Film

Blade Runner 2049: A Film Review

It is difficult to sum up exactly what Blade Runner 2049 is about. Like many others have expressed, the experience itself in the cinema—2 hours and 45 minutes—felt more like a daylight revery. A waking dream. “Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is a poem,” writes one reviewer. I couldn’t agree more. A desolate, haunting, and beautiful poem.

It is a film that is packed with literary references, from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, to Franz Kafka (the protagonist, “Joe K” after Josef K. in The Trial) and many nods to the neo-noir that was the original 1982 Blade Runner as well as Philip K. Dick’s original Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It extrapolates into the future the terrors and uncertainties of our present—from runaway technology and dehumanizing capitalism to the looming devastation of climate change, to the shifting sense of identity, self, and memory in an increasingly hyper-real and postmodern virtual reality. It’s all of those things.

Through and despite all of that, it is also a film about connection, transcendence, and love. It’s about generations and the future of our species. Specifically, Blade Runner 2049 is a meditation on what we are becoming.

BONES UNDER THE TREE

Blade Runner 2049 concerns itself with the decades following the original 1982 film. In the years following the confrontation between Deckard, Roy Batty, Zhora, Leon, and Pris, the Tyrell Corporation created the Nexus 8 line—replicants with open ended life spans. A replicant rebellion took place in 2022, culminating in the Blackout (see the short film here by Cowboy Bebop director, Shinichiro Watanabe). A kind of historic amnesia takes place, an informational Dark Age where everything before the blackout has been lost to history (dare we say, like tears in the rain). This led to the banning of all replicants and the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation. That is until Niander Wallace entered the picture. Using his massive wealth and influence after solving a global food crisis through genetic engineering, Wallace re-introduced a new line of replicants who cannot rebel and always obey.

[Caution: spoilers after this point]

Like a good noir, Blade Runner 2049 begins with a mystery. After “retiring” a rogue Nexus 8 named Sapper Morton (watch his short film here), our protagonist Joe K—who we learn right away is also a replicant—finds a mysterious box of bones buried under a dead tree. The bones belong to none other than Rachel, a replicant and Deckard’s love interest from the first film. We learn that she died in childbirth. The implications here are world-changing: replicants can procreate. They can be born, not made. A speciation event has occurred in the evolution of humanity.

Rachel’s bones become analogous to the famous anthropological images of the Australopithecus “Lucy”. The tree she is buried under is, symbolically, the evolutionary tree of life. This is not unlike how a tree was used in the 1996 cyberpunk anime classic Ghost in the Shell by director Mamoru Oshii. (Incidentally, that film also explored many of the same themes on life, technology, evolution, gnosticism and transcendence.)

ANGELS SEEKING INCARNATION

This evolutionary imagery—of a new mutation and a new species— stands in stark contrast to the artificial birth scene presided over by Niander Wallace (a possible play on “Neanderthal” and Alfred Russell Wallace, the scientist who developed the theory of evolution independently from Charles Darwin). Despite all his technological gains, Wallace cannot control evolution itself. The technological womb he created is like the mythological birthing of Athena from the head of Zeus. An artificial birth from the paternal intellect, but not from the maternal womb of creation, Gaia.

Wallace bemoans the fact that his method of producing replicants is limited, and humanity has only achieved the colonization of 9 new worlds. “We should own the stars,” he says. He refers to the female replicant’s belly as “a barren pasture. Dead space between the stars,” as he cuts open her stomach, leaving her to bleed out in the birthing chamber.

The transcendent vision of Wallace is one in which we leave nature completely behind: enveloped in the shell of technological transcendence as we “storm Eden” and take the stars for ourselves. It’s a kind of gnosticism in the pejorative sense: he wants the secret of biological reproduction to incarnate his angels into history, but he would do so for his own ends, not theirs. They would be born, but birth would be another instrument of total control and mastery over nature.

Wallace himself is a demiurgic character in this regard, a creator who thinks himself as the Creator.

ANTHROPOCENE LOOPS

The corporations in Blade Runner are, at a symbolic level, synonymous with the rise of the first pyramid civilizations with their God-kings and appropriations of older, maternal spiritualities.

We can only speculate about the world of Blade Runner 2049, but it would appear that the compact, overpopulated and “layered” shots of Ridley Scott’s film have given way to a sparser, more desolate city. Is humanity dying out? The food shortages, severe climate change, and slow colonial expansion would suggest that a kind of extinction event is going on with our species (as many scholars are echoing right now, in our world). The technological replacement of nature, as a project of paternal civilization from the very first walls erected around ancient city-states, and culminating in the monolithic sea walls surrounding futuristic Los Angeles, has begun to unravel. Civilization has reached a level of sheer scope and magnitude that it, that we have become a force of nature. The distinction between what was nature and what is culture is no longer viable. The city is the planet, is the city. The human is replicant, the replicant is human (or more human than human, even). We are the strange loop that is the Anthropocene (a term used by geologists to describe human activity becoming a force of nature on the geological record). The human (or replicant) eye that opens the film, and cuts away to the ocular solar farm shimmering in the overcast light, speaks to this idea of the human turning over into the non-human world.

The characters in Blade Runner 2049 sense this collapse of distinctions and boundaries and rail against it—Joshi’s line about a wall that “separates kind”—but it is to no avail.

With this strange loop comes new possibilities. Old things have a chance to step back into the drama of history. Wallace’s monolithic and paternal civilization gives way to a maternal resurgence.

We return to the very old through the very new. As the philosopher Charles Eisenstein would say, this is a “new and ancient story.”

ARCHAIC REVIVAL AND MATERNAL REVOLT

Although much of the story is about K and his search for the missing child, the entire plot of Blade Runner 2049 hinges upon women. There is Rachel, the “Lucy’ or mitochondrial Eve, there is her child, who we learn is Dr. Ana Stelline (a memory maker for replicants), and there is Freya, leader of the Replicant Freedom Movement.

“Blade Runner 2049 demonstrates what a future overrun by those male-dominated technological advancements will look like”, one reviewer writes. And so in many ways this film expresses, on a symbolic level, the evolutionary cul-de-sac of paternal civilization—as a force of anti-nature, divorced from the heart and devoid of vitalism—and the resurgence and re-integration of the “Archaic Revival”, of the goddess, Gaia, and maternal cosmologies. The only way forward for the human race, it seems, is to embrace the Other as ourselves, and turn on the spiral of evolution before taking to the stars through a cosmic leap as a new species. Not mere replicant, nor homo sapien, but something Other.

GNOSTIC EVOLUTION

When we look at the bones in the Earth we peer into our own becoming and know that life hasn’t finished with us yet. In the esoteric cosmology of evolutionary yogis like Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, the human being is a transitional creature. Not the end of the line but the beginning in an endless incarnation of the divine logos. This is the “gnostic being” for Sri Aurobindo—“more human than human”—that can transform the points of light in the sky into new worlds full of sentient life. Freya tells us that Dr. Stelline will lead the replicants to their freedom as the future of the species. This is the cosmic human. But this evolutionary incarnation from the higher worlds of light can’t take place without true incarnation. Not just in the head, but the heart. The body. The divine light wants to be born into the world, to participate in and transmute the evolutionary drama, and so we need a true integral being in the next evolutionary leap of our species that can bring down the light into the world as the new human reaches up into that light for ascension.

Towards the end of the film, Deckard is captured by Wallace’s replicant henchman, Luv. He asks her where they are going. To off world colonies, she tells him, “home”. Before they reach the platform, K attacks Deckard’s escort car and battles Luv to free him. At the verge of space and amidst the crashing waves of what feels like a cosmic sea, K and Luv battle each other for the future.

The message here is clear: we must transcend, but we can’t do it by “storming Eden” with the pristine and cold intelligence of Wallace. We must ascend through evolutionary incarnation as integral beings. Beings with heart and soul.

Then the starlit journey can begin.

That science fiction reflects esotericism is no surprise. We’ve seen this theme crop up before in classics like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the cosmic child and the grimmer, if still evolutionary message in Childhood’s End. In the “consciousness culture” we have this motif of a new human, a “homo luminous” that takes the mantle of biological evolution and brings it up to a cosmic level, from Timothy Leary’s “SMI2LE” to William S. Burroughs, Grant Morrison, Jean Houston, and Barbara Marx Hubbard contemplating Earth birthing humanity as a form of cosmic life.

Blade Runner 2049, at its heart, is about humanizing what has been dehumanized, of turning the evolutionary gyre into hope for new life, making machines into magic, and code into poetry.

And so we should talk about K.

EPILOGUE: ONLY THE LOVE IS REAL

Cells Interlinked within cells interlinked

K, or “KD6-3.7” is a replicant police officer who later becomes known as Joe. K takes a “post-traumatic baseline test”, a development from the first film’s replicant “Voight-Kampff” test, to ensure that he isn’t developing emotions for the replicants he retires. This is, in short, an empathy test. At the heart of Philip K. Dick’s novel is the theme of empathy for all living things—androids, animals, and all cosmic life in the struggle against entropy.

K has a “virtual” partner—Joi—also a Wallace creation. He comes home to her every day and she ‘cooks’ him a meal, a virtual overlay of his synthetic food.

Like the replicants in this story, we are meant to feel ambiguous about her. Is she simply the projection of wish fulfillment? She can be whatever K needs her to be, and the giant holographic billboards outside his apartment advertise as much.

When K gives Joi an “anniversary present”, Joi asks if it really is their anniversary. K responds with, “let’s just say that it is”, and in many ways that sums up the ambiguity here with relationships in Blade Runner. Is Joi real, or fake? Is K, when he discovers that the childhood memories in his mind are indeed real, a “real boy”? When we learn that these memories were implanted by Dr. Stelline, does that make K any less of a human being with a soul?

Joi is programmed to be completely dedicated to K, and indeed, anyone she is with, so is any ghost in that machine?

The “emitter” K gifts to Joi incarnates her into a semi-physical, holographic body. She can feel the raindrops on her electric skin. This echoes the incarnational theme of the replicants who wish participate in biological evolution. To have a body and move from the virtual to the actual, synthetic to real. K, empathizing with Joi from his own plight of being a replicant—regularly being jabbed with the pejorative “skinjob” by humans—believes she is real. Through empathy is connection. Invisible cells interlinked. Through that connection and love, some semblance of the real is gleaned.

Later we encounter what is arguably one of the most interesting and psychedelic scenes in the film. Joi invites Mariette, a “pleasure model” and member of the resistance whose job is to track K, to be a “third woman”, allowing K and Joi to have sex. Hands and fingers, eyes and skin trail like psychedelic visuals, or perhaps the shimmering cave paintings on the wall of Chauvet and Lascaux, as three bodies merge with each other. While there is certainly some issues here with the idea of the “woman-as-object” for the male gaze—Blade Runner doesn’t really tackle these issues so much as extrapolate on their realities from the first film—this scene also speaks to the concept of incarnation. Joi is seeking a body to be real, to connect, to love. This scene also reflects back to its audience the multiplicity of bodies—virtual and actual—that we potentially house today. Multiple cells and dimensions, interlinked.

In another scene, K and Joi overlay each other as K searches a genetic database. Joi comments how the genetic letters: A, T, C, and G are like poetry. “The alphabet of you,” she tells him. As the screenwriter Hampton Fancher points out, K is a “a handbook. He follows the rules.” But, “the handbook turns into a poem through his experiences and his ordeal and love.”

So is Joi merely proprietary software, and is K merely genetic property of the Wallace corporation? Dr. Stelline understands that humanness is not something that can be pinned down, and has, instead, something to do with those intangible qualities of consciousness. Out of empathy for replicants (her fellow kind) she crafts exquisite ephemeral moments of memory and connection, selfhood and experience.

Made or born, it doesn’t matter so much. To be human is to be interlinked by those intangible threads of belonging and connection.

When K asks Deckard if his companion—a scruffy dog—is real or fake, Deckard quips: “I don’t know, ask him.” Whatever “real” is in the film, it defies the reductionist and dehumanizing tendencies of a cold, hard materialism to pin down genetics or numbers or code.

The real is actualized somewhere in the interiority and subjectivity of beings, something we can’t know about the Other. We can only ask, and even then, we can only love. “Sometimes, to love someone you have to be a stranger,” Deckard says to K.

K discovers a beehive in front of Deckard’s hideaway in the nuclear wasteland of Las Vegas. The bees are a hive of sorts, not unlike the replicants, and not unlike the compact, insectoid urbanscape of Los Angeles. Beyond being a nod to the retired detective-turned-beekeeper, a la Sherlock Holmes, the honeycombs are “cells, interlinked.” K sticks his hand into the hive as if to connect with this spontaneous miracle of life in the wasteland. But to interlink is to participate in life—the ecology of the Earth and the future ecology of life in the stars—and so K, in the face of it all, is on a journey to wake up to this reality of interdependent origination. This interbeing. To be alive, to have a soul, is to “dream about being interlinked.” In this dreaming, K’s dormant soul springs to life, and to love.

In the face of overwhelming technological and bureaucratic de-humanization, in the wake of a loss of selfhood and identity, K navigates this postmodern nightmare of the hyper-real and the simulation through love and connection.

Blade Runner 2049 brings to bear the realities of our current situation, extrapolating the Kafka-esque ideologies of late capitalism and modernity to their terrifying and logical conclusions. It shows us, in horrifying vividness, the world we are in the midst of making. But it also shows us that this de-personalizing and de-souling world is a dead one that can be overcome with a miracle. That we can fight back with hope, with love.

It teaches you to “feel finger to finger”. That the response to the horrors and desolation during this transitional phase of the human journey is to be interlinked at the heart with Bodhisattvic compassion. That the spiritual world desires to be ensouled through the evolutionary drama of becoming, through bodies and with hearts—be they born or made.

When it is time for us to push off into the starry firmament, we will see that the stars themselves are interlinked, all-within-all, and the children of humanity are not the end of our evolutionary journey but the beginning of a cosmic one.

What we pass on to the next iteration of the species, the next poem—more human than human—is the love.

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