The varied and rich philosophical strands of Blade Runner 2049 will be analysed and debated for years to come. Already in the world are some top-shelf articles on the use of light in blade runner, the neglect of children, the relationship of the movie to Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire, and the way in which technology is used to highlight class inequality.

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I’ve written previously about the eye as a symbol for the human soul in the original movie, a theme the sequel continues (note in the sequel, the head of Wallace corporation is blind). I also think there’s an article to be written on capitalism versus the environment in the Blade Runner universe, but I’ll leave that for another time.

This article focusses on the central theme of the Blade Runner franchise: what it means to be human.  

Human or machine: Ms Joi’s feeling for snow

Blade Runner 2049 is a metaphysical detective story: the protagonist in search of the self. It is the story of K, whose true investigation is into his own identity. Whether he was born of a mother, rather than made. Whether his memories are implants, or real. Whether he has a soul.

This theme is not new in noir. The science fiction-noir classics Ghost in the Shell and, of course, the original Blade Runner, were ultimately about the attempt to uncover the true self. This is true of the brilliant neo-noir Memento – where the protagonist has amnesia, and is forced to tell himself the nature of his identity through tattoos (though, as we learn, he lies to himself). Amnesia is frequently used as a plot device in classic noir to allow the metaphysical investigation to take place. Science-fiction noir has many more means at its disposal: androids, memory implants, hallucinogenic drugs, simulated realities, and so on (you will note the list pretty much covers the Phillip K Dick oeuvre).

One of the many ways Blade Runner 2049 explores the question: am I human? is through touch. Specifically, the feeling of snow on one’s fingers. It is no accident that three characters, all non-human, are shown contemplating – or trying to – the feeling of snow.

Joi, on the roof, after K has given her an upgrade to allow her to leave the apartment, seems to have a partial sense of touch. The snowflakes (or possibly, flaking pollutants) hesitate on her skin for a few moments before they pass through. There seems to be a kind of field generated by the upgrade – it does not make her corporeal, but does generate some resistance.

K, when he is dying on the steps, reaches out to feel the snow on his hands. Immediately after, we see Deckard enter the ‘memory-making’ lab of his daughter – the first true born replicant – where she is standing in a simulated snow storm.

Now, Stelline can’t feel the snow, as it is only a memory of snow from her youth. She has reproduced it in her lab, presumably in the process of making a childhood memory to be downloaded into a new batch of replicants.

Here, the sensation of snow on one’s skin, and the knowledge of that sensation, is the awareness of existing in the world. A connectedness to it. The film is asking: I think, therefore I am – but do I need to feel, as well? If a being’s hands can feel the world, are they truly a part of it?

The original Blade Runner has a scene which hints at this:

JS Sebastian: “Show me something.”

Batty: “Like what?”

JS: “Like anything.”

Batty: “We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical.”

Pris: “I think Sebastian, therefore I am.”

Batty: “Very good Pris, now show him why.”

(Pris backflips, puts her hand in a boiling water, and takes an egg out of it).

More than self-aware, Pris feels the world, she is part of all things. Therefore she is.

What is interesting about Descartes’ the cogito is the full version: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” Descartes argued that doubting one’s own existence served as proof of the reality of one’s own mind. A further link to Descartes is the mind-body problem: whether the two are distinct, or unified, and the relationship of one to the other.

The sequel extends and complicates the JS – Batty – Pris scene. The most ‘real’ of Dr. Ana Stelline, K, and Joi, is Stelline, given she was born. Yet she cannot feel, not the outside world, not since she was a young child. Only the antiseptic confines of her laboratory prison.

The theme here is of something else: a longing to feel, to touch. Only to connect.

Joi longs to connect with the world, to touch her lover K, to feel snow on her skin, yet she is denied this. Does the longing make her human, or is it merely part of her algorithm?

She compensates by asking a pleasure model replicant (Mariette) into her home, with whom she can form a neural sync, so she can in turn sleep with her partner, K. Cruelly, Mariette says to her afterwards, “I’ve been inside you. Not so much there as you’d think”

Doctor Stelline not only creates memories, but also feeling (she describes true memory as not being linear or logical, but more a combination of sensations, emotions, and images). Like Joi, Stelline seeks to interact with the physical world, though Stelline does it by constantly recreating it in memory, her labour the thread connecting her with a world of feeling.  

K feels. He is part of the world, more than Joi or Stelline, surely. However, his last words to Deckard are: “all my best memories are hers,” referring to Doctor Stelline. The memories he feels the most – the rub of a wooden horse under his fingertips, the heat of the furnace he looks into as he is hunted by the other orphans – are her feelings, her memories.

When K dies on the steps, in those last moments, it seemed to me it was only then he formed the most powerful of memories. Snow, on his fingertips, falling onto his face, while the man he died to save meets his daughter. This is how K chose to be human. Not the way the replicant rebel leader told him to – by killing Deckard. No. K becomes truly human in much the same way as Roy Batty proves his humanity in the first film: by saving Deckard.

Unlike Stelline’s memories, those last thoughts and feelings of K as he dies on the steps will be gone forever. Like tears in rain.


Part one of this article (a straight up film review) is here. Part two (conspiracy theories) is here


Categories: Reviews

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