The future is bleak in Ridley Scott’s original 1982 sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner. Considered ahead of its time, the original saw its now classic status only after seven different edits, and nearly thirty years of space. Starring Harrison Ford, the future depicted in the film is simultaneously technologically advanced, and dirty, where violence is assumed and sex is as public as a casual stroll through the park. (Although there isn’t much that is “casual” in Scott’s dystopian world!) Humans created a workforce of robots who eventually betrayed their human masters and needed to be forcefully shut down.
The first film was a lot of *free will versus deterministic* argumentation, with empathy being the true victor. But the sequel succeeds in making it less of that, and more about pure existence. In fact, its revelations bear a resemblance to the first astronaut trip to the moon, where the men looked back at the earth and felt that seeing the big blue ball, hanging suspended in the black mass of the universe, was the unexpected majesty to turn their gaze. They set out to go to the moon, but found themselves marveling at the splendour of the world they had just left behind.
(Honestly, the movies are way better than the book written by Philip K. Dick. What? I know. But it’s true.)
The sequel (2049) carries this theme with a compassionate gravitas. But what it improves upon from the original most is the aesthetics. Denis Villeneuve, the director of the sequel, creates a frame in which the viewer envisions a possibility; at once exciting and terrifying. The statues are submerged in sand, and as I see it, the ruins of a failed attempt at being a human society which has given way to an experiment in replicant versus human dialectic.
Jared Leto’s character perfectly embodies the non-human human. He is caught up in designing a workforce; and in the act of creation, he loses his humanity, resulting in the need to master the environment, rather than blessing it. (As I see it, mastery and blessing are what separates the true craftsman from the powerful frauds.) He is no longer “human,” but is more of a powerful robot, incapable of compassion or empathy, therefore divorced from his humanity. But the opposite occurs with the replicants: their search for the real is taken up again, and this time by a synthetic brain ruled by endless combinations of four numbers. Thus, once again, the search for the spark of innocent humanity is left to another kind of creature. The future, as they say, is in the rearview mirror.
The emerging dialectic is between corrupted humans and innocent replicants in this story, but in all of its excess and visual splendor, it is still a drama surrounding the ancient Christian story of the incarnation. And I know that it may seem like a stretch, given that the director is not a “Christian,” so I don’t want to say that this is the true meaning of the story, but I do want to stress how the themes affected me while struggling to watch the film at midnight.
(The “incarnation” is God becoming man, joining himself with man in such a meaningful way that by his very participation in humanity succeeds in reversing the curse of sin and death, revealing what it means to actually become human.)
Sin perverts (twists) the fabric of humanity, making us less than human; not “more” human. It renders the image of God unintelligible. Why would the world follow Jesus if His followers can’t seem to exude the most basic of human decency and compassion, whether in conversation or in generosity? Truly, our greatest problem is not in the prevalent nihilism of materialist atheism, but in the lack of Christian “humanist” witness.
(Yes, I’m using the word “humanist” on purpose. But don’t go away just yet.)
The ‘Blade Runner’ in the movie is the embodiment of the god-man; the one who grapples the tension between heaven and earth, and in this case, human and robot. Harrison Ford’s original take was about a human who discovered empathy in the eyes of a Replicant he loved. Ryan Goslings character is actually a Replicant, not a human. He is an angel come down to the grime who is discovering, in a secretive way, what it means to be a feeling creature. He does this through that very Christian genre of fiction, mystery. He’s a detective whose job it is to find answers to complex questions. We watch in awe of his ability to crack the code of his own creation through the conflict of another rogue Replicant he has had to “retire” – a nice word for assassinate.
Yes, it’s violent. But it is the right kind of violence: the kind that reminds us that heroic individuals make a leap of faith. And we discover our true nature by choosing to look long enough to see something previously overlooked.
The entire movie is a kind of journey that sees the future in the rear-view mirror, where robots (Replicants) discover their own humanity, and all at once we, the viewers, are reminded not of the possibilities of A.I., but of the hope of what it means for a corrupted society, driven only by greed, lust, and desire, to become human once more.
After sitting through the entire 2 hours and 30 minutes of BR2049, I was struck by the mode of storytelling. While there is action, it is more of a visual dream. Each scene is a frame of beauty and devastation, harkening to Villeneuve’s style of symbolic representation that you can keep getting the more you watch the film. It is only after subsequent viewing that the full scope of the work comes into focus. The engine of the story is its beauty amidst the ruins, full of a few characters seeking to renew the creation by first experiencing true compassion, empathy, and individuality.
How do you know you are not simply responding to a code that has pre-determined what you will say, think, and eventually do?
Goslings “Officer K” violates the code. And the way he accesses it is through real memory. A memory of a miracle birth is transmitted into K’s hardware in order to allow him the opportunity to feel the very human anxiety of not being remembered. Sure, it is not his own actual memory, but what he experiences through memory actually occurred in the real world.
The Blade Runner is a creature that lives in a world, not unlike our current one: reveling in the freedom of subjective choice, two-stepping around the ruins of modernity, the very faith it relies upon as the foundation for its own transcendent humanism. The ruins are too strong to be buried forever, and a movie such as this demonstrates the revelatory power of reclaiming the ancient truth of love, empathy, compassion, and coherent identity.
As celebrated historian Yuval notes in a Ted talk, one on one, a human is not much different than a chimp. But put one thousand chimps together and one thousand humans together, and the humans will emerge victoriously.
Here are a few reasons humans are the most unique of the species:
Humans are capable of asking questions.
Humans can work together in huge numbers with complete strangers.
Humans are concerned with other humans across the world.
Humans inquire of the metaphysical in order to give meaning to their lives.
Humans share stories in order to make sense of their lived experiences, individually and corporately.
BR2049 is such a story we need to tell ourselves. It is the story of becoming human again, once society has redefined its parameters to the point of non-existence. We must learn to exist, again. and in our trip upward, we might find ourselves looking back for what we left behind as the truly marvelous thing we were missing all along.