Blade Runner (pick a cut, any cut) is a popular film for philosophers. In addition to being a fascinating bit of on-screen world-building and fantastic design, it also raises (and variously confuses, depending on which cut you’re watching) issues concerning personal identity, humanity, freedom, etc.; take a peek, for example, at Helen Beebe’s useful piece exploring philosophical approaches to personal identity through the character of Rachel, a replicant with implanted memories who is initially unaware of her “artificial” status.
In what follows, I want to explore (very sloppily and informally — I don’t pretend for a moment that I’m doing good philosophy here) how the continuation of Blade Runner’s story in Blade Runner 2049 takes up the problems posed by the original film and suggests a slightly different approach to personal identity relative to how individuals construct self-narratives. This is, I think, most obvious in a comparison of K’s relation to memory to Rachel’s and to Roy Batty’s. Note that I won’t be talking about Dick’s book at all — for now, I want to confine my attention to the movies.
[Spoilers follow. Continue at your own risk. Also: Sorry, this may run a bit long (just like the movie…hurhurhur).]
First, some notes on the viewing experience, with a caveat: I’ve only seen this movie once, so I’m almost certain to have missed quite a lot. Insert a memory joke of your choice here, dear reader.
Technical stuff: I saw Blade Runner 2049 in IMAX format — the 2D IMAX presentation of it is really pretty (the cinematography more than lives up to the hype), although I found the sound a bit overwhelming. Having the terrific sound system available in IMAX offers a sound engineer an ideal opportunity to be clear and pervasive rather than just loud, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be what happened here. I will make one exception to my sound complaint: each time K goes through his baseline test, there’s a really painful, persistent high-pitched sound that cleverly puts the viewer into K’s space, its meaning shifting from focus to stress from the first test to the second. It’s a nicely used cue, as is the little bit of Peter’s theme from “Peter and the Wolf” used every time Joi comes and goes — it is not an accident that the Wallace corporation uses that music, and not something a bit more obviously on the nose like, say, a selection from Disney’s “Pinocchio” (a story actually alluded to in dialogue).
A structural aside: I love a movie that remembers it is a movie — that is, a movie that uses visual cues well rather than relying on dialogue alone to do the narrative heavy lifting. On that score, Blade Runner 2049 performs reasonably well. Are there plot holes and assorted bits of implausibility going on? Sure! You betcha! What does work, though, often functions as well as it does because of what’s shown, rather than what’s said (for example: K’s realization about the child, as well as his other interactions with memory).
Acting out: Props to Gosling, among a cast of people who all did very good work (I won’t even say anything snide about Jared Leto, although there really wasn’t much need for him in this story, honestly). Gosling in particular, though, does a replicant slow burn through this film that’s well worth the price of admission. A silly additional comment: I’m sure someone is going to write a paper very soon on the symbolic use of tears running down otherwise almost expressionless or carefully controlled faces in this movie. Bet on it.
OK, now to random rambling on that identity stuff I mentioned at the beginning: In the first Blade Runner, Rachel has a problem: She’s a replicant who is unaware of being a replicant at first, implanted with memories belonging to someone else — Tyrell’s niece — in order to give her a kind of stable emotional base. She is presented to the audience (and to Deckard) as an advance in replicant creation and management by virtue of this false, stabilizing, externally designed and imposed self-narrative. This makes her sharply different from Roy Batty and the other Nexus 6 replicants featured in that film, who are actually obsessed with creating memories, trying to extend their self-narratives into the future by changing their hard-wired termination dates. Their identities are in an important sense their own, and they aren’t subject to Rachel’s traumatic realization that her life is not what she had always thought it to be. Her self-narrative is vulnerable to questions in ways that Roy’s is not; this is also a vulnerability visible in Deckard himself, in all of the various plays on his human-or-replicant status suggested in various cuts of the film. Note that when this comes up again in 2049, Deckard seems to have settled the question for himself without necessarily answering it — he informs Wallace that he knows what’s real, and is swayed neither by concerns about what/who he is nor by the offer of an ersatz Rachel, whose identity also does not confuse him.
Unlike Rachel, K appears to be convinced from the outset that his memories are false; his self-narrative isn’t necessarily dependent on the reality of those memories, and he confesses when asked that it doesn’t really matter much. He recognizes how strange it is to share a fake memory with a non-replicant, just as Lt. Joshi cynically recognizes the apparent function (relative to K’s personality and behavior) of the particular memory he shares. They appear to agree that the memory is a part of what makes him who he is, in a sense, but also recognize its doing so makes it a management tool. Of course, it becomes clear later that K has edited his sharing of the horse memory with Lt. Joshi, and has told it in a much different way to Joi. That he has repeatedly discussed that recollection with Joi (in addition to what he’s hiding about the horse and the date on the tree) suggests that he is not as sanguine about the memory’s supposed artificiality as he wants his human superior to believe.
K’s interactions with Joi seem to me to offer a glimpse of an approach to understanding one’s own identity (and the development of a self-narrative) that’s closer to Roy’s experience than Rachel’s, albeit with the crucial difference that K’s self-determination is muted and hidden (played out with an artificial woman as confidante) where Roy’s is obsessively sought and defended. K remains a slave with a secret, while Roy is a rebel with a name. While K and Rachel are similar insofar as both have to confront a deception about the status of their respective self-narratives, K’s problem is not really that someone else caused him to believe the “wrong” story about himself (that he is something special, something more, the child) — it’s that he himself has begun constructing the wrong story, fed in a way by Joi’s user-pleasing design alongside the implanted memory that he begins to suspect actually belongs to him.
The bit about naming is a significant part of how the replicants in 2049 conceive of themselves. Luv, for example, is treated as “special,” and is able to understand herself as “the best” at least in part because she is told to, both explicitly and through the symbolic significance of having been named. Her self-narrative is built on that specialness, on the story she is told in the present (rather than in memory) by Wallace himself. Like K, she has a story about herself that she wants to believe, and she then goes on about living it. K’s adoption of a name signifies the growth of the story he wants to believe into full bloom — that Joi is right to say that he is special, that he is wanted, that he is someone and not no one, a person and not just a thing, a Real Boy all along.
When it is suggested by the rebel replicants that dying for the right sort of cause is the most “human” thing a replicant can do, this sentiment too is a story its tellers want to believe about themselves, and it goes to Lt. Joshi’s fear about erasing the line between replicant and human (more honestly: slave and master) in a way that perhaps Lt. Joshi (and Wallace, for that matter) might not recognize. The real miracle isn’t that Rachel gave birth. The real miracle is the power of her story to grow other stories that can be made to actually belong to their tellers, so that the rebel replicants can more readily conceive of themselves as beings with the dignity of self-determination. When K gives up the ghost at the end, there in the snow, that dignity is his. At least, I’d like to think so.