By Nick Vafiadis
In Blade Runner 2049’s vision, Los Angeles is uninviting, alien, and yet oddly familiar. This sequel to the visionary 80’s cyber-punk film depicts a tech-dominated world that’s not so different from our own. The city is populated with a new breed of humans, emotionless and mass-produced in order to form a perfect slave labor force. The few “natural born” humans that remain are mostly corrupt, using the new humans as disposable tools for work, pleasure, and protection. This is the backdrop against which officer K (Ryan Gosling) begins his search for humanity — one that might resonate with modern viewers who may also feel that the line between consumer and commodity is being uncomfortably blurred.
Like many in 2017, K feels socially disillusioned by the very technology that was intended to bring people together. For example, instead of seeing him chat impersonally with someone over social media, we see that social technology has taken this practice a step beyond by supplying K with an entire holographic girlfriend who is eerily projected into his apartment. In our era when it’s not uncommon to overhear entire conversations between people and virtual assistants on smartphones, it’s uncomfortably easy to imagine a future in which we can summon a Siri in a cocktail dress right to our living rooms. You may also find yourself relating to officer K as he struggles to repress the realities of his world for the sake of just getting by. In a startling scene, we see him beginning to lose himself in a rooftop kiss with his “girlfriend” only to realize that she’s been frozen in place and obscured by a flashing “missed call” alert. He steps back in the rain and sighs, with no choice other than to get back in his hover car and return to work, because there is seemingly nothing else he can do. Moments like these are what make Blade Runner 2049 both disarmingly beautiful and uncomfortably relatable in this era of all-pervasive information and technology. However, the public’s reaction to this movie may reveal something alltogher more unnerving.
“Write for your smartest audience”’ was clearly the mantra used by screenplay writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green on this project. Their reboot defies almost all of the tropes audiences have come to expect from remakes that seem to be everywhere these days. For one, they crafted an entirely new plot to advance the narrative of the first film. This is unique in the burgeoning reboot market, where many films like Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, and James Bond prefer to rehash old story lines that have proven profitable in the past.
Another difference between Blade Runner 2049 and its reboot contemporaries is that the story has depth. When was the last time you had an existential crisis while watching the latest Star Trek, Godzilla, or Marvel movie remake? Feeling an existential funk after watching Blade Runner 2049, however, seems totally justified. Any further description of the plot would likely spoil the movie; suffice it to say that the script draws heavily from the works of Plato, Huxley, and Nietzsche. Rather than being a pseudo-humorous explosion and C.G.I-stuffed popcorn romp, Blade Runner 2049 has unnervingly long sequences exploring topics like identity, spirituality, Orwellian ethics, and existential nihilism.
This brings us to the third and final difference between Blade Runner 2049 and the standard reboot – ticket sales. To the minority of moviegoers who contributed to the movie’s paltry opening sales, this film was a long needed respite in the virally bloated market of big budget reboots. The rest of America made their voices clear, opting for films like Happy Death Day, Geostorm, and Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween – the latter grossing roughly three times the amount as Blade Runner 2049. Because of the lack of revenue, it’ll probably be a long time, if ever, before we see another installment of the Blade Runner series. That’s the unfortunate reality for low yielding ventures in Hollywood. But what’s truly sad is the distinct profile that seems to have developed around films that are fit enough to thrive these days. The movie going public has all but insisted on divorcing entertainment and intellect, even when movies like Blade Runner 2049 show us how unnecessary that tact can be. But why? Why are we at a place where we prefer our culture to be an anesthetic rather than a forum for our most elevated and creative ideas? The answer is right under our noses, perhaps even in the story of the film itself.
While the question is certainly pertinent in today’s society, it’s definitely not the first time it’s been asked. Three thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Plato tried his hand at addressing the question of what man really cares about in his Allegory of the Cave. This is a story of a man whose entire world is limited to a cave. In this cave he is chained at birth, along with several other men, to a wall at the cave’s lower level. On the higher level above the wall there is a fire that casts the shadows of men who are free to walk. These shadows and the faint sounds of the other men are the only components of the chained men’s reality. One day, one of the chained men frees himself from his bonds and escapes the cave. When he emerges into the light of reality and sees the world for the first time he is completely overwhelmed. He returns to the low level of the cave, excited to tell his friends of the real world that waits for them outside. But rather than joining him in the light, the men end up preferring the shadows of the cave and their chains. In some renditions, they even try to kill the freed man. The cynical moral of the story is that man is naturally bent to prefer the comfort of his own reality rather than accept the truth which can be more beautiful, complex, and challenging. In this line of thinking, Plato is even a forerunner to The Matrix. If you can wrap your head around the “red pill blue pill” scene, then you’re on the right track. The problem is that it’s much easier to consider a lofty allegory than to actually live it out and break free of our own caves. We can see this when Neo goes from working a cozy job at a software company to sliding out of an artificial womb into a river of junk and boarding the Nebudchanezzard.
We see the same thing play out in Bladerunner 2049, through the arc of Ryan Gosling’s character. Early in the movie he’s sent on a police assignment to bring in or kill one of his own kind, a human engineered to be both exceptionally powerful as well as submissive. The other altered human (Dave Bautista) lets K know that he’d rather die than be re-assimilated into the Orwellian society, telling officer K that he wouldn’t understand “because you’ve never seen a miracle.” Although he ends up killing Bautista, officer K is haunted by the message because he knows deep down that he’s heard the truth. After investigating the criminal’s claims, K discovers a miracle for himself, a baby born from his own race. This dispels the myth perpetuated through his society that their breed of human isn’t actually human at all. Later we see the officer, still reluctant to accept this life altering notion, meeting with a woman who designs memories for his kind. K brings a small carving of a horse, a link to his only memory that might actually be real. He watches the memory maker from the other side of a glass partition looking into a white room as she walks around, tailoring the individual leaves in a fabricated memory of a forest. He’s there ostensibly following a lead on an assigned case, but he’s really there to confirm whether one of his own fabricated memories could be real, and could confirm that he is in fact real as well. The memory maker begins to work on a new piece in front of him, a memory of a birthday party. When asked about his memory she tells him, “There is a bit of every artist in their work.” And that “most people care about the amount of detail in a memory to make it authentic, but memory comes from feeling.” She confirms his suspicion, that his memory of the horse figurine may be real. He can no longer run from the fact that he may be more than he thought he was meant to be, that he might be an individual with an identity and a real purpose. He realizes like Neo, like Plato, that there are armies of people who want to keep him in the cave.
We can all take a cue from these truly progressive thinkers and begin thinking for ourselves in a world that seemingly wants to sell us a fabricated version of the truth. As we’ve seen – in film, literature, philosophy, music, etc. — the hard truth is often resigned to a small cult following. Bob Marley once said, “The truth is an offense. But not a sin.” He was right, and it’s an offence worth committing.