One of the powers of cinema, and particularly the sci-fi genre, is its ability to hold up a mirror to our present era and ask us to consider its current trajectory. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterful sci-fi neo-noir, presents a grim and graying vision of the near future. That future, however, is punctured with vivid images of hope. Amid the complex philosophical and theological questions it raises about the nature of humanity, existence, and the soul, a flicker of sincere goodness shines.
“Memories … you’re talking about memories,” declares Deckard in the original film. For many, 2049 will recall memories of the original Blade Runner, with its mood and textures—the haunting atmosphere of its 2019 Los Angeles. Now, 30 years after society has recovered from a technological blackout, the manufacturers of replicants—artificial humanoids—implant memories into their lifelike creations in order to make them behave more humanely.
In 2049, LAPD “blade runner” K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant who seeks the truth behind a childhood memory he continues to recall: a wooden horse, hidden in the belly of an enormous factory. Could it have actually happened? That this memory is so vivid—so real—must provide the key to his very identity. Was this memory artificially created in a lab and implanted, or did the experience really occur? And if the memory did happen—did it happen to him? What is really real?
‘Four symbols make a man.’
The film gestures toward our growing understanding of the unique connection between memory and bodies. In his Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, Peter Levine writes about the biological nature of human memory as vital for therapy with PTSD sufferers. He writes, “Memory is not a discrete phenomenon, a fixed construction, cemented permanently onto a stone foundation. … Memory is a continual reconstruction, more akin to the wayward, wildly unpredictable electrons in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.” There are physical nerves in our brains, synapses, and passages, which are being renewed and reborn as old cells deteriorate and new cells are formed.
That our particular, individual memories somehow survive and are maintained through this cellular sloughing is a mystery—even a miracle. When we recall a certain memory, our very act of recollection physically affects and changes the nature of that memory. As we “re-member,” we are, quite literally, remaking members of our bodies. Memories and bodies are thus intertwined to create a distinctly human identity. Our bodies house our memories in a manner much more complex than mere data storage. Our memories are embodied.
It’s not surprising, then, that in 2049, a holographic character, Joi (Ana de Armas), seeks bodily connection with K, who is her lover/owner/fellow A.I. Joi is designed to provide companionship, and it’s unclear whether her desire for K is freely chosen or simply part of her programming. Regardless, their romance has a distinct limitation due to Joi’s lack of a physical body. In a scene highly reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her, Joi employs Mariette (Mackenzie Davis)—whose name elicits the image of a “marionette” on strings—to serve as her romantic body double. The two women sync up to seduce K, identities blurring together while remaining distinct individuals. It’s unsettling to watch—even a bit creepy—as Joi projects herself onto Mariette in an act of seductive mimicry.