It has been said that humanity is in a flourishing “age of technology.” While some praise the innovations taken in the name of furthering technology, others worry about the negative impacts that may occur when altering the fabric of nature. This is a conflict most notably seen in the field of artificial intelligence. As work continues to be done on creating a mind that can act like a human, the complexity of bioethics surrounding these beings deepen. But how can something act, think, talk, and work, like a human, and still be as subordinate as a robot? At some point or another, these artificial beings can be expected to rebel against their creators in the name of freedom. The questions that results from this is: what does it mean to be human? This is a question that Denis Villeneuve aims to examine in Blade Runner 2049.
The story is about who or what counts as human, especially in a world of advanced technology. Replicants are built to be more advanced than humans, and yet, are treated as the slave labour of the galaxy. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 will be used to showcase how the “non-human” is portrayed in comparison to the “human.” To do this, this paper will be broken up into two sections: exploring the souls of the replicants vs. the deliberate soullessness of the humans, and how the notion of mistakes helps define what it means to be human.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Hampton Francher and Michael Green, Blade Runner 2049 follows the story of Officer K, who works for the LAPD as a Blade Runner. K’s job is to hunt down and retire older replicant models but along the way, he unknowingly unearths a long-buried secret that can potentially plunge what’s left of society into chaos. This leads him on a journey to find Rick Deckard, a former blade runner who may be the key to finding the mysterious truth.
The Soul of a Replicant
In the Blade Runner universe, replicants are synthetic, bio-robotic beings entirely composed of organic substances. Presented in the film are the “nexus models,” replicants that are nearly identical to adult humans, but were given superior strength, speed, reflexes, and intelligence, as they were mostly used by humans for slave labour. David Macarthur, author of the scholarly article “A Vision of Blindness: Bladerunner & Moral Redemption,” comments on the replicant situation by tying back to the original film, saying “more human than human is (the) motto – a deeply ironic remark given the humans’ inhuman attitude towards replicants…” (Macarthur, 13). While replicants should lack any real human development, Blade Runner 2049 goes to great lengths to disapprove this notion, as the atmosphere created by the film hints at deeper insights in each robotic character. For this section, the replicants K (Ryan Gosling), Luv (Sylvia Hokes), and Sapper (Dave Bautista), will be used to explore how the non-human character can have a soul. On the other side of the spectrum, the human characters of Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) and Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), will also be examined, as they both deliberately exhibit a lack of soul within them.
To fully understand this aspect, the concept of the soul must first be defined within the confines of the Blade Runner universe. At first, K speaks to Joshi about the thought of having to kill a supposed replicant who was born, not made. At this point, to have a soul means to be born. Later on in the film however, this idea is challenged. As K tends to his wounds following a fight with Sylvia Hokes’ Luv, he meets with two replicants at the forefront of a fledging rebellion. During this conversation, the notion of having a soul became less about “being born” and more about being able to choose for yourself, think for yourself, and feel for yourself. Using these aspects, the idea of a soul can be simplified to one aspect: independence. As Judith Barad discusses in her paper “Blade Runner and Sartre: The Boundaries of Humanity,” replicants are not initially “responsible for their condition because they were programmed to fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their essence” (Barad, 23).
Blade Runner 2049 has seen replicants overriding these conditions; for Officer K, the thought of a replicant reproducing out of love and bringing in a “free child replicant” into the world is enough to shake his core programming. In this moment, K discovered what it truly means to “have a soul.” Breaking every protocol he has ever learned, K thinks for himself: saving Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard from impending doom and becomes the hero the film had perceived him to be. As the darkly lit scenery shows K’s wounds from the final battle, K tells Deckard that he can finally meet the child he fathered all those years ago, and in death, K becomes a being with a soul, one that risked his life for the betterment of his own kind.
K is not the only artificial being in this movie to achieve some level of freedom and, by extension, a soul. In a small but important role, Dave Bautista’s Sapper is introduced at the beginning of the film. He is shown to be a farmer, but it is later revealed that he is a replicant in hiding. Sapper was a combat medic fighting wars off-world. At some point however, he abandoned this life, and in that moment, Sapper’s soul was solidified as he developed his own independence. Unlike other replicants, he lives a solitary life, one filled with tending to his humble creatures, farming garlic, and cooking his own food. Even before K experiences his own revelations, Sapper has already secured his own “humanity;” a quiet man who later on, protected the secret of the replicant child, even in death.
The major female replicant presented in the film, Luv, is an interesting case because, while she is subordinate throughout the film, she experiences a different level of freedom, one that can be described as an “antagonistic soul.” Luv’s journey is about freedom, free will, what it means to be alive, and what it means be conscious. She serves as Niander Wallace’s right hand, designed for obedience, but somehow overriding these programs in some sense. A tragic character, Luv pushes the boundaries of being a replicant, as even she knows what the thought of replicant reproduction means. In a tense scene with Lt. Joshi, Luv symbolically towers over her, being the one with the power the whole time: “In the face of the fabulous new, your only thought is to kill it … out of fear of great change.” Luv is able to dictate her own thoughts, actions, and journeys, despite working under Niander Wallace. She understands the need for this evolution as it means more people like her can develop a sense of independence. Luv listens to Wallace’s commands, but always takes matters into her own hands to get the job done.
The Soullessness of Humanity
While each replicant character experiences the concept of “the soul” differently, 2049’s human characters are fairly similar in how they exhibit their deliberate soullessness. Beginning with Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi, she is presented throughout as someone who never strays from her emotionless state as chief of police. In Christina Parker-Flynn’s “Joe and the Real Girls: Blade Runner 2049” she states that Joshi’s philosophy revolves around the fact that the world is “built on a wall that separates kind, thus demarcating between humans and replicants” (Parker-Flynn, 69). Joshi’s character is one that foresees the consequences for a replicant uprising, and so, when the revelation of the child appears, she wastes no time in ordering K to kill the child. She is a cold, calculating woman who will not hesitate to burn the hopes of replicant freedom down so that humanity can still reign atop the food chain.
The final human character is Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, the man behind the mass production of replicants. Wallace’s lack of soul is apparent in both of his sequences. From his introduction, Wallace is shown to be a man with a god-complex, who feels no emotion for robots he creates. He is driven by the idea that, with the power of replicant reproduction in his hand, that he can produce trillions of them in a bid to, as he says, “own the stars.” Everything to him is a commodity, as he strives to ensure that every replicant he creates lacks the independence to think for themselves and only serve their “father,” or “creator.” He seeks to obtain a vice grip on the world, and feels nothing for the dead replicants left in his path.
The Mistakes of a Replicant & Emotion
Everyone makes mistakes, both big and small. As humans, it is common for us to make a mistake, but also to learn from it. It is what separates us from the less evolved, and allows us to be better as time goes on. Blade Runner 2049’s initial showcase of replicants are, as João Vitor Resende Leal calls it in his piece “Unmasked Androids: Staring Faces in Science Fiction Cinema,” a “perfected human being” (Leal, 154). As the film progresses, it attempts to show how a replicant can slowly become more human, and it becomes clear that, one trait that these androids possess, is the ability to make mistakes. This is the only time in the film where both races of beings are shown to be deliberately similar.
It can be inferred that, in Blade Runner 2049 a sentient being will make mistakes based on fear. This is apparent first with the character of K, and later on with the replicant Luv. K is subjected to a process known as a “baseline test,” something he is forced to take part in after any assignment. This is done to ensure that he remains in top form, and so that when in the field, he will not make mistakes. K experiences the test first near the beginning of the film, seated in a bare white room with only a camera in front of him. K passes the test with flying colours, indicating that he is still in line with his programming. However, after diving further into the investigation of the replicant child, something snaps in K, and his second baseline tests goes poorly. To his LAPD superiors, this is K showing that he is at risk of “going rogue,” as his eyes look increasingly fearful and flustered. In other words, K failing the test means that he was slowly becoming more and more like a regular human. His costume is purposely torn, indicating that K went straight from the investigation to the test, with no time to recover from his massive discoveries. In the second test, K answers with pure emotion, making mistakes with every line, and clearly not thinking straight, reminiscent of his human counterparts.
The same can be said about Luv, who, like K, begins to act on emotion more than her programmed technical ability. In the same scene with Lt. Joshi referenced above, Luv cracks a glass on Joshi’s hand, causing her to bleed. As she begins to yell as Joshi, she mentions that she will tell Wallace that Joshi attacked her first, causing Luv to kill her. This small part insinuates that Luv was merely supposed to interrogate Joshi but instead, acting on a real human instinct, let her emotions get the better of her. She is making a similar but more violent mistake, when compared to K’s. Joshi is everything that Luv hates in the world – someone who would rather stop replicant evolution than see it flourish. In this moment, Luv lets her anger roam free, clearly stepping over the line, yet not hesitating to still get the job done for her boss.
One Man’s God Complex & Lazy Mistake
Niander Wallace is a man with a god-complex. He believes himself to be above both humans and replicants, but more-so replicants (as he hopes to expand humanity’s outreach in space). As Annika Morling states in her scholarly article: “‘We make angels’: Rediscovering the Victorian ‘Angel in the House’ in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017)” Wallace not only has a sharp command on technology, but humanity as well. She says “his laconic proclamation to his assistant Luv, ‘we make angels’, can be interpreted as referring not only to his literal production of replicants but also to his ability to construct and alter gendered subject positions,” (Morling, 188). But the film makes it clear that Wallace cannot do it all, which is why he desperately wants to find the replicant child. His fatal error comes near the end of the film when he manufactures a special replicant: Rachael, the replicant who gave birth to the android child and fell in love with Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard.
In the scene, Wallace is mostly in the shadows when talking to Deckard, almost as if he is ashamed to be in the presence of the man who is half of the replicant reproduction equation. As a means to get Deckard to admit how the child was created, Wallace offers Deckard an “exact” copy of Rachael. Unfortunately for Wallace, Deckard immediately notices that Rachael’s eyes are brown, a mistake on Wallace’s part as Rachael’s eyes were green. This tiny detail is enough for Deckard to turn Wallace down, but also further grounds the character. For Wallace, being a god means no mistakes, and yet, he makes a fatal one in his attempt to discover the means of reproduction. Such an epically foolish error on the part of Wallace illustrates his astounding level of arrogance and smugness to the extent that he gave Rachel the wrong eye colour. Wallace believes himself to be above everyone and yet, lets his driven nature for discovering the replicant child overtake his judgement, making an error, once again, similar to the beings he manufactures every day.
In the case of how humans and non-humans are presented in Blade Runner 2049, the topic of mistakes is what brings the two together. While robots should be immune to such trivial things, they are able to override the nature of their programming in an attempt to feel more human. Replicants were designed to be “the perfect human,” and yet, not even they are invulnerable to letting emotions take over, and making mistakes on a journey. The film makes a point to separate the races when it comes to the idea of having a soul, but, through the use of mistakes, blurs the lines that distance the two, showing that humans and replicants are more similar than previously believed.
Replicants are built to be the perfect slaves – never lie, never run, never question anything – and yet, Blade Runner 2049 shows that they can in fact do all of these things. The film blurs the lines of what is and is not real, continuously asking the question “what does it mean to be human?” Originally, the idea was that, to have a soul, means you have to be born. However, as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that, through newfound independence, that these replicants are capable of having a soul. They are able to love, laugh, bleed, mourn, and fight for what is theirs. On the other hand, humans have developed a soulless presence, becoming as cold and calculating as the initial machines they invented.
While the aspect of the soul separates the human and replicants, 2049 also shows how similar they are because they both make mistakes. What truly allows the androids to live up to their moniker of “more human than humans,” is the fact that they are susceptible to making these mistakes. Much like human character Niander Wallace later on in the story, replicants let emotions cloud their judgement, something that truly fleshes out their growing humanity. In the end, what Blade Runner 2049 presents above anything else, is that everyone is striving to survive in an unforgiving world. Whereas humans maybe lost their ability to feel emotions, replicants learned simple “human qualities.” Both will fumble along the way, and Blade Runner 2049 illustrates that, to be human, one does not have to only be born. It is about the agency within one’s self, and what they do in this life that defines them.