Blade Runner 2049 is a movie I very much enjoyed (you can read my review here) but it’s an interesting film for me because I realized it nicely inverts a lot of what was inherent to the original movie. I disliked The Last Jedi for having what I felt was a message that didn’t fit with the Star Wars universe that is somewhat reflected in this film but worked better in the last one. Specifically, it’s the somewhat family unfriendly aesop that nobody is actually important and it’s the freedom of recognizing this fact which will set you free.
The premise of the movie is K (Ryan Gosling) finds evidence of a Replicant who gave birth to a child, which his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), finds to be an existential threat to their society. It also is something that appeals to corporate demagogue Niander Wallace who wants to breed a new race of Replicants, so he sends his favorite “angel” Luv to recover this child. Along the way, K starts to believe he’s the Replicant child and possibly a messianic figure to his race. At the end of the movie, K is killed rescuing Rick Deckard and reuniting him with his daughter who turns out to be a corporate drone with an immune disorder.
I didn’t think much of the plot initially until it occurred to me that not only did the movie subvert the fact the protagonist wasn’t the “Chosen One” but it turned out the actual Chosen One is not special in any way shape or form. Doctor Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) designs memories for the Nexus-9 Replicants but is forced to live in a bubble because of her condition. She’s in no condition to lead any sort of revolution or lead her “people.” In fact, she’s a key point in the machinery that allows them to be produced and enslaved.
Indeed, Doctor Stelline is useless even for the bad guys’ desires for her. Niander Wallace wants to create Replicants who can reproduce on their own and be used to colonize the rest of the galaxy–which can’t be done due to all the sensitive equipment needs. Doctor Stelline, as someone suffering a crippling immune disorder, is not the kind of Master Race superhuman which would allow that dream to come to pass. Replicant children, like real life clones turned out to be, are very likely people who suffer serious birth defects and conditions that need the technology of society to live healthy satisfying lives.
Even Doctor Stelline’s role as a symbol of human-Replicant equality is something that may not be all that threatening. While Lieutenant Joshi says it will “break down the wall”, it’s not like humanity has ever had much difficulty dehumanizing people that they can breed with. Mixed populations have existed throughout history and often get spit on from both sides of their heritage. They may eventually rise high but Replicants are already human in every way that matters. Adding another humanized element to them isn’t going to convince most racists to stop treating them like garbage.
A large part of the movie is removing the romanticism of Replicants as a persecuted minority in some ways too. Yes, they’re slaves produced by the system to live and die at the hands of their corporate masters. It’s a life that absolutely sucks. However, the movie takes the curious stance of noting their position is actually better than quite a few humans. The horror of human oppression against Replicants is awful but it’s not limited to them. The old evils of human on human oppression haven’t gone away in the slightest.
In the year 2049, Replicants have grown in number and rights enough that Nexus-9 are allowed to live on Earth and hold jobs they’re paid for. They can be killed at any time by their masters but they are considered valuable property by all but Niander Wallace (who kills humans with equal ruthlessness as Replicants). This is a sharp contrast to the destitute who are left to die in the streets or chained together in horrific sweatshop conditions. The poor thus hate Replicants even more while the Replicants see nothing in common with the destitute in their struggle for freedom.
One of the most fascinating elements of the movie is the twisted relationship between Niander Wallace and his favorite slave Luv. Wallace calls his creations his children as well as “angels” but treats them as disposable commodities. Luv yearns for his praise and adoration like a daughter but, ultimately, isn’t any more important to him than anyone else. She isn’t more important or irreplaceable than anyone else and dies trying to win the affection of a man who is incapable of giving it.
Niander Wallace has saved the world from starvation, reintroduced Replicants, and colonized six worlds but remains an ultimately impotent figure. His delusions of godhood with millions of Replicant “children” don’t change the fact he’s just a man. He is a man surrounded by slaves but seems to lack even Tyrell’s humanity. He is only able to relate to individuals around him as master and slave, leaving him in a lonely but gilded cage.
Deckard’s reaction to meeting him is first fear and bewilderment but soon a kind of pity as he realizes the man has no knowledge of what it means to be appreciated as a person or do things for others. He is, in simple terms, not special despite having done more than any other human being in history because it’s impossible to be special in this movie’s universe. Rich, powerful, and famous? Yes. However, special implies one is different from the rest of the world and no one really is.
This depressing message is even located in the central “romance” between K and Joi. K adores Joi, his Siri-like A.I. companion, and treats her as a real girlfriend in all respects. He brings her presents, tries to give her freedom, and holds lengthy conversations with her. However, Joi is a product produced to give their owners the experience they desire. Which, in K’s case, is a constant reminder he is special and unique despite this being manifestly untrue.
There’s an interesting lesson that K gives up opportunities to forge relationships with real women like Marienette, Luv, and even Lieutenant Joshi to experience what passes for love with his machine. K tries very hard to get a special relationship from a person who is utterly devoted to him but that may simply be another form of illusion. He only really becomes special when he realizes he’s not and chooses to act as an individual who is just one of many. In this case, it’s the Resistance who all wish they were Chosen Ones but are truly free only when they work as one part in a far greater machine.
I should note Joi a character who adds her own influence on this theme whether you view her as sentient or not. As a facilitator of unearned self-image, she makes her lonely heterosexual men (or homosexual women) owners feel great about themselves no matter what their actual qualities. However, if you view her as a sentient being, she also is someone who willingly sacrifices and gives to the point of self-destruction. It’s perhaps why K loves her as she is someone who represents selflessness in a world completely absent these qualities (even in himself). It might be an illusion that she’s a real person but her example inspired him.
Ironically, it is Deckard who manages to escape the prevalent unhappiness and sorrow around the film by choosing to live as a person who is completely anonymous. He identifies himself as a former cop but he makes no pretense of being anything other than a former cop and a father. Wallace attempts to transform into a Joseph figure for his mythology, claim everything about his life may have been planned, but Deckard rejects this reality. By not trying to be special, he’s the only one other than K who ever escapes the system entirely.
One area which does go against my interpretation of the film, though, is the fact Deckard rejects the Second Rachel on the grounds of her being a poor imitation of his wife. Deckard rejects the clone of her because while individuals may not be of any grand importance to the universe, they are certainly so to him. His memories and experiences with his wife would be sullied by accepting a replacement copy. In that respect, I feel for the Second Rachel because she was judged by an impossible standard and no more guilty of being there to seduce Deckard than the original probably was. So even a movie about how we’re all just cogs in an impossibly large machine refuses to argue against personal importance. Indeed, that is the only kind it seems to acknowledge exists.
Blade Runner was a movie which had the essential core of being about how we can refuse to recognize the humanity of our fellow beings. However, too often, we try to make ourselves more than we are. We make people better than others and try to raise ourselves up by putting others down. Blade Runner 2049 shows the other half of that coin. Whereas the first implored us to recognize humanity in others, the second asks us to not try and think anyone is better than anyone else. We’re all just part of the multitude and that’s special enough.