Blade Runner 2049
by Alvin G. Burstein
Unusual for a sequel, newly released Blade Runner 2049 is a darker and more complex film than its predecessor, set thirty years earlier. Both used a dystopian setting to explore issues of exploitation and empathy as elements of the human condition. The first film was a striking description of the contrast between a degenerate capitalistic system and the human capacity for love and of love as an anodyne for the bitterness of mortality. The new film, set thirty years later, extends that exploration in a profound way.
In the first film, we learn about bioengineered replicants manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation to support the human elite. Replicants look human, but have a limited life span and are identifiable by their lack of emotional responses. Blade Runners, cops in a post-modern, degenerate Los Angeles, are charged with “retiring” those replicants who resent their limited lifespan and resist their exploitation. Deckard, a human Blade Runner is charged with retiring Rachael, an experimental replicant who has had artificial memories implanted to “provide an emotional cushion.” She believes she is human and weeps when she finds that her human memories were artificially implanted. Despite her limited life expectancy, she and Deckard fall in love and, after harrowing adventures, flee into hiding.
In the sequel, a young Blade Runner, KD6-37, himself a replicant, broods over whether his childhood memories are implanted or genuine. In the course of a “retirement” mission,
he stumbles on evidence that Rachael had died, but not before giving birth, with a possible implication that he might be her and Deckard’s child. Without revealing that last implication, he reports the discovery to his chief.
He is ordered to destroy any evidence of his discovery because of the potential for precipitating racial war inherent in replicants being able to reproduce themselves rather than being manufactured. The Blade Runner embarks on a personal mission to find Deckard and resolve the uncertainty of whether his memories are genuine or not.
The search and its complications are dramatic and suspenseful. In the course of the search he finds Deckard living hidden in a virtual museum of nostalgic memorabilia in the ruins of old LA where—meaningfully— we hear records of Sinatra and Presley singing songs about love.
With Deckard, he joins a revolt against the corporate interests producing replicants. He saves Deckard’s life and reunites Deckard with his child, a daughter. In the course of his efforts
the young Blade Runner is mortally wounded. And suffers another, more tragic wound. He learns that his childhood memories had been implanted.
Reuniting Deckard and Rachael’s daughter is not motivated by family ties. It is not grounded in familial love, with its sexual implications and complications. It is altruistic, an unrequited
caring for the other. This Blade Runner dies alone, abandoned, shorn of his memories, of a family tie to Deckard, to Rachael, to anyone.
Altruism, selfless behavior, perplexed and fascinated Anna Freud. Her favorite play was said to be Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, which she saw as epitomizing altruistic love. Cyrano conceals his love for Roxanne to shield her from being disillusioned about her husband. Cyrano dies taking pride in having made that choice.
Classic Greek tragedies depicted admirable individuals suffering as a result of a fateful error. Blade Runner 2049 suffers in a profoundly different way. His tragic loss, his sacrifice, is not the result of an error, but comes from giving up an illusion. It is, like Cyrano’s sacrifice, a form of self-assertion. But with a deeply painful cost.