American popular culture is vile, degenerate, and a substance so toxic that it should only be kept within the Level 5 containment vault of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta next to the Petri dish that contains the only remaining sample of smallpox. The typical Hollywood movie is an offense to morality, the senses, and the intellect. Only a handful of post-1960 movies can be said to achieve the status of art. Curiously, one of these is the original Blade Runner of 1982.
Curiously, I say, because one would not expect a Hollywood schlockmeister like Ridley Scott to have ever been associated with anything considered within the rubric of art. Perhaps it was the influence of Philip K. Dick’s masterful novella, or it may just be that the Muses sometimes inspire even a mediocre hack like Scott to produce a work of true art; whatever, the case, the original Blade Runner is a masterpiece of cinematic art that succeeds on every level: a masterful script, incredible visuals, brilliant casting with some of the finest performances ever by supporting actors, and a Vangelis score that captures the mood of the work to such a perfect degree that it is truly another character in the film, much like the orchestra in a Wagner opera functions as a character unto itself. Perhaps Scott’s greatest achievement in Blade Runner was to have elicited a random act of acting by Harrison Ford, an actor known largely for an emotional range that goes all the way from A to B.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I went to see Blade Runner 2049. Scott wisely refrained from directing the sequel. He must know, in his heart of hearts, that his 1982 masterpiece was a fluke, and that the Muses were unlikely to bless him a second time. Denis Villeneuve seems to be a competent, if uninspired, director who does a good job with the visual aspects of the film, but appears to have little understanding of how to direct actors or of comprehending the complexities of the script. While Blade Runner 2049 is a good film, it is a pale imitation of the original. Just about every aspect of the film comes across as a slightly diminished copy of the original. It is just painful to watch Robin Wright try to fill the shoes of M. Emmett Walsh. Ana de Armas is a very attractive lady, but with just one quiver of a lip Sean Young was able to portray more levels of emotion than de Armas could in the entire sequel. And Hans Zimmer’s score is so inferior to the Vangelis original that one can only hope that the reclusive Greek composer can be convinced at a later date to create a new score when the inevitable director’s cut is produced.
The one aspect of Blade Runner 2049 that is truly amazing is its script. On the surface, Blade Runner 2049 is just another police procedural, albeit set in a dystopian future. I found it hard to muster up much empathy for K. There was always an ambiguity about Deckard’s status; with K, we know upfront that he is a replicant and that he has a virtual reality girlfriend. Furthermore, we are told that the new series of replicants have no free will. K finds the child fathered by Rachael and Deckard, and Deckard is then reunited with his daughter. Pretty banal stuff, especially if one is fixated on the K character. I contend that the K storyline is a Macguffin, and that the true center of the film is really Niander Wallace, the genius who has saved mankind from starvation and who has restarted the replicant program. Wallace’s replicants do not have free will. They must obey the orders that they are given. This is very different from the Nexus replicants of the original movie like Roy Batty. This lack of free will further diminishes the “humanity” of the replicants. The issue of free will vs. determinism is central to Blade Runner 2049; furthermore, it is also central to an unresolved issue within Christianity. Is man—created in the image of God—a moral free agent, or have all of the events of eternity been predetermined by an omnipotent God? But even more interesting is that the free will vs. determinism debate is one that is central to Goethe’s Faust. In the first part of Goethe’s drama, Faust is not a moral free agent. He has been manipulated into drinking a potion in the Witch’s Kitchen that causes him to fall in love with the first woman he sees, who unfortunately is Gretchen, a nondescript and rather unintelligent young girl. Faust ends up destroying Gretchen’s life and that of the child they have had. Faust flees, Gretchen is condemned to death, but God saves Gretchen, and her soul ascends to Heaven. The second part of Faust begins with the title character sleeping off the effects of the potion. When he awakes he has no knowledge of any of the events in Part I. Faust is now a moral free agent and begins a series of incredible accomplishments, including fathering a child with Helen of Troy, serving as a military adviser to the Emperor, and creating artificial life (Homunculus) in a laboratory. At the end of his life, Faust is 100 years old, blind, and the engineer of a project to reclaim land from the sea in order to increase agricultural productivity. He dies, everyone assumes he is condemned to Hell, yet God intervenes and the apotheosis of Faust ensues.
Niander Wallace is the Faust of Blade Runner 2049. He has saved mankind from starvation by his creation of new sources of protein. He has improved upon Tyrell’s replicants by denying them free will. Wallace has an unusual office, the floor of which almost appears to be land reclaimed from the sea. And the final battle scene of the film takes place at a reservoir, symbolic of the necessity of water to sustain life and to produce hydroelectricity. Just like Faust, Wallace is blind but also “sees,” in the sense of both having his sense of sight restored electronically and of having insight into human nature and the mysteries of the cosmos.
Key to the understanding of Blade Runner 2049 is the uncomfortable scene in which we witness the “birth” of one of Wallace’s replicants. In a line that passes almost without notice, Wallace remarks that the replicants are “born” without souls. A short while later, Wallace calmly slits the throat of the replicant, who then dies. Cruel though it may seem, this scene contains the central insight into the conundrum that informs both original and sequel. It is not a question of whether the replicants are life forms. A human-created life is still life. Humans have been creating life for a long time, although these life forms are typically altered bacteria and viruses. The real issue at hand is whether a human created in a test tube possesses a soul. If the answer is no, as Wallace asserts, then the replicant cannot be truly human because the definition of a human presupposes a soul. Replicants, then, are just machines or meat and may be disposed of one sees fit. The implication is that this also extends to the Memory-Making Girl who is the offspring of Deckard and Rachael. How can a child have a soul if neither of her parents possessed one?
Like Faust’s Homunculus, the Memory-Making Girl cannot leave the confines of her sterile environment without dying. Homunculus literally lives inside a test tube:
Clutch me affectionately to your breast,
But not too roughly, or the glass might shatter.
Such is, you see, a property of matter:
Things natural find all the world scant space,
While things synthetic want a sheltered place. (Faust II, ll. 6880-6884)
Homunculus realizes that he is a synthetic human, and as such, his role is a diminished one. He cannot be truly human. He accompanies Faust on his journeys to the Classical Walpurgis Night, and while accompanied by the shape-shifting Proteus to the Aegean Sea, Homunculus removes himself from the test tube, thereby committing suicide while experiencing nature. Homunculus can experience human sensations, but can never be human.
Deckard, K, and all of the other replicants are chasing after something they cannot attain. They cannot be human, but they can experience all the pains and pleasures that humanity affords. Perhaps the world of Blade Runner would be less dystopian if humans and replicants lived in separate realms. And that may be a lesson that Blade Runner 2049 has to offer a world gone mad with multi-culturalism.