does in fact find a sense of purpose. By the end of the film, he seems content with his life as a supporting character.
Yet, the film also shows how the universal urging for a sense of purpose can be twisted. Some of the characters find themselves so utterly devoted to serving a master that they to surrender their identity. The replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) serves tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) with a fanatical devotion that is surely not reciprocated. K’s assistant Joi (Ana de Armas) seems to have no goals outside pleasing K, even at the cost of her identity. In an eerie echo of social media, the character at times adopts a physical presence presence that is very different from her virtual presence. Meanwhile, Wallace goes to great effort to create an identity as a sort of god who can perform miracles, creating life and letting the blind see again. There’s an artifice to him that reminds me of modern CEOs announcing a new marketing campaign.
In fact, these themes of identity and individuality are particularly relevant to 2017. Much of our political turmoil stems from a sense that the modern world no longer affords people a sense of purpose. We all believe that we’re the protagonists of our own story, and as kids most of us dreamt of achieving great things. However, even in the best of times, few of us go on to change the world or amass vast fortunes. Now, people no longer even dare to dream. Large majorities of Americans and Europeans believe that their children will be worse off than they were. The American Dream is dying.
Meanwhile, we have an irresistible need to post or tweet everything about our lives, as if announcing ourselves to the world ensures that we are still special. This in turn fuels further discontent as many people often end up comparing themselves to the (often deceptively perfect) lives we see on social media. Where people could once content themselves with finding a special role in their town or neighborhood, now we’re nagged by that knowledge that we’ll never have it quite as good as that person in California or Paris. It’s harder to believe that you’re the chosen one when you can compare yourself to millions of other people at the click of a button.
Extremists know this about human nature and take advantage of it. Like Luv in the film, a sense of purpose can become dangerous when driven by angst or anger. Terrorists often recruit aimless youngsters with the promise that they can fight for a cause larger than themselves, to see the world and have adventures like the “chosen ones” in Hollywood blockbusters. Demagogues like Donald Trump take advantage of nostalgia for a past that, like the holograms in Blade Runner 2049, never really existed.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t provide any easy answers to our existential angst, but it at least poses some of the questions. I highly doubt the year 2049 will look anything like Villeneuve’s vision, but I suspect our 2049 will feel like the film’s. We might not have flying cars and humanoid robots, but the internet and artificial intelligence will continue to blur the lines of between artificial and human. We will still have that mix of ease and unease with technology that both makes our lives easier and less meaningful. We will still be asking ourselves what makes us special in a world of billions of other people.
In short, I still don’t quite know how I feel about Blade Runner 2049 as a film. I enjoyed it, I admired it, but it certainly isn’t my favorite of 2017 (that goes to War of Planet of the Apes). However, it has made me think, which in some ways is the highest compliment I can pay to a science fiction film.