Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World: Blade Runner and 2049

WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!

Released in 2017, Blade Runner 2049 appears to have had a largely similar effect as its 1982 predecessor: a financial disappointment that divided audiences. The difference this time around is that critics were all on board; something that can’t be said for the original at the time it released. But there are much deeper connections between the two than that; even deeper than the average sequel cash-in that simply didn’t have the attention paid to it so it would stand on its own.

As any sequel worth its salt, 2049 expands upon the central theme to the original film. Director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner asks the question, “What makes us human?” Director Denis Villenueve’s sequel asks something that takes that question a step further with “What gives us meaning?”

Blade Runner (1982) and the Verisimilitude of Roy Batty

In the original film, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner- an agent dispatched to discover, and eliminate replicants; biologically engineered people created for work off-planet. After these replicants have fulfilled their duties they need to be “retired” (The professional term for killing them), and some don’t accept the idea with grace. A particularly advanced group has made their way back to earth in hopes of finding the key to extending their lives as Deckard hunts them down.

The leader of the rebellious replicant group is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer); a meticulously brutal character. After creepily interrogating his subjects he kills them. Not necessarily for the perverse joy of the kill but they’ve served their purpose so it’s “time to die.” He’s not human technically, but he certainly acts like he wants to live the way a human might. He even makes his way to the founder of the corporation that made him…and murders him as well.

Creations killing their creator is an interesting concept that would also carry over into Ridley Scott’s future elaborations on the Alien franchise with Prometheus (2012) and Covenant (2017). In those films, android David has similar goals in finding a way to live on past what his physical shell might allow. Ridely Scott has stated he considers Blade Runner and Alien to be in the same universe in fact, but that’s a different article for a different time. 1998’s Soldier is also included, but few people seem to remember that one.

And though Batty is the antagonist of the Blade Runner story, his ending monologue (improvised by Hauer), leaves possibly the greatest impression on audiences.

And what makes this so great? The atmosphere plays a part of course, but it’s the final glimpse into Batty’s humanity that causes the experience to sink in. It permeates the underlying empathy he’s given us insights into throughout the film, and it makes him all the more like a futuristic Frankenstein’s monster; sad and unique, but too chaotic to live.

Then again so is Deckard, just in a more acceptable way. It’s true that he doesn’t want to work for the cops; hunting down non-humans and killing them. In fact, he doesn’t exactly seem to enjoy much of anything he does- but he does it anyway.

The hero and villain (using the terms loosely here) are opposites sides of the same coin; often times with only the villain being the one to recognize the similarities.

But the audience can see it just as clearly- Deckard is simply doing his job… to retire replicants while Batty is doing everything he can to ensure his own survival in a world that either doesn’t care about him, or actively wants his termination. His motives are purely understandable. If they already want you dead, what should their lives matter to you? Our protagonist (a better term for Deckard than “hero”) is fairly selfish in his reasoning and appears as disconnected to others as the world he inhabits.

Batty, on the other hand, seems full of fire and eager to move toward his goal. He doesn’t sulk or deliberate. He has true purpose. He doesn’t want to be a slave to his makers and the early expiration date built into him. By the end, it’s even Batty’s confrontation with Deckard that urges Deckard to reunite with love interest (and replicant) Rachel as the two go on the run together. And a few words from Gaff also inspire him.

Even using the word “retire” as the professional term for ending the life of a replicant becomes tricky in a semantic sense. Can they be killed if they’re created and used as instruments of work and war? One would have to say “yes,” given that a plant can be killed. An animal can be killed. So yes, a replicant can be killed. But should it matter the same way it would as if a human life ended? They were made with specific jobs to do and once those jobs are completed, can’t they just live a normal life?

More cynical minds, or maybe just less hesitant, would say “No. It doesn’t matter the same way. I get what you’re saying, but if humans created replicants to be like humans, and they’re not actually human, then it’s like throwing away an expensive hammer. They were created in a lab, they were grown- so it’s not the same thing.”

But of course a hammer doesn’t look for ways to last longer. It doesn’t exhibit emotions, it doesn’t do anything other than what’s it’s picked up and used for, then be discarded. The story isn’t set-up to allow you to believe they’re solely instruments that only appear human. Or maybe that’s just our own programming at work.

The argument of what makes us human could go on. What separates you from something that appears so distinctly similar? And even more- why should a replicant that wants his or her life so badly be abruptly ended?

And now we’re brought to Blade Runner 2049.

Life, Liberty, and K’s Pursuit of Joi

Set twenty years after the original movie’s events, Officer K is a Blade Runner. Tasked with retiring (There’s that word again) replicants, K does his job with quiet efficiency. The twist is that he’s a replicant himself. This only seems to be an issue to his targets- runaways that have stepped too far out of line and appear to have a will of their own. But K’s worldview is shaken when he finds clues that point to the possibility he’s been lied to about what he actually is.

Let’s look at the life K lives. He kills his own kind with no misgivings. He goes back home to a crap apartment where all the trashy tenants absolutely despise him for being a replicant. His girlfriend is a hologram A.I. made by the same corporation that made him. He lives for the job and only seems to accept that he has a personality because he knows he was programmed to have one. He shuts it out, as he does with his implanted “memories” (Images and thoughts encoded in replicants so they can behave like something closer to human).

When Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) asks him to tell her about his memories, he indulges but it doesn’t seem to be with much of a hint that he believes it really happened. Why would he? He knows what he is.

“I feel a little strange sharing a childhood story considering I was never a child.”

It’s only when clues start adding up that a particular memory of hiding a little wooden horse from childhood bullies does he begin to slowly spiral out of his cold yet concrete world…and into the land of confusion, uncertainty and even hope; things he’d previously been unfamiliar with. The world was unforgiving but he at least knew what he was doing. Now he’s not so sure.

“You’re not even close to baseline.”

K slowly starts to think his memories might be real and that he might be human, and this is the beginning of the end of living with blinders on. Ironically it’s when all hope appears lost and K has hit rock bottom, a massive hologram of his destroyed A.I. girlfriend Joi that steers him back into doing something meaningful. Having hope only to lose it is what allows K to realize how he can really do something that matters. He can’t go back to what he’s known. The leader of the underground replicant freedom group tells K “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.”

No, it’s not just having a pulse and going through the motions does one find any kind of meaning: it’s actively engaging in something that might mean the end of the individual- but they know it’s right- and that gives them meaning. Staying where he is when when he’s comfortable might be where he wants to be, but what one wants often isn’t what one needs. What this means exactly would need to be determined by each individual.

And the duo of K and Joi seem genuinely content. But digging deeper, we know it can’t last. Despite their chemistry, K and Joi are playing house. And in a way, there could be a satisfaction in that make-believe, Sims sort-of world.

But what the replicant question poses to humans, is what an A.I. hologram poses to a replicant- possibly further detached.

When we first see K and Joi’s relationship, it’s a sad kind of fulfillment. “He’s not real and she’s even less real” one might think. A replicant and a hologram, and a hologram anyone can own. Virtually anything the owner wants her to be, she can be. Without having to take the imagination too far, we can easily see how successful such a product would be if that were introduced into our own world. No need to try, no need to change; she’s only here to keep make you happy and keep you comfortable.

Sex doll and video game comparisons come to mind but social media may be more fitting, come to think of it.

As English Philosopher John Locke put it in his book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1894),

“The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty.  As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action…” (1894, p. 338-339)

Note Locke’s distinction between imaginary happiness and real happiness.

K, regardless of the humanity argument, is complacent. He’s doing what he seems made to do, but not that’s the same as what he needs to do. In his case, it ultimately involves sacrificing himself for the lives of others. K isn’t directly connected to the secret that could “break the world” (A replicant has given birth, something thought impossible), but now that he’s become aware, does he go deeper? Or should he just settle in somewhere else? he could buy another Joi, and attempt to get back to an easier way of life. He wasn’t supposed to be mixed up in the mess he’s found himself in. K’s target at the beginning of the film was able to hideaway for twenty years. K might be able to do better. But we know what he ultimately chooses.

In a manner, we’re watching this story unfold through the eyes of a figure whose own life doesn’t matter until he realizes it should. And there’s certainly a lesson in there for audiences. We know what K should do…but when it comes to our own lives, it can be immensely tempting to choose the path of least resistance.

The original script included K’s memory of a near fatal drowning accident- something that gives the final confrontation on the sea wall more weight.

What’s important is that we don’t ignore the urge to move forward. The more we subdue that guiding voice, the more of an effort it becomes to keep it subdued and by that point, we’re fighting ourselves simply to remain static. The energy could be spent productively.

By the end of 2049, with K having realized his purpose of reuniting Deckard with his daughter, he dies on the steps outside. The “Tears in the Rain” musical motif plays subtly as K’s blood seeps into the snow. Dying on the steps isn’t just coincidental but a visual of K’s ascension of sorts. From an inert nobody to the man in the arena. He’d risen above the lot he was “grown” into.

Both Batty and K die contently. They reach the end knowing they did everything they could with the time they had left. And It took their lives. But living without reason would have only made them die slower rather than make anything better. It’s not that Batty became heroic the way K did. The point here is that he realized he’d already lived his life while K finally found a reason to live at all. And it’s too bad they won’t live. But then again, who does?

A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

(John A. Shedd (Salt from My Attic, 1928)

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