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Cells Interlinked: The Quest for Humanity in Blade Runner 2049

December 6th, 2017 | 10 min read

By Jeremiah Webster

By Jeremiah Webster and Zach Boyd

Lamenting modern cinema is easy. Optimus Prime never really dies. Second rate superheroes, revived against their will, become a name. CGI bristles, indulges in the excess of “because we can, that’s why.” Nothing explodes like it used to. Into this digital wasteland comes a film with a smarter, more philosophical brand of dystopia on its mind. Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is a sequel to Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk vision of Replicants and off-world colonies, serial-numbered fish scales and implanted memories. It has all the trappings of a Hollywood sequel: a big budget, a blockbuster cast, and more CGI than you can shake a motion-tracked stick at.

Yet for all this, Blade Runner 2049 is shockingly anachronistic: a film that reinvigorates how theological and how literate the cinematic landscape can be. Blade Runner 2049 is an unexpected affirmation of the soul, of natural law, and of New Testament theology, offering stout resistance to the modern Cartesian mold. As futurists pine for the disembodied omnipotence of the Cloud, the Replicants and A.I. of Blade Runner 2049 desire something pedestrian, regressive by our modern standards. Namely, the finite limits of a human body and the virtues of a soul.

Blade Runner 2049 is a twist on the detective novel, a who-done-it centered on K, a Nexus-9 Replicant and blade runner by trade. Nexus-9s are more strictly programmed than the Nexus 6s portrayed in the first film. They are denied choice, endure constant surveillance, and receive a short life span. As a blade runner, K must find and “retire” the older model Replicants who experience both autonomy and the ability to age. The plot is set in motion when K discovers the buried remains of a mother who died in childbirth — a mother who turns out to be a Replicant.

This cataclysmic discovery inspires different forces to find this miraculous child and exploit it for their own purposes. Wallace, the film’s antagonist and creator of the Nexus-9, desires the power of childbirth to grow an army. A ragtag rebellion of Replicants want the child to verify their humanity, to share equal status in the world. Others want to merely kill the child, channeling their inner Herod to preserve the status quo. This conceit underwrites the central question of Blade Runner 2049. It is the same question posed by Mary Shelley and William Gibson, Dante and Homer. What does it mean to be human?

Blade Runner 2049 contrasts the relationship between humans and Replicants with K’s relationship with Joi, a holographic A.I. (think Alexa on steroids) who may or may not possess the human qualities of love, empathy, and imagination. Joi is the brainchild of Wallace, a Miltonic Satan who recites lines from Paradise Lost as he builds Replicants and A.I. for public consumption. His corporate logo is a riff on the Trinity: three gold bars analogous to a smartphone reception icon. Like Lucifer, the “Light Bearer,” Wallace is an inversion of the very qualities classical Christianity attributes to God. His headquarters is bathed in ever-moving, ever-malleable light, and he can only see (so white are the cataracts over his eyes) when a chip illuminates a small implant on his neck. Technology is literally his single guiding light.

Majesty may be ascribed to God, but Wallace is all malevolence. Instead of holy virtue, there is cruel vanity. His violent enmity toward women (see Genesis 3:15) illustrates the inherent misogyny that arises when female sexuality is exploited at the expense of maternity. Like the Los Angeles of 2049, a city of public coitus and unsolicited pornography (but no children anywhere), Wallace despises the barrenness of his creation, the inability of Replicants to “replicate.” He resents the army he has made to, “… storm Eden and take her,” and brutally kills one such Replicant during her “birthday.” Even Eden, Wallace’s aim and ambition, is feminized and spoken of with the language of assault, of rape. It is into this world that we meet Joi and the Replicant K who owns her.

Joi is product, replete with her own ad campaign: “Everything You Want To See / Hear.” Owning Joi has perks. Her hologram greets you after a long day at work, prepares virtual meals to distract the eye from the future’s primary source of edible protein (grubs), and changes her attire on a dime to appease a user’s insatiable appetite for visual consumption. Apart from the existential crisis of being (in her own words) “only ones and zeros,” Joi’s primary impairment is physicality, a body. Joi’s hologram is bound to a projection rail installed along the ceiling of K’s apartment. It isn’t until K brings home an Eminator, “an anniversary present” he declares, that her range of the possible is expanded.

As the Wallace Corporation closes in on K in search of the Replicant child, Joi asks K to move her “offline” to prevent her program from being used against him. K asks Joi if she wants to be permanently bound to the fragile Eminator. “If anything happens to this, you’re gone” he warns. “Yes,” she replies, “like a real girl.” The Eminator is preferable to the disembodied state she has always known. Joi recognizes that true personhood involves distinction, boundary, even limits to perception, the very thing her programmers are trying to escape. Joi’s desire is a return to Aristotle. It is a New Testament vision of the body.

When the Gospels claim that Jesus rose from the dead, this is no Gnostic depiction of reality. The resurrected Jesus eats, allows Thomas to inspect his wounds, and possesses all the physicality of the Jesus the disciples knew pre-crucifixion. He is no ghost, no spirit now liberated from the baseness of a mortal frame. His resurrection is a glorified reintegration of Aristotle’s body/soul dichotomy, an intimation of the bodies Christianity promises in the life to come (2 Corinthians 5:1). For all its speculation into a future where climate change brings snow to L.A. and sea walls protect So-Cal from a rising Pacific, this meditation on human ontology is significant. As we spend more and more time disembodied, digested into our worlds of VR, social media, and Twitter, Blade Runner 2049 suggests that, like Joi and K, we too will one day seek our first estate, Imago Dei, with renewed vigor and passion.

Predictably, the Eminator is not enough to satiate Joi’s desire for a body. She can follow K outside of his home, but she is still unable to fully interact with her surroundings. This ironic parallel should not be lost on the viewer. K is the Replicant who can live but not feel. Joi is the A.I. who can feel but not live. Neither dispensation is sufficient in the quest to be fully human. Joi’s desire leads to an unsettling scene where she invites a prostitute into K’s home as a sexual surrogate. It’s one of the many scathing discourses on sexuality in Blade Runner 2049, a film whose entire plot revolves around a child in a world where children, the inevitable progeny of sex, are relegated to labor camps and excised from public view. 2049 is also a logical extension of our modern obsession with pornia, a world where buxom holographic porn is preferable to intimacy and procreation with a beloved.

This vision of sexuality is the heart of Blade Runner 2049. It portrays a civilization in purgatory, caught in an impotent standoff of vices — a society where the “rules” of natural law and religion are merely the dross from long dead parents and priests. It is also an echo of our contemporary world where technology is employed to transcend the limits of nature and conform reality to the Wallace-like tyranny of the human will. Blade Runner 2049 plays out the consequences of our modern era and the secular consensus that ethics be excommunicated from carnal appetite. It is a world without the inefficiencies of Tinder and the guise of calling hookups “dating” — a world where you no longer need to go through the mechanizations of conversation and dinner to appease the mechanics of sex. The Blade Runner universe abandons such pretense with a sustained nod to the libertine promise of the Sexual Revolution. In doing so, Blade Runner 2049 dramatizes the endgame of this individual and societal choice. Its Replicant harems and derelict pleasure halls are exhibitions of sexuality without consequence, death without resurrection, body without soul.

For all its talk of abolition and absolution, Joi and K are expendable “product” in Blade Runner 2049. The critique of capitalism and the commodification of sex, of self, cannot be overstated. In an ironic sense, Joi will always be “Everything You Want to See / Hear” irrespective of her evolution as a sentient being. She even comes with her own fanfare, a musical motif that plays when she’s powered on (Peter’s theme from Peter and the Wolf — Prokofiev’s symphony for children). Is the aptly named Joi merely a reflection of K and his desires, or does she herself inhabit an authentic aspect of our shared humanity? And what makes humanity uniquely human, if, like Joi, a sequence of letters, genetic code, accounts for our programming as well?

The answer may reside with K, a Replicant whose identity and vocation involves killing other Replicants. K’s job is to follow his programming without question, without emotion. Any deviation from this protocol is penalized with death. K believes his memories are manufactured, that he has no autonomy, and that Replicants have no soul. The discovery of a Replicant (her name is Rachel — see Genesis 30:22-23) who can reproduce puts this belief to the test. If Replicants have no soul, K’s occupation is innocent, meaningless, devoid of morality and agency. If Replicants are equally human, equally capable of reproduction, bearers of soul, K’s life work is one of unparalleled evil. Blade Runner 2049 forces the audience to reckon with K’s dilemma. If we as humans do not have souls, we too are innocent in our lawlessness. If we do have souls, however, we are of all importance, moral agents, light bearers not of Wallace’s hellish dystopia, but of God’s Eden.

After every mission, K is administered a baseline test – a series of questions akin to a polygraph test administered by the police department. K must prove his apathy after every kill with a high stress test based around lines from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a book mentioned in passing several times throughout the film.

“Cells interlinked within cells interlinked

Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct

Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.”

The choice of text is apt, as Pale Fire revels in the same ambiguity the film explores. Like K, Nabokov’s protagonist must contend with the uncertainty of his existence and the reality of death. In K’s baseline test, the phrase “cells interlinked” is repeated as questions like “What is it like to hold a child in your arms?” are added to the litany. K must respond to these interrogations with the phrase “cells interlinked” to pass the exam. If he shows any emotion, any lapse toward empathy or compassion, he fails. The created order is not relational in the algorithms K’s programmers have given him but “interlinked.” K is designed to view the world as a cellular, biological, and deterministic phenomenon. This is a Replicant’s “baseline,” an unwavering commitment to secular materialism. Any attribution of emotion, poetry, or the divine to human experience is strictly forbidden.

We witness two such baseline tests in 2049. K passes the first test at the start of the movie when he believes the lie central to his existence: that Replicants do not have souls. After the events of the movie are set in motion, however, he finds this lie more and more difficult to believe and fails his second baseline test, the penalty of which is “retirement,” death. K fails the test when his faith in the soulless ontology of Replicants is challenged. This crisis inexorably leads him to a choice that requires autonomy and self-sacrifice.

Blade Runner 2049 is a story about choice. It explores how individuals choose to behave in light of a revelation none of us have full knowledge of. Lt. Joshi, K’s boss and overseer, learns of the Replicant child and wants to destroy it. Wallace wants to enslave it. The Replicants want to crown it. Deckard, the original film’s protagonist, wants to abandon it. And K (like all of us) tries to discover his place in the order of things in medias res.

Ultimately, K finds his humanity through choice, a choice informed by mimesis: the imitation of Christ. K willingly lays down his life, with wounds in his hand and side, as falling snow comingles with blood, a final sacrifice that echoes Isaiah’s prophetic vision (Isaiah 1:18). Though his memories are manufactured, his lifespan limited, and his reality a construct, K’s final nostos is more than his programming, more than “ones and zeros,” more than the strict determinism the world insists he is bound to. Is the Christian life so different? Does not the Christian pilgrim embark on a similar journey, one that promises redemption beyond the sin nature and the “patterns of this world” (Romans 12:2) when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and inhabit His character through faith? In the final analysis, K’s demonstration of “soul” and the metanarratives that inspire belief in word and deed occupy a central tenet of the Christian faith. That we witness the resurrection or behold the private miracle firsthand is not important. That we believe the testimony of the prophets, disciples, and apostles and act in kind is what matters. It is K’s belief in the “secondhand” miracle that allows him to be human, Christ-like in his sacrifice, and in possession of a soul. As Jesus himself declares, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Jeremiah Webster is Associate Professor of English at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. He has written critical introductions for the work of T.S. Eliot (Paradise in The Waste Land) and W.B. Yeats (A Rumor of Soul: The Poetry of W. B. Yeats), both published by Wiseblood Books. His poetry has appeared in North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Crab Creek Review,The Midwest Quarterly, Dappled Things, Anglican Theological Review, Rock and Sling, and elsewhere. After So Many Fires (Anchor and Plume) is his first collection.

Zach Boyd is a senior at Northwest University where he is studying English literature, bringing his classical high school education to fruition in pursuit of a B.A. in English. He resides in Redmond, Washington where he works as a digital marketing copywriter, creating and running digital funnels for tech startups.