Robotic Emptiness

Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas in Blade Runner 2049
“Robotic Emptiness”
A Review of Blade Runner 2049 by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating, Two Reels           

            Many consider 1982’s Blade Runner to be a cinematic masterpiece of both style and substance that brought the sci-fi genre to new heights. While acknowledging its innovative and compelling visuals, the narrative and themes are vapid and ill defined. Its new sequel Blade Runner 2049 is just a lot more of both. Ridley Scott – the series producer and visionary – is well known for his uncanny ability to search longingly for the meaning of life through suffering and horror without coming to any real conclusions. This is just another exercise in his circular journey that, even if filled with dazzling sights, leads nowhere.
            The first film followed Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a cop who hunted down rogue androids called replicants. A central question of that film involved whether Deckard himself was a replicant – a question that was never fully answered and still unanswered. Thirty years later, K (Ryan Gosling) has the same job, but there is no question of his identity as a replicant. These newer and more obedient robots are so integrated into society it’s hard to tell them apart from humans. On one of his routine investigations, K discovers the remains of a replicant that contains evidence she died in childbirth. This would seem impossible, but as he goes deeper, this shocking revelation becomes more and more real. Replicants who could reproduce on their own would upset the entire balance of civilization. His quest to find this miracle child brings him into contact with Deckard and even more truths that may too unbearable to accept.
            Artificial intelligence is a theme much loved in science fiction because it brings up so many of the central questions of human nature. The replicants in Blade Runner can easily pass the Turing test, but is that enough to make them human? The difficulty in answering this question for 21st century America is that many people cannot define what it means for humans to be human in the first place. Ridley Scott certainly has trouble with this. Alien, Kingdom of Heaven, and even Gladiator seem to suggest life is “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Yet at the same time, these films clearly rejoice in virtues such as heroism, ingenuity, and freedom from oppression. If rising to these qualities makes a person “human” than robots are no different than us. The good ones are human, the bad ones are not. All things – robots and humans alike – share the same capacity for honor but also the same emptiness of purpose.
            This universal vacuum is a bit of a downer, so Scott offers another possibly as well. At one point, K states that this child must have a soul because he was born, not made. Conception and birth are significant because that being enters the world already in a covenant relationship. He has a father and a mother. K also seeks meaning through contact with others. Though a digital being himself, he keeps a hologram girlfriend at his house, expertly performed by Cuban actress Ana de Armas. She appears to genuinely love him and expresses a desire to deepen their experience of one another, leading to the weirdest sex scene since Her. Yet it is revealed later that these expressions were artificially constructed and not genuine, leaving K to wonder about his own motivations. Eventually, K will give his life for the good of another, which some could argue is the ultimate test of humanity, echoing Jesus’ adage that there “is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” However, people can die for things that are not noble and even animals protect those in their pack. The betrayal of K’s girlfriend is a good illustration of why AI will never produce a soul. The soul is not a construct of either biological evolution or social interaction; it is a miracle of God. Things that are artificial will always exist and act according to the world. Only the Spirit can create spirit.
            These glimpses of philosophical questions are difficult to discern because the plot is messy and confusing. Most of the performances – human and android alike – are, well, robotic. The reason Blade Runner stood the test of time was the ground-breaking art direction and visual effects. 2049 follows this tradition as well, creating beautiful if terrifying landscapes of colors, lights, and wide-open spaces. Everything is large and exaggerated. The inside of the replicant corporation contains rooms that could encompass a football field yet have only one or two people working in them. One would think that following current architectural trends, the future should be more utilitarian – placing practicality over beauty. Here, it is suggested in a world made effortless by science, people need elaborate distractions from meaninglessness. Generally, mise-en-scène that calls attention to itself is considered poor art, but if it was production designer Dennis Gassner’s intention to use that distraction as a commentary on this society, then it’s brilliant.

            The questions of man’s essence and existence in Blade Runner 2049 is a revolving door, always moving but never going anywhere. Scott understands greatly the first part of Augustine’s famous quote that “our hearts are restless.” He thinks the answer must be found in the empirical plane because the other option demands a radically “unmodern” worldview. Yet if the world cannot give the answer, then the truth must be asserted, no matter how high the cost: our hearts “must rest in Him.”

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on October 9th, 2017