‘Blade Runner 2049’ Finds Hope Within Its Bleak Dystopia

Denis Villeneuve's ambitious sequel is a life-affirming spectacle of noir and neon.
‘Blade Runner 2049’ Finds Hope Within Its Bleak Dystopia
Image: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

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.

The question of whether or not Joi becomes sentient or independent of her programming over the course of the film is debatable. What scenes like this make clear, though, is her lack of humanity and her desire to be embodied. As Joi tells K, “Four symbols make a man: A, T, G, and C. I am only two: 1 and 0.” When Joi ultimately declares her love for K, then, it rings a bit hollow. Without a body to contain her identity, there is something less-than-human about Joi.

In this, it’s worth noting that much of 2049 centers around sensuality and bodies, raising rich theological questions for the audience about human sexuality. The film examines our innate human desire for physical and spiritual intimacy with another person, how our sexuality and identity—our bodies and souls—are intertwined. (Sci-fi films Her and Ex Machina explore similar ideas.)

‘You’ve never seen a miracle.’

Besides memories and bodies, the defining characteristic of humanity portrayed in Blade Runner 2049 is an internal moral compass and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another. The words of retired replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), spoken in the film’s opening scene, haunt K’s memory: “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Inspired to action, K chooses to put his own life on the line for Deckard late in the film, leading to a final violent confrontation with alluring replicant henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). As replicant faces replicant in a showdown for Deckard’s life, what makes K more humane is not just the realness of his memory or his physical body, but his willingness to give of himself out of compassion for another person.

A sacrificial act is not programmable; K goes beyond any protocol or coercive order into the realm of free will and autonomous choice. K’s actions are those of someone who cares about another human being enough to give up himself for the sake of another. In K’s final moments, he lies down in the snow (or is it falling ash?) with a sense of peace and confidence. The Vangelis score from Blade Runner hums in the background. Time to die. Such a sacrificial death is as humane as a replicant can get.

In the midst of its bleak dystopian vision, I found Blade Runner 2049’s affirmation of the value of individual life to be surprisingly hopeful. The machinations of the plot, for instance, begin to unfold when K discovers a buried box outside Sapper Morton’s home containing human remains. The box is buried beneath a graying tree with a date etched into its roots as a memorial. These small acts reveal the particular care given to remembering and cherishing the dead.

The discovery that the deceased is a replicant who died in childbirth sets off a storm of events culminating in the search for Deckard and the identity of the child. Both K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and replicant manufacturer/creator Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) recognize the significance of the child, and a search for the miracle baby begins: If a replicant were able to create a new life within them and given birth, it would drastically change society’s understanding of their value and nature.

In a disturbing scene—one rightly criticized for its portrayal of women and violence—Wallace welcomes a “newborn” replicant into the world, only to dispatch of her with a brutal stab wound in her abdomen, lamenting the current batch of replicants inability to procreate. It’s the only moment where we catch a glimpse of possible empathy, even love, from Luv: a single tear rolls down her cheek as she witnesses the murder. The taking of a life—any life, human or humanoid—is met with pathos and grief. In 2049, we are reminded of the sacredness and sanctity of life, how the taking of a life is an immoral act in need of repentance, and how the birth of a child is always a hopeful investment in the future.

‘Tears in rain,’ hope in snow

The scriptural allusions of 2049 are obvious: A miraculous child is created in the barren womb of a woman named Rachael, leading the authorities to a search for the child’s origins in order to bring salvation to a marginalized group. That Joi later renames K as “Joe” (read: Joseph) further cements the biblical parallels.

Moreover, 2049 is an apocalyptic film—not in the popular end-of-the-world sense, but as defined theologically. The film taps into the audience’s moral imagination through its vivid, enigmatic images and subtly subversive ideas to offer both a critique and an alternative ethic for our present-day culture. We see the technology-saturated Los Angeles, the crumbling golden-hued ruins of Las Vegas (made even more poignant by recent tragedies), and the burned-out landscapes surrounding the cities—and we see ourselves. Apocalyptic stories such as this one invite a variety of interpretations as the images embed in the viewer’s memory. Literally, they are meant to change our minds.

New names, new birth, new life—all of these thematic elements within Blade Runner 2049—culminate in the final affecting scene of K lying down in the snow as Deckard goes to meet his daughter. The scene draws one’s memory back to Roy Batty’s powerful “tears in rain” speech in the finale of the original film. Where that film ended on an ambiguous note about the future of Deckard and Rachael (at least in the final cut—the theatrical release had a studio-mandated happy ending), 2049 concludes with a powerful reunion between father and child. Their future, though uncertain, is not one devoid of hope. Even in the midst of technological fantasy and dystopia, there are still people searching for meaning and truth. For intimacy and identity. For the real.

Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, theologian, and film critic. He is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews researching the intersection of film, theology, and ethics. For his film reviews and essays, check out www.cinemayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.

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‘Blade Runner 2049’ Finds Hope Within Its Bleak Dystopia