Blade Runner 2049: An Unexceptional Future

A movie review/breakdown

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July 28, 2020

(8 min read)

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*Spoilers below for Blade Runner 2049*

Wanting to feel special and loved, unique and individual, is a fundamental part of the human experience. It’s ingrained in us from an early age, and it stays with us as we age. Parents tell children how special they are, and shower them with unconditional love. Students love seeing the fruits of their hours of studying through their academic accomplishments. People fall in love with the perfect complement to themselves, viewing their partner as an extraordinarily special individual. Without our individualism, we really wouldn’t be human — or at least, we wouldn’t fit into the current definition of what it means to be human.

That defining part of the human experience is already shifting today, with the advancement of technology. Social media trends convince us to live lifestyles similar to that of icons, limiting our ability to live our own way. Even the uniformity of sending text messages limits our capability to fully express ourselves through facial expressions and speaking mannerisms. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 illustrates a future where highly developed technology completely has completely transformed that human experience. The film’s cyberpunk world represents the societal fear technological advancement can undermine the core human tenet of human exceptionalism, therefore tainting our definition of what it means to be human.

Blade Runner 2049’s exploration into the future of technology revolves around the replicants, a race of artificial, bioengineered human-machine hybrids created by the Wallace Corporation. In the Blade Runner universe, the replicants serve as slaves to the “real” humans, due to the limitations enforced upon them by their programming. K, the protagonist, is a replicant Blade Runner whose life purpose since his inception has been to kill rogue replicants.

The film uses the interplay between choice and destiny to argue that as technology advances, people are losing their free will and in result, their exceptionalism. Replicants all share one common trait: they’re made, not born. That primary distinction means everything to replicants and humans in the Blade Runner universe. They’re born as slaves, which puts their lives at the mercy of their destinies and not their choices. Replicants know that they’re technological creations, which brings them to dehumanize themselves. K proclaims, “to be born is to have a soul,” implying that he and the rest of his kind are soulless, and therefore inferior beings. It’s the basis of Blade Runner universe’s social hierarchy, why replicants are slaves and why they’re so looked down upon by humans. More so, replicants’ being made and not born makes them, in a way, all the same. They’re created with the same blueprints, the same parts, and run off the same AI, which makes them believe they’re expendable. Villeneuve’s portrayal of the replicants being a uniform race created with technology invokes viewers’ fear of humans losing their individualism through technology. We become increasingly interconnected, but we also start to lose ourselves to conformity. Today, millions of people participate in social media trends to build an image for themselves, or subscribe to media opinions without formulating their own ideas first. Technology is already making us lose our individualism, and Blade Runner 2049 makes us realize how scary that can really be.

No person nor replicant can choose who they’re born as, but Blade Runner 2049 also explores the scenario where replicants can’t even control how they live their lives. The film opens with K on a mission to assassinate Sapper Morton, an older Nexus 8 model replicant with more freedom of choice. The Nexus 8 models’ ability to make their own choices was considered a threat to humanity, which brought the Wallace Corporation to build the Model 9 replicants, a more advanced species programmed to be more obedient to their human masters. Although the Model 9 replicants consist of more advanced technology, they are worse off than their predecessors due to their restricted free will. K and the other Model 9 replicants don’t even notice the strings attached to them; they simply believe they’re doing their jobs. It’s a statement that technology takes away peoples’ freedom of choice and replaces it with the illusion of choice. Take suggestion algorithms today: when engaging with the internet, we’re given seemingly endless options. Contrary to our notion of freedom, so much of our experience online is heavily shaped by algorithms. They suggest content on YouTube, tell us what products to buy from Amazon, even suggest who we should befriend on Facebook.

Even if one does have freedom of choice, the film claims that technology can deny people from being exceptional despite their efforts. K’s journey throughout the film is one of wanting to be special. K was an obedient Blade Runner who never questioned his authorities. Things turn around for K during his investigation to find a replicant child, something miraculous and once thought impossible. His journey to find the child leads him to believe he is that very child, which causes him, for the first time in his life, to believe he’s unique and special. Striving for exceptionalism is an incredibly characteristic trait of human beings, and for K, experiencing that feeling was powerful enough to shake him from his very programming, allowing him to exert his own free will. The film emphasizes how significant this feeling is to the human experience. He begins to rebel against his authorities and starts taking risks to investigate on his own. But K soon discovered that he wasn’t the child, despite how much he wanted to be. His theories stemmed from his memories and experiences, which were later tragically revealed to be false memory implants. It was technology that led him to believe he was special, and more importantly, technology that denied him of his exceptionalism. The film argues that no matter how hard we try or believe, technology can obstruct our efforts to be special.

K was denied his efforts to be exceptional by technology, but the film also shows that technology can destroy even inherent human exceptionalism. Dr. Ana Stelline is the miracle child, proof to the replicants that they too could be born. But she’s diagnosed with an immunodeficiency disorder, which results in her being confined in a tech lab her whole life, isolated from the world. The replicants don’t know she exists, and even she isn’t aware of her uniqueness. She’s employed by Wallace Corporation to produce memories to be used as implants for the replicants, and is known to be the best memory maker there is due to how realistic her memories are. Though Stelline is perhaps the most innately exceptional character in the film, she doesn’t inspire the other replicants nor does she use her position for good. Instead, technology hinders her uniqueness and makes her yet another slave to the system, as she becomes a source of artificial exceptionalism that supports the continued manufacturing of replicants.

Artificial exceptionalism is a huge concept in Blade Runner 2049’s society, where genuine individualism has largely been lost. Outside of Dr. Stelline, the film exemplifies artificial exceptionalism through Joi, K’s holographic girlfriend created by the Wallace Corporation. She’s an AI like K, but has no body and is programmed to say whatever K wants to hear. Even so, K finds solace in Joi, and Joi responds to K’s every need with love. She constantly humanizes K; she gives him a name — Joe — and constantly tells him that she knows he’s special. That humanization is something K strives for but is brutally denied by society. Over time, her influence breeds K’s imagination and makes him believe that he may be special. It’s scary that Joi, a highly advanced AI, is a mass produced product sold for profit. It’s later revealed in the film that every Joi unit acts similarly. Each unit calls her partner Joe, and will always try to make them feel special. It’s a glimpse into a world where people have generally lost their belief in their own uniqueness, to the extent where it’s become an opportunity to heavily profit off of. Through Joi, the film warns that technology can make us complacent with easy solutions that keep us from confronting our own waning individualism.

Blade Runner 2049 shows its audience what a society without human exceptionalism looks like, using that image to dive headfirst into the fundamental question of what defines a human. It remarks that technology is causing us to slowly lose the exceptionalism, choice, uniqueness, and individualism that make us human; consequently, the film urges us to make changes to prevent further deterioration of human exceptionalism in our society. With the rapid development of technology today, it’s imperative we think about the implications of what we build before we build it. That principle is universal. Maybe it’s time to slow down AI research until the field of AI ethics can catch up. Otherwise, Joi units that take away our opportunity to socialize and express ourselves wouldn’t be so far off. If we continue to build suggestion algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves, if we don’t pause and consider how to responsibly use social media, then how different would we really be from the mindless Model 9 replicants? These considerations need to begin today. Otherwise, the bleak social system of Blade Runner 2049 may materialize in our own society — perhaps even sooner than 2049.

Roland Shen

@roland

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