The year is 2049. Los Angeles is lost in an expanded metropolis, standing tall beneath the perpetual cover of wintry night, and is idly living under the thumb of totalitarianism. Ordinary Replicants go about their material-infused lives, focused on ‘being’ and ultimately thinking they’re something that they’re actually not. As a millennial, I grew up thinking that I was special and the belated sequel that is Blade Runner 2049 bluntly reminded me that I’m actually not any different to those around me.
The film follows LAPD Officer K who unearths a secret that takes him on a quest to find the secret child that holds the reproductive key to create billions of Replicant slaves. Niander Wallace, the resident dictator, plays a God-like character: he is responsible for making and taking lives away, and the lives that are manufactured are to serve whatever purposes he sees fit. In this sequel, a new generation of residents have all been created in the exact same way, they share the same goals and were ultimately developed to be obedient. Even the very thing that makes one unique was artificially implanted: the memories.
Your experience makes you who you are. The general population – although never having had a childhood – was given one so that they could feel like their lives meant something, but also in order to feel individual. Even Joi, the holographic in-house admin-aide named her owners to make them feel more special than everybody else, and constantly told them that they were so.
All of this was in Wallace’s effort to easily control his population. If you make people feel like they’re better than they actually are; that they’re different to everybody else; that they ‘stand out’, you can convince them to do whatever you want. Doesn’t this sound familiar? We’re constantly told to keep trying to embrace our ‘true’ selves, to embrace our ‘differences’, that we add ‘value’ to our societies. All the while, we live under a media-influenced world run by people who want us to think the same way in order to achieve whatever goals they think are best – and we don’t even question it – let alone truly know how to. It permeates every faculty of our lives and begins when we are very young.
This revelation was confronting for me, however I was inspired by the characters who embraced independent thought, even though they knew that it could result in their deaths. Officer K, Ryan Gosling’s character whose job was to ‘retire’ the prior generation of Replicants for their inability to be controlled, came to believe that he possessed something that made him truly unique, and it wasn’t the ‘name’ that his digital girlfriend gave him (which, by the way, was ‘Joe’… such an average name).
The opening shot of the entire film is an extreme close-up of his eye opening, symbolising his ‘awakening’ to the truth. Eventually, K comes to meet a group of people who had all, at some point, come to the realisation that they weren’t special. This truth for them inspired their plans for a rebellion against Wallace’s dictatorship. Their autonomy and their freedom of thought and expression was more important to them than being alive. Their independent thinking was exactly the thing that made them independent at all. For these people, the painful truth was more important to them than living with false illusions of happiness.
This, too, became K’s priority. He went from a Replicant-hunter (who needed to cut out the eye of the ‘retired’ in order to prove their death, again with the eye symbol) to a being willing to endure death rather than be controlled. What lengths would we go to in order to find and preserve the truth?
In the film, Joi, K’s holographic love-interest, tells him that she loves him. He replies with a painful “you don’t have to say that”, because he knows it isn’t real. The love they share doesn’t actually exist, yet he continues engaging with her in the same manner because it brings him a sense comfort and fulfilment that he believes he can’t live without. She makes him feel ‘special’, even though he knows that she is programmed to make everybody feel that way.
This all begs a further question: Do we, deep down in there somewhere, all know that we are actually lying to ourselves? Do we tell ourselves these falsities in order to preserve our comfort and happiness and security? In truth, we only accept the things that we want to hear. We accept the information that appeals to our current worldview and we don’t like being challenged. Questioning said worldview could shatter your entire identity, and who wants to deal with that? We are products of our culture and we don’t know how to separate ourselves from that.
Aldous Huxley once said that, “to be fully human, the individual must learn to decondition himself, must be able to cut holes in the fence of verbalized symbols that hems him in.” Thanks, Aldous. I truly couldn’t have said it better.
Films like Blade Runner 2049 are often intended as warnings for our future, yet here we are living this narrative in 2017. It is a mirror of our current selves; how will we alter the reflection?