I didn’t see Blade Runner when itdebuted in American theatres in 1982. In fact, I doubt I was even aware of its existence. I was 13 at the time and not the least bit tempted by science fiction – or by philosophy, for that matter. But my interests had changed dramatically by the time Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut came out in 1992. By then I’d seen the original theatrical version on VCR more than once and thus, along with many of my fellow grad students, I waited in a long line at the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles to see a truer version of director Ridley Scott’s original vision for the movie on the big screen. (Little did we know that an even truer version of his vision for the movie, The Final Cut, would come out several years later.)
In a sense, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to cite Blade Runner as the defining film of my time in graduate school. My thinking about central issues in philosophy of mind – from memory and consciousness to self-knowledge and selfhood – was in many ways shaped by the movie. And I was not the only one for whom this was true. Countless hundreds of undergraduates who filled the UCLA lecture halls were introduced to philosophical thinking about the mind via Joseph Almog’s reflections on Rachael (Sean Young) and on the way that, despite her non-human status, despite the fact that she is what the movie refers to as a Replicant, she is nonetheless one of us.
So, suffice it to say that I went into Blade Runner 2049 with a high level of anticipation … but also with a non-trivial amount of trepidation. Like many fans of the original, I was worried that the sequel would fail to do it justice. Fortunately, the worry was for naught. That’s not to say that I loved every minute of the movie – nor that I understood every minute of it. (One salient example, on both counts, was the particularly grotesque scene involving the destruction of a female replicant by her creator, the decidedly unhinged Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto.) And, perhaps unsurprising for a film that clocked in at 163 minutes, there were stretches where the plot seemed to lag. But the film nonetheless proved to be both a beautiful homage to its predecessor and a magnificent cinematic achievement in its own right. It also raised a whole host of new and interesting questions for the contemporary generation of philosophically-oriented viewers to explore. For a wide variety of reasons, then, Blade Runner 2049 will repay additional viewing.
Like Denis Villeneuve’s previous film Arrival, another science fiction film that traces deeply philosophical themes (my review was in The Philosophers’ Magazine 77), Blade Runner 2049 is moody and atmospheric, and it moves at a considerably slower pace than most of the other films one would find at the multiplex today. It’s undoubtedly not for everyone. I also can’t imagine how anyone who hadn’t seen the original Blade Runner would be able to make any sense of it. So for those who need a brief recap of the 1982 film:
The action takes place in Los Angeles of 2019, a dark and dystopic world where the Replicants, a race of artificial humans who have been bio-engineered by the Tyrell Corporation, do hard labour off-world. When four of the Nexus-6 model Replicants escape to earth, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), one of a special force of police agents known as blade runners, is sent to “retire” them. It’s in the course of this mission that Deckard encounters and falls in love with Rachael. Though Rachael believes herself to be the niece of the head of the Tyrell Corporation, it soon becomes clear that she is a Replicant – the first (or perhaps the only) of an experimental breed who don’t know their true nature. As the movie ends, Deckard and Rachael run off together. They’re not sure how much time they’ll have – Nexus-6 Replicants had been pre-programmed with a four-year lifespan, and it’s unclear whether Rachael also has a built-in expiration date – but they’re hoping to enjoy each other for however long they can.
Thirty years later, Los Angeles is still dark and dystopic, and the Replicants are still serving as slave labour for the humans. But the newest breed of Replicants is different from those who came before: the Nexus-9 models have been programmed to obey. Enter K (Ryan Gosling), a Nexus-9 who makes his living as a blade runner tasked with hunting down and retiring older model Replicants. In the course of his job, he comes across the bones of a female Nexus-7; shortly thereafter, a close examination of the bones reveals that the Replicant had given birth before she died.
Fearful of the turmoil and unrest that would undoubtedly ensue were news to leak out that replicants could procreate, K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to find and kill the child. From here, it’s hard to say too much without completely giving away the plot. Indeed, even the little I’ve said is considerably more than was revealed by the initial wave of reviews, as reviewers who saw the film prior to its release were subject to an unusually strict “spoiler” policy imposed by Villeneuve. But I can say at least this: K’s search leads him to Deckard and, in the true spirit of the original film, questions swirl about the nature of our identities and how we can know what kinds of beings we really are. As was the case for Rachael before him, K struggles to understand the nature of his memories and the role that our memories play in making us who we are.
Like any good sequel, however, Blade Runner 2049 transcends its predecessor – and this is nowhere as true as with respect to the philosophical questions raised. K’s interaction with his holographic girlfriend prompts questions about the nature of love and companionship and about whether and to what extent we need physical presence to interact with one another. The facts about the ways that Nexus-8 Replicants have been programmed prompt questions about whether and how humans can ethically interact with them, as when Joshi issues orders to her subordinates that literally cannot be disobeyed. And, perhaps most importantly, the central plot of the movie raises questions about the difference between being born and being made. In what way does this make a difference to the kinds of beings we fundamentally are?
In the seventeenth century, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke defined personhood in terms of self-awareness, the capacity of a being to “reflect on itself as itself”. Philosophers since then have found much to admire in this definition and in fact, most philosophers today take a Lockean-inspired approach to personhood and personal identity. But as did the original Blade Runner movie back in 1982, Blade Runner 2049 pushes against the Lockean conception of personhood, suggesting that the matter does not seem to be settled quite so simply. Questions about lifespan, about free will, about how one has been produced, and about whether one can oneself reproduce, are all put forth as importantly relevant. As rumours swirl about a possible sequel, one can only wonder what kinds of deep questions about the nature of personhood will be probed next