I’ve always loved science fiction. I won’t lie, what first drew me to the genre were the lasers. My childhood was divided between the television and the backyard, playacting in the latter what I watched on the former. As I grew older, I noticed that there was a lot more going on than awesome laser fights. Science fiction had ideas. It was remarkably well-suited at expressing them, making abstract concepts into compelling stories and characters with relative ease.
Blade Runner 2049, the recent film directed by Denis Villeneuve, takes full advantage of science fiction’s capability of embodying, quite literally, thorny concepts of inquiry. It’s a long-in-the-making sequel to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s genre-defining film of science fiction noir. As you’ll recall, Harrison Ford portrayed Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” in a dreary, futuristic Los Angeles. He was something of a bounty hunter, tracking down “replicants” and eliminating them. Replicants are synthetic humanoids grown in labs for the purpose of performing labour too dangerous for humans. Sometimes they go rogue, abandoning their responsibilities to pursue their own ends, and that’s when Deckard gets called. The end of that film (spoiler alert, I suppose) saw Deckard abandoning the blade runner life to run off with a highly evolved replicant named Rachel.
The sequel picks up 25 years later. Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner working for the police department. There’s a certain irony to his job, however. K, as the film reveals almost immediately, is a replicant himself. Far from being a liability, his boss believes this makes ideally suited to the task. He doesn’t have a soul, she tells him, and can afford to commit morally dubious tasks that would trouble others.
Replicants are essentially robots, and robots, as the whole history of science fiction shows us, are about labour. Who does the work, who benefits from it. Indeed, the term “robot” was invented by the Russian writer Karel Capek, who lived and worked in the revolutionary fervour of the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century. It’s almost too easy to note the parallels between the replicants of Blade Runner 2049 and the various populations forced into servitude throughout the course of human history. What makes this film affecting, however, is that it avoids the Us vs. Them narrative seen in science fiction films like, say, The Matrix. That film drew a stark line between humans and machines, with each side declaring war on the other. Blade Runner 2049 examines what happens when the two sides start bleeding into each other, replicants taking human characteristics, and vice versa.
Being a noir story, the plot is twisty and convoluted. There are red herrings and false beginnings, leading the viewer down dark alleyways. The catalyzing event is K’s discovery of the remains of a replicant in the wasteland of outer Los Angeles. Upon bringing the remains back to the police department, they discover that this particular replicant died in childbirth. This is, strictly speaking, impossible. Replicants are sterile, you see. Niander Wallace, the designer of the replicants played by Jared Leto, has never been able to create a replicant that is capable of becoming pregnant. Uncovering the mystery of this replicant and her child, then, becomes the unifying quest of the film, all the different characters pursuing it for their own ends.
A woman thought to be barren suddenly bearing a child? This film just might have some religious significance! But again, it’s not a simple, connect-the-dots allegory. Humans and replicants are consistently trying to become more than they are by trying to become more like one another. Niander Wallace wants to acquire the secret of this replicant in order to become, as he puts it, a god, capable of creating an entire race that will carry out his will. Meanwhile, there is a group of rebel replicants who view the existence of the replicant child as proof that they are more human than the humans themselves. Humans have become too oppressive to survive, they believe, and must be overthrown, their place taken by the truly humane replicants. Everyone wants to be something other than what they are, and they’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.
It’s here that the film takes on a contemporary significance that I didn’t expect. Take a look at the world today and you’ll see income inequality, the rich becoming gods, and the poor becoming sick. The jobs that are available seem to require a measure of dehumanization just so one can accomplish them, with every cashier at a fast food joint effectively a replicant. Simply being human is starting to seem untenable.
Perhaps it’s time to find a new way of being human. Good thing there’s science fiction to offer some clues.
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