I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night. It was beautiful; it was moving; it was such an inspiring second act to the first one that I feel compelled to re-examine my feelings for that particular film. Neither Blade Runner film feels compelled to make all of its themes explicit, but the thing I found myself thinking the most about after I left the theater was the nature of our stories, how they create our identity, and our ability to retain ownership of those stories.
(There are spoilers for the film beyond this point.)
In the world of Blade Runner 2049, hologram technology and replicants complicate the narrative of story and how we own it. In his home, K has a hologram-paired-with-AI named Joi (Ana de Armas). The giant advertisements we see all across Los Angeles for Joi holograms show a giant, naked Joi, with the words “Everything You Want to See,” and it’s pretty clear that she was built to be a home companion, a hologram that becomes whatever the lonely user wants her to be. Holograms are used to entertain, to advertise, throughout the film, and K struggles with Joi’s commercial nature in the face of the fact that she feels real. While K understands that she was built to love whichever user purchased her, their relationship is dynamic, and Joi doesn’t simply play-act scenarios to allow K to live in a fantasy. She speaks to him openly, comes along for his police work, and takes the initiative of calling a prostitute, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to the apartment. Joi overlays her appearance on Mariette, allowing her and K’s relationship to briefly become real. K, not entirely a person himself, chooses to live in the fantasy that Joi’s relationship to him is genuine, without conclusive evidence that it is.
Ridley Scott has a thing he does with robots, both in Blade Runner and the Alien franchise; he will present us with an artificial being that appears completely sentient, a person in their own right, who is nonetheless treated as an object by the humans in the given film. This tension is at the center of David’s arc in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, and it is central to both Blade Runner films. In the Alien franchise, androids appear totally human until they are injured, and then you can see the curdled milk and vacuum tubes that make up their insides–they are human until they show you the horror inside them. But in Blade Runner, what makes up replicants is never fully explained; when they bleed, it’s red, vibrant blood. The differences are so subtle that they can only be found under microscopes, and it requires a specially trained police force to pick them out of a human crowd. The point of the Blade Runner films is that, as a viewer, you don’t see a material difference between replicants and humans. The line has been drawn by humans, who benefit from keeping the replicants as slaves, and replicants are fighting an uphill battle to even see themselves as worthy of freedom.
In Blade Runner 2049, the tensions between replicants and humans haven’t died down from the first film, but they’ve been curtailed. The old replicants are being killed off, and the new replicants are made obedient, so humanity is less wary of their creation. When Rachel (Sean Young)’s bones are found, along with the evidence that she had a child, K’s superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) immediately understands how dangerous this information is; if replicants can have children, then they are as good as people, and there will be utter chaos. In a very human move, she thoughtlessly assigns K to the task of destroying the child, assuming that he will have no personal stake in the possibility of a replicant child. And, he might not have, if not for his childhood memory.
If you’ve seen the film, you know the tragedy that plays out. K, who has been given the real memories of the actual born replicant, comes to believe he is “real, born, loved,” as Joi puts it, only to find out towards the bitter end that he is nothing but the real child’s creation. K is so, so careful not to assume anything early on, but when he finds out that he has a real, actual memory, it’s like a bomb goes off inside of him. The possibility, the mounting evidence that he might be real enough to have lived, to remember something real, changes him fundamentally. He abandons his job, sticks Joi in his pocket, and goes running after Deckard (Harrison Ford), his presumed father. He grasps desperately at the idea that he is a person, after living a life that has constantly re-enforced that he is a replicant, and therefore no sort of person at all. Finding out that he’s not “real” after all…
K does not have ownership of his own story. He believes he does, as we believe we all do. We innately trust our own experience, our own memories, even when they’re objectively nonsensical. Schizophrenia is such a powerful disorder in part because it reshapes the reality of the person with it. Their reality is the only one they can really trust to be real–even when it’s not. K, initially cognizant that his memories are completely implanted, removes himself from trying to associate with his false childhood, but he also acknowledges that his memories are important well before they prove to be genuine. It’s implied in the film that replicants are destined to go crazy, or to never function at all, if they don’t have some type of formative memories. Whether or not they’re known to be fake, memories are needed to make a functioning being.
K’s self is made up of something that is not part of him, but rather passed down by a memory maker with her own reasons for giving replicants the chance to uncover her secret. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) herself chooses to give up her story, implanting it into K and very likely a few other replicants, giving them that spark of a real thing to hold onto in their minds. The story, the simple memory of saving a toy horse from bullies, has become communal, something that connects Stelline and K. I think perhaps Stelline sees all stories as inherently shareable; her story is so big she can’t control its effect. Stelline’s entire job is to create stories, to make the building blocks of millions of people. It’s mentioned that she’s the best at it; perhaps this is because she understands so well how inherent a story can become to your personhood, endowing her creations with extra care. It also can’t help that she’s secretly at least part replicant, and is probably more emotionally invested in making replicants whole beings.
On that part-replicant thing–when Deckard enters the film, we also see the complication of his story, his memory. Ever since the first film came out, there’s been a pervasive fan theory that Deckard himself was a replicant, for various reasons. Apparently Ridley Scott thinks that he is; Harrison Ford has long disagreed, and it’s widely acknowledged that the film doesn’t exactly make it clear either way When it was rumored that Blade Runner 2049 may provide a more concrete answer to that theory, it made the news on a lot of media sites.
The film actually doesn’t answer the theory, but it is acknowledged, and the characters themselves speculate about the possibility. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the current creator of all new replicants, is obsessed with the possibility of replicants being able to procreate. Unlike all the other humans in the film, he has reconciled himself to the paradox of replicants. He perceives them as people, but he’s happy to treat them as slaves. He wants his own replicants to be able to procreate, mostly so he can make replicants even faster. When his personal replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) gets her mitts on Rick Deckard, he’s brought before Wallace. Wallace, the giant creep that he is, brings out Rachel’s skull and demands to know what Rachel means to Deckard, thirty years after they last saw each other. He calls up what little information they have on Rachel, asking what Deckard remembers of the woman capable of producing a miracle. Wallace is convinced that Tyrell knowingly created Rachel with the ability to have a child, and suggests that Deckard and Rachel may have both been manufactured to be attracted to each other, to make love. He suggests that their love, might, like Joi, simply be a function of programming, made to achieve an end.
The theory seems to make Deckard uncomfortable, but it doesn’t make him spill the beans on where his child is. So Wallace decides to barter; he brings out a replicant who is an exact copy of Rachel from the original film. She has Rachel’s hair, lips, eyes, dress; she’s perfectly Rachel in every way. When she speaks, it’s with Rachel’s voice. She doesn’t ring quite right, however; she’s true to the memory, but the way she acts is a little vacant and generic. The present, with its imperfect memory, can only create an idealized version of the past, not something real. Deckard ultimately rejects her, saying the original’s eyes were green. The original’s eyes were actually brown, but it’s likely even Deckard doesn’t really remember that. What he remembers is the essence of Rachel, which Wallace was unable to give to his copy.
Rachel is full of stories. Her bones tell one of a replicant able to have children, a story important enough that it could change the world. Her copy tries to tell another story, to draw Deckard into a fantasy of the brief, perfect time they were together, that they can have again if he chooses to believe in her. Rachel is long dead, and no longer able to control who she is, what she means. When Deckard remembers Rachel, we see his idealized version of their first meeting: a gorgeous, perfectly coiffed woman walking to him from across a room. When Wallace creates Rachel, he makes much the same thing. Both of these men desire her for different reasons, and in memory and in flesh they create a simplified version of her story to tell themselves, of a beautiful woman who always has a tragic look on her face. Deckard’s memory may be more real, more altruistic, but both men are telling stories about Rachel, decades beyond her reach.
There is a thread in this film, connecting Rachel, Deckard, and K. Rachel is totally unable to tell her story, and so it is told in bones and memories, and it is unknown how she might feel about them. Deckard’s story is rewritten; the possibility is opened that his story was written in code. K has a real story, a flame, inside him, only to find it is outside, not his to take ownership of. There is a good chunk of the film where we are made to believe that these three characters are a family, who simply never had the chance meet. It strings a connection between them, makes their stories feel vitally connected. But their connections are controlled by others, and in K’s case, it isn’t a connection at all. It’s surprising how hard it is to put down that story of family when it proves not to be true. It seems uniquely cruel that after K comes to believe that he was once loved, he finds out that the only love he’s ever had is from Joi. That he is given a beautiful story, only to be told he must give it to someone else.
Earlier in the film, we see the first time that Joi has ever been able to go outside. When she first raises a hand to the rain, the drops fall through her skin; as she turns her hand over and over again, her programming adjusts, so that simulated rain spatter appears on her hand. Her hair even gets wet. This motion is repeated in the last scene. K leans against the steps of Selline’s business, and holds his hand up to the snow, turning it over to watch how the snowflakes fall into his palm.
We don’t own our own stories, mostly because we don’t own their impact on others. It’s never conclusively stated whether Joi is a person, but whatever she is, K loves her, completely and desperately. Whether or not Joi’s own story is real, it has changed K’s. Even though the memory isn’t his, it changes him completely. The story he begins to believe, that he is “special, born, loved,” changes him, completely.
We don’t own our own stories, and we aren’t able to control how others decide to tell them. But we have an impact on this world, on people, on who they become as we become part of their memories. Perhaps it is simply enough that we are remembered at all, imperfect as it is. A thing that isn’t quite our story lives on, but at least it lives.
It’s a shame we won’t really live on. But then again, nobody does.