“And death my destination.”
Have you seen the new Blade Runner movie? I have. That’s fairly unusual for me; I don’t watch many movies in the theaters. In this case, I got invited, and so I went. Some number of stars out of five, I enjoyed the experience. Therefore, I’ll do my proper duty and write a review. What do you mean, this has nothing to do with therapy? I can be fun-loving, too.
To start, let’s try and get the plot down on paper. Some of you may have watched the film, some may have not, so this’ll get everyone on the same page and make certain you watched the movie I watched. Here goes:
(We learn what replicants are.) Ryan Gosling goes to visit a garlic farmer, and because he has orders, kills the farmer. (Because he is a replicant, the farmer has to die. Because Ryan Gosling is a replicant, he has to kill the farmer.) He then finds a makeshift coffin under a dead tree. He’s done what he came there for, so he goes back to his office. He takes a test, and because he passes it, he is allowed to go home. (Because he is a replicant, he has to take this test.) At home, he has a computer program as a girlfriend. (Because he is a replicant, he can’t have a real girlfriend.) Because she loves him, she puts on images of good female partnership. Because he loves her, he gives her the means to leave her home. They kiss in the rain, but because he gets called into work, he has to stop in the middle of it. (Because he is a replicant, he has to leave her there.)
At work, the makeshift coffin has been recovered. It contains a mother’s bones. (The mother is a replicant.) Ryan Gosling’s boss gets frightened. Because she is frightened, she yells at him and tells him to find and kill the child. (Replicants do not have children. Because they do not have children, they will not rebel. Because they will not rebel, they can be forced to work. If the first proposition becomes false, all the others will become false. If you know anything about formal logic read this over five times.)
Because he needs to learn about the mother, Ryan Gosling goes to a human factory. (Because replicants can’t have children, they need to be produced. Because they can’t raise children, they need to be raised.) He is shown around by the secretary of the owner of the factory. (The mother-replicant disappeared from records a long time back, so the owner of the factory tells his secretary to do this.) He listens to a conversation between the mother and the father. Because there is no more information there, he goes home. The secretary goes to collect the bones of the mother, and finds out she was a mother. Because she was a mother, the factory-owner orders his secretary to follow Ryan Gosling and find the child. (Because humans must settle off-world, they need many replicants. Because replicants are made, they cannot have children. Because replicants cannot have children, there cannot be many replicants. But humans need many replicants. Therefore, replicants must have children.) Because the factory owner is blind, he sees with machines.
Ryan Gosling finds out where the child must have been raised, and goes to visit there. He is attacked. Because the secretary is under orders, she orders a missile strike on his attackers. (Because she is a replicant, she doesn’t mind killing.) He meets the man who runs the child-raising center. The man refuses to give information, so Ryan Gosling threatens him. The man tries to give information, but cannot. Ryan Gosling remembers being there. Because of this, he goes searching for something from his memories. He finds a toy horse, so he knows his memories were true. Because he knows his memories were true, he knows he was the child. (Replicants were never children. Their memories of childhood were fake. If one’s memories aren’t fake, one must have been a child. If one was a child, one is not a replicant.)
Ryan’s memories are real, he goes to ask the person who makes memories. She tells him his memories are real. The child is special. Because he is the child, his girlfriend tells him he is special. They want to have sex, but because she is not real, Ryan Gosling has sex with a hooker with his girlfriend’s image overlaid onto her. He finds out where the toy horse was made, and goes there. He meets Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford is the child’s father, so he is Ryan Gosling’s father. Because the child is special, people want it. Because they want it, they will want Harrison Ford as well. Because of this, he hides in a fancy hotel. The secretary finds him, and goes and gets him. Harrison Ford is captured, and Ryan Gosling is injured, but then saved by the hooker and her friends.
They tell Ryan Gosling that he is not the child. Harrison Ford can help the factory-owner find the child, so he needs to be killed. Ryan Gosling needs to be the one to do it. (If replicants can have children, they will rebel.) Ryan Gosling goes off to kill Harrison Ford.
The secretary is escorting Harrison Ford, so she needs to be killed before Harrison Ford can. Ryan Gosling kills her. Instead of killing Harrison Ford, he saves Harrison Ford. Ryan Gosling knows who the child is. (Because he is a replicant, he was not a child. Because he was not a child, his memory of childhood was fake. But the memory of childhood was true. Therefore, the one who gave him the memory must be the one for whom the memory was true. Think this over carefully, and not for the plot point.) Ryan Gosling takes Harrison Ford to see the memory-maker. Ryan Gosling stays outside, and dies in the snow.
First thoughts: “Man, this guy sucks at writing out plots.” Guilty as charged. But hold up a moment: why was this so boring? This was basically what went on in the film, after all. I missed out on the (admittedly gorgeous) visuals and the (rather stunning) audio, but apart from that (and anyone’s name), what was missing? After reading this, you could have a pretty intelligent conversation with most people about the plot of the film. “Everything was spelled out too much.” Yes, exactly.
At the start of Blade Runner the Second, we get exactly one slide’s worth of text to clue us into the setting, into the context of this entire story. It reads:
“Replicants are bioengineered humans. Designed by Tyrell Corporation for use off-world. Their enhanced strength made them ideal slave labor.
After a series of violent rebellions, their manufacture became prohibited and Tyrell corp went bankrupt.
The collapse of ecosystems in the mid 2020s led to the rise of industrialist Niander Wallace, whose mastery of synthetic farming averted famine.
Wallace acquired the remains of Tyrell corp and created a new line of replicants who obey.
Many older model replicants — Nexus 8s with open-ended lifespans — survived. They are hunted down and ‘retired’.
Those that hunt them still go by the name…
I only had to Google it and I found the transcript. Isn’t the internet lovely? But anyway, what are the key points here? Replicants are fake-human slave-labor, the world has gone even more to shit than it had before, and runaways are being actively hunted. Oh, and this is the name of the franchise, by the way. Savor this, because I think it’s a full 50% of the times the term “Blade Runner” is used in the entire film.
Now imagine what the opening sequence of the film would have been like without it:
Ryan Gosling goes to visit a garlic farmer, and because he has orders, kills the farmer. He then finds a makeshift coffin under a dead tree. He’s done what he came there for, so he goes back to his office.
Wait. Think about it even more: you see, early on, the serial number in the guy’s eyes. It would have been easy to fit in some casual worldbuilding, namedrop replicants once or twice, we’d all be clued in. The collapsed, shitty world is easy to figure out just by seeing a single shot of the city. Everything’s in position. What does this mean? They cared so much about that context being in our heads that they wouldn’t let us see one single scene without it. In order for the story to make sense, we needed to be given that context. That makes the next interesting question: what does the story look like without that context?
Oh, how convenient. If you read through my plot summary above and skip every parenthesized section, you get the narrative without the context.
Does that start to look pretty weird? Well, it ought to: nothing makes sense outside of context. Context normalizes things to a certain frame of reference. Take away the context, and nothing should look normal, because there is no normal. Whatever normalcy starts to creep back in isn’t some grand, overarching typicality, but is just the standards we have from our everyday lives. Assuming anything close to basic humanistic principles, what does the opening scene look like now?
Ryan Gosling goes to visit a garlic farmer, and because he has orders, kills the farmer. (Killing people is wrong. Orders to kill people should be disobeyed. The man was just a solitary farmer.) He then finds a makeshift coffin under a dead tree. (Exhuming the dead is sacrilege. He’s destroying someone’s eternal rest, their final dignity.) He’s done what he came there for, so he goes back to his office. (It’s just a day’s work to him.)
This is not the story of a couple slaves duking it out in a depressing and corrupt system. This is the story of a complete and utter monster going out and murdering a farmer. Let me put it this way: if Ryan Gosling were a Nazi and the garlic farmer a Jew, our main criticism of the scene would be that it was too hackneyed, that it tried to play up Gosling’s inhumanity too hard.
And yet… you kind of sympathize with Gosling’s position, don’t you? You see how hard it would be for someone in his position not to do what he’s doing, right? The whole damn world’s working against him. He was literally created to go murder people. Of course he’s fucked up and doesn’t see why doing things like that is wrong. Those humanistic values are great, but there are a lot of gray areas, and it’s hard to say that things are wrong categorically. It’s a tough, tough spot, and in a real sense, Gosling’s as much the victim in this scenario.
Let me correct one thing, here: you do not sympathize with Ryan Gosling. You empathize with him. There is a big difference, and the difference is that you are not reacting to how he feels, but rather that you know exactly how he feels.
Making certain that sinks in: you have been that kind of valueless monster in the past. That is the only reason you can look at and think of his actions without visceral disgust. The only thing that’s different between you and Gosling is scale, not kind. You may not have murdered someone in front of you, but you know just what it’s like to obey orders which tell you to do the wrong thing. Side note: it feels like something inside you is dying. That’s not a mistake.
Also not a mistake is that I’ve been calling him Ryan Gosling this whole time. I know he has a name, or rather, a couple of them. But he’s not any of them. He’s Ryan Gosling, and Ryan Gosling is the everyman. Get it?
This, by the way, is why the movie is even remotely interesting. It’s not because of the plot, because I wrote that above and it’s boring as sin. Oh, all right, yes it’s remarkable just to see and hear, and the sheer aesthetic impressiveness is good enough reason to go check it out, but the rest of it catches our attention as well. Why should it? It’s about fake humans doing fake human things. There’s no relevance to us real humans and our real lives. The context should just feel banal and irrelevant, like how some older fiction just bores the hell out of us. Ever read Pilgrim’s Progress? It was a hit when it came out. No, seriously.
So: if banal and irrelevant stuff bores us, then relevant and cogent stuff should catch our attention. What was Blade Runner about, again?
I’ll show my hand: what you hopefully just felt was my biggest takeaway from the movie, and if interpreted through that lens, most of the weird shit that was in the movie starts to make sense. Why is there that obsession with sex and reproduction? Oh, it’s because millennials aren’t having kids, or for that matter, even getting laid. Can’t get to Mars if they don’t have kids! And that fake girlfriend? Well, do you think any of those kids can have real relationships? Best they can do is put on the right clothes and pretend they aren’t eating TV dinners and fuck each other like the girl’s a whore and the guy’s a john and really try to believe that what they’re doing is love. Oh, and Harrison Ford? He lives in a neoclassical luxury orgasm casino-esque radioactive ground zero. It’s trying to be from the 20s, and he’s headed off to lurk there now that he’s gotten old, but he’s not from the 20s. He doesn’t even know what whiskey’s supposed to taste like. And what a surprise that he can’t manage to go see his kid. The list goes on.
(Also: we take it for granted that Elon Musk is the villain in this film, and we aren’t doing anything about him in real life. No, I’m not saying Mr. Musk is a supervillain, I’m saying that it’s plausible enough for the trope to show up in a blockbuster and that we still have utterly no response to it. It’s beyond just cackling-evil science guy, it’s a popular and useful tech entrepreneur who’s very very interested in space. How can that be? Spoiler: it’s the same reason superhero movies are making a big comeback.)
2049 is a poor choice of title for the movie. What they meant was 2017. And when they said replicants, they weren’t talking about bioengineered superhumans. They were talking about us.
I really, really don’t want to belabor the point on this lens of interpretation, because it’s really just rehashing the whole uncanny deal, and other people have written about the uncanny much better than I have. What’s more, once you have the key, you really can just go through the whole film by yourself and see how things line up. Hint: start by eliminating all the context, so that you can put it in light of your own everyday context. Not everything needs to fit perfectly, just enough that you can see why it all makes sense.
But most of all, it only tells us what we already know. We can get rid of the context and substitute in our own, but that leaves the narrative. If we try to overlay a totally alien context, like decent human values, we just get constant and unmitigated revulsion, because nothing from the narrative in that context can possibly make sense except as an image of pure evil. There’s no need to just review material from our own daily lives. So instead, let’s break the narrative.
No, I don’t mean “break the narrative of…” as used by anyone trying to spin a story. I mean something far simpler. Look back at the plot, one more time. Notice anything funny about how much the word “because” keeps coming up? That’s not on account of me not knowing synonyms. “Because” is the way that narratives are constructed. Without the “because,” a story is nothing more than a string of sequential facts. Let’s look at that opening line again:
Ryan Gosling goes to visit a garlic farmer. He has orders to kill the farmer. He kills the farmer. He then finds a makeshift coffin under a dead tree. He then goes back to his office.
First: yes, the facts selected imply the narrative. That’s just part of the territory. However, when contrasted with the explicit string of “because”s, we see the narrative begin to break up. Does Ryan Gosling kill the farmer because he only follows orders, or because he doesn’t understand his own initiative? Does he go back because he’s finished what he came there to do, or because there’s nothing left to do there? There are differences between these, and they’re critical.
Deeper: is it because Ryan Gosling is a cog in the machine that he has to do the things he does, or is it because he has to do the things he does that he’s a cog in the machine? Remember who Ryan Gosling is.
Context is only the second stage of justification for why we do what we do. The first stage is just the narrative. “I did this because…” Stop. There is only one way to finish that sentence which is true, and it is “…I am the kind of person who does this.” Truth in tautology, yes, but isn’t the Delphic inscription to know thyself? The proper use of “because” is in the future tense. “Because I don’t want to do this, I will…” Fill in the blanks.
Why do we empathize with Ryan Gosling? Because we’ve gotten ourselves into his position, or rather, kept ourselves stuck in his position: we’ve built the narrative that it’s the horrible, gritty world that’s forcing us to do things the way we do them, and so it isn’t our fault. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Yeah, but you choose the fucking games you play, don’t you? Russian Roulette’s always on the table.
Did you catch it? That’s a narrative. “Because we tell ourselves these narrative structures, we’re stuck in this awful position.” Flip it into future tense, turn it on its head, and you get…
Well, you get therapy.
Recommended reading: Alone’s literary criticism.