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The artificial resurrection: Genesis and genetics in Blade Runner 2049

Monday, 30 October 2017  | Michael Bull

The power of science fiction, and what’s positive about it, is that you’re able to experience the worst-case scenario without actually having to live it. (Actor Ryan Gosling, who plays Officer “K”)

(Warning: The following analysis contains spoilers for both Blade Runner films.)

Released in 1982, the original
Blade Runner confronted audiences with a stark depiction of a future that was disturbingly plausible and depressingly tangible. The fact that its pacing was unhurried, focussing on ideas more than characters, and was told through a disorienting hybrid of genres, made it a difficult pill to swallow at first viewing.

However, seeds were planted in the imaginations of a fertile few. More than three decades later, it is difficult to think of a movie that has shaped the world we live in and how we view that world to the same degree as Ridley Scott’s box office bomb. His vision is self-consciously postmodern, exposing the transcendence offered by technology as a scam. In this moody, dystopian prophecy, where nothing is original and everything is derived, progress and degeneration can be difficult to tell apart. Even worse, the difference between them becomes merely a matter of opinion, since moral absolutes have succumbed entirely to corporate interests and brutal pragmatism. The code of the street is now the code of humanity: survival at all costs.

At the heart of both Blade Runner films is a meditation upon transhumanism. Whereas in the movie Gattaca it is those in society who are not genetically augmented at birth who become a new servile class, in Blade Runner it is instead manufactured human replicas – ‘replicants’ – who do all the dirty work. Their life of service – employed either as an extension of human labour or as ephemeral objects for human pleasure – becomes an existential dilemma because they are truly sentient.

Engineered with a built-in and irreversible obsolescence, a limited lifespan of four years, the rebellion of the renegade replicant antagonist (Roy Batty) in the original film turns out to be a quest for an extension of life. The superhuman angel desires to be more than a servant in off-world heavens. He desperately wants to be a son.

The violent game of cat and mouse between the replicant, perilously close to the end of his assigned lifespan, and his hunter (the blade runner, Rick Deckard) transmutes into a rivalry between ‘brothers’. Both are products of a schizoid industry that despises and commodifies humanity. Instead of the expected resolution, the climax serves us an alienating twist: the culmination of the mercenary mission switches the roles of hero and villain. The replicant saves and then spares the blade runner’s life in a double-barreled and disconcerting act of mercy that forces viewers to contemplate which of the characters was truly more ‘human’. Clinging to life, Batty delivers in his final moments a monologue that has been called ‘perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinema history’.[1]

I've seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Robbed of both a past and a future, and unable to sire any children, Roy Batty cleverly fashions a legacy out of Rick Deckard’s life. The blade runner himself, a willing instrument of death, is rendered a living testimony to what a real man is made of.

Deckard absconds with the beautiful Rachael, the pride of the Tyrell Corporation, a breathtaking replicant who, earlier in the film, was indistinguishable from a real human under test conditions, and to whom Rick ultimately gives his heart – and his body.

Thirty-five years later, 2049 is a masterwork in that it is a true sequel. The troubling seeds planted in our imaginations are now full-grown trees, but thankfully not all of the fruit is bitter. Instead of a battle between a Jacob and an Esau, the conflict is now between a Rachael and a Leah. The first film was the head. This extension of the story is a fitting body, a harvest of hope and despair.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married”, says the Lord.
(Isaiah 54:1)

Photo: Dante's Vision of Leah and Rachel, by Marie Spartali Stillman.

Whereas the original events took place in an interminable night cursed with torrential rain, the sequel leads us into the light. But it is a day under a sullen, sunless sky, suffering the violence of rising seas, the grim yellow of radioactive dust and the strangeness of Los Angeles snow. The barrenness of this bleak yet ravishing landscape is magnified in the significance of a single tree, denuded and bleached like the bones in the box buried beneath it. The remains of Rachael are exhumed by Officer K, a replicant whose mission is identical to that of Deckard’s, and whose evenings are occupied with a holographic girlfriend, a being even more artificial than he is.

Examination reveals that Rachael gave birth to a child, an event that has the potential to tear down the barrier between humans and replicants, masters and slaves. Since blade runners like K are the wall that separates ‘kind’,[2] he is charged with locating and eliminating the miraculous offspring before knowledge of it brings about a revolution. Like the colossal Sepulveda Wall that now holds back the raging sea, the boundary between order and chaos must be maintained. K muses that he has ‘never “retired” something that was born before’. The status quo must be maintained at all costs. This potential ‘peace child’ will be sacrificed to avoid a war.

A legacy in history requires both the fruit of the land (food) and the fruit of the womb (offspring). These are the two promises from God to Adam that were cursed – or more correctly, limited – after he chose to become godlike in a way that was not God’s. This is the context for the promises of a land and offspring to Abraham.  Whereas Rick Deckard’s police partner Gaff made a silver origami unicorn (an impossible animal) in the first movie, here he creates a white origami sheep. The Hebrew meaning of the name Rachael is ‘ewe’.

Land and womb are deep subtextual currents in Blade Runner 2049. After the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation, and a mysterious ten days of darkness referred to as ‘the blackout’, the world was saved from starvation through the technologies of Niander Wallace. An industrialist who lobbied for the manufacture of replicants to be legalised once again, he becomes the successor to Eldon Tyrrell by promising to deliver replicants who are completely obedient, following their ‘programmes’ without question.

Whereas Tyrell required thick-lensed spectacles in order to see, Wallace is completely blind, relying on a cluster of miniature drones that serve as his eyes. Significantly, neither tycoon resorted to the installation of superior replicant eyes, since these become the prime means of identifying replicants from real humans. Both businessmen are blind Isaac, fathers who have been blessed with a great gift yet who are willing for blood to be spilled to maintain their comfort and authority. Blade runners and replicants are an unfortunate but necessary means to a glorious end.

Architecture is important in both films, but perhaps the subtle nature of the impressive chamber in which Wallace conducts his meetings hides its symbolic significance. It reveals him to be a self-conscious demiurge, a sub-creator. Pure water and ‘real’ animals have become scarce commodities, but the floor is a fish-filled pond with a large dais at the centre. Wallace – and his visitors – must ‘walk on water’ to reach it from the entry. The ultimate reference to Creation in this microcosm of land and sea is the slow orbit of the interior lighting, mimicking the transition between night and day. Being blind, Niander’s interior world is darkness, yet his mastery of genetics is a great light to this world and to nine others.

Wallace claims to have millions of ‘children’, instruments with which he will conquer and colonise the stars. But, like Adam, he cannot produce them quickly enough. Like the kings of biblical history, he desires an instant dynasty, but concubines are not an option. The wombs of his brilliant replicants are barren. He, too, is searching for the miracle child – and its father, Rick Deckard. Blade Runner 2049 is all about legacy, and, like the original, it poses uncomfortable questions for a culture whose prosperity is maintained artificially and unsustainably through abortion, exploitation and war, and whose divorce of sex from procreation is slowly but surely drifting into a demographic winter.

Officer K’s investigation leads him to interview a woman who manufactures artificial memories for the replicants. As he speaks with her, she is constructing a holographic birthday party. As the projected children blow out the candles on the imaginary cake, the room is cloaked in darkness. K is reminded that his past is a fiction, merely a tool for the enhancement of function. But he, and his replicant nemesis, Luv, show that they are capable of things far beyond the intentions – and programmes – of their creators.

The spectacular climax of the film takes place upon the Sepulveda Wall in the darkness of the night. The visuals and the soundtrack batter and crash over the viewer like the waves of the sea that threaten the combatants while they labour to eliminate each other. The vehicle in which they struggle, trapped on the edge of the wall, will be a womb for one and a tomb for the other, but these are only the beginnings of birth pangs. Thanks to the miracle child, the waters have been broken. The film sets up all the required potential for a new world, but whether that landscape will be filled with light or darkness, we are left to ponder.

For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. (Matthew 22:30)

The fate of Officer K is ambiguous. Does he die, or does he live? Either way, since as a later model he possesses a longer lifespan, for K, unlike Batty, death is a decision. As a one-eyed replicant revolutionary puts it to him:

            Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.

Michael Bull 
is a graphic designer and theology blogger who lives and works in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. His passion is understanding and teaching the Bible, and he writes occasionally for Theopolis Institute in Birmingham AL, USA.

[1] Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher at the End of the Universe (London: Ebury, 2003), 234–235.

[2] Officer K might be named after the middle initial of Philip K. Dick, author of the novel upon which Blade Runner was loosely based. The initial stands for ‘Kindred’.

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