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Ridley Scott’s robotic emptiness

The questions of man’s essence and existence in Blade Runner 2049 is a revolving door, always moving but never going anywhere.

MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: L
Reel Rating: 2.5 out of 5 reels

Many consider 1982’s Blade Runner to be a cinematic masterpiece of both style and substance that brought the sci-fi genre to new heights. While acknowledging its innovative and compelling visuals, the narrative and themes are ill defined, even vapid. Its new sequel Blade Runner 2049 is more of both. Ridley Scott—the series producer and visionary—is well known for his uncanny ability to search longingly for the meaning of life through suffering and horror without coming to any real conclusions. This is just another exercise in his circular journey that, even if filled with dazzling sights, leads nowhere.

The first film followed Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a cop who hunted down rogue androids called replicants. A central question of that film focused on whether Deckard himself was a replicant—a question that was never fully answered and is still unanswered. Thirty years later, K (Ryan Gosling) has the same job, but there is no question of his identity as a replicant. These newer and more obedient robots are so integrated into society it is difficult to tell them apart from humans. On one of his routine investigations, K discovers the remains of a female replicant containing evidence she died in childbirth. This would seem impossible, but as K goes deeper the truth of this shocking revelation becomes more and more evident. Replicants who could reproduce on their own would upset the entire balance of civilization. K’s quest to find this miracle child eventually brings him into contact with Deckard and even more truths perhaps too unbearable to accept.

Artificial intelligence is a theme much loved in science fiction because it brings up so many of the central questions about human nature. The replicants in Blade Runner can easily pass the Turing test, but is that enough to make them human? The difficulty in answering this question for 21st century America is that many people cannot define what it means for humans to be human in the first place. Ridley Scott certainly has trouble with this. Alien, Kingdom of Heaven, and even Gladiator seem to suggest life is “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Yet at the same time, these films clearly rejoice in virtues such as heroism, ingenuity, and freedom from oppression. If rising to these qualities makes a person “human” than robots are no different than us. The good ones are human, the bad ones are not. All things—robots and humans alike—share the same capacity for honor but also the same emptiness of purpose.

This universal vacuum is a bit of a downer, so Scott offers another possibly as well. At one point K states that this mystery child must have a soul because he was born, not made. Conception and birth are significant because that being enters the world already in a covenant relationship. He has a father and a mother. K also seeks meaning through contact with others; though a digital being himself, he keeps a hologram girlfriend at his house, expertly performed by Cuban actress Ana de Armas. She appears to genuinely love him and expresses a desire to deepen their experience of one another, leading to the weirdest sex scene since Her. Yet it is revealed later that these expressions were artificially constructed and not genuine, leaving K to wonder about his own motivations.

Eventually, K will offer his life for the good of another, which some could argue is the ultimate test of humanity, echoing Jesus’ adage that there “is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” However, people can die for things that are not noble and even animals protect those in their pack. The betrayal of K’s girlfriend is a good illustration of why AI will never produce a soul. The soul is not a construct of either biological evolution or social interaction; it is a miraculous creation of God. Things that are artificial will always exist and act according to the world. Only the Spirit can create spirit.

These glimpses of philosophical questions are difficult to discern because the plot is messy and confusing. Most of the performances—human and android alike—are, well, robotic. The reason Blade Runner stood the test of time was the ground-breaking art direction and visual effects. 2049 follows this tradition as well, creating beautiful if terrifying landscapes of colors, lights, and wide-open spaces. Everything is large and exaggerated. The inside of the replicant corporation contains rooms that could encompass a football field yet have only one or two people working in them. One would think that following current architectural trends, the future should be more utilitarian, placing practicality over beauty. Here, it is suggested in a world made effortless by science, people need elaborate distractions from meaninglessness. Generally, mise-en-scène that calls attention to itself is considered poor art, but if it was production designer Dennis Gassner’s intention to use that distraction as a commentary on this society, then it’s brilliant.

The questions of man’s essence and existence in Blade Runner 2049 is a revolving door, always moving but never going anywhere. Scott understands greatly the first part of Augustine’s famous quote that “our hearts are restless.” He thinks the answer must be found in the empirical plane because the other option demands a radically “unmodern” worldview. Yet if the world cannot give the answer, then the truth must be asserted, no matter how high the cost: our hearts “must rest in Him.”

About Nick Olszyk 88 Articles
Nick Olszyk is Chair of the Department of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, CA. He has directed several short films and is the new father of the aptly named Nick Jr. He was raised on bad science movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

4 Comments

  1. What made the original Blade Runner seem more “realistic” to me was it’s dystopian setting: garbage in the streets, pollution, crass advertising, loud signs, prostitutes, fast-food, ugly industrial-looking buildings, etc. Seems they took a different tack with this remake. Personally, I don’t hold much for all these remakes of the 80’s sci-fi movies. Can’t they come up with any new ideas?

    • I saw the movie this past Friday and would probably give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, even though I agree with most of Nick’s criticisms. The dystopian setting is still there. However, in a movie nearly 3 hours long, there are really just a handful of scenes depicting things “on the ground” (that is, ordinary life among the faceless citizens of LA). At times it feels as if LA is a massive ghost city with just the main protagonists doing their thing. I especially agree with Nick re: the philosophizing (heh) of the movie: there is a lot of wind up and build up, but no “bang”, in part because the supposed moral conflicts don’t appear to really matter at all in the world depicted. If I had to sum it up, I think the big failing is the movie lacks any real sense of genuine humanity. There are two characters who do embody that, but they are only on the screen for a few moments. Visually, however, it is quite impressive in many ways.

  2. First there is the question of whether the replicants are constructed of inorganic materials or from organic materials, and if the latter, whether they can be really considered androids, rather than engineered (sub-)humans.

    Setting aside the sci-fi/technology questions, it could be argued that both for the original and the sequel that what supposedly defines humanity as opposed to the replicants is empathy (or even love), and that the replicants may be even more “human” than some of the humans themselves in this respect.

  3. I haven’t seen the movie and won’t see it because, perhaps I’m too old I have no interest in viewing naked women preserved in Petrie jars. And like Qoheleth nothing seems new under the sun. I will philosophize however on the bandied about term here dystopian. Carl Olson says there’s no wind up ending in something climactic. A real ending. But isn’t that where we’re at culturally. All wind [wind and winding have the same root] and no childbirth. There’s a Psalm, We were pregnant, we writhed, but we have given birth to wind” (Psalm 17:14).

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