The Bleak Morality of ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Written for Acculturated

November 8th, 2017

I went to see Blade Runner 2049, last weekend, and three hours after I walked into the theater—yeah, you read that right, THREE hours—I walked out a bit deafer thanks to the gratuitously loud soundtrack and slightly unsettled from what I’d just seen. If the year 2049 is even remotely like the film, then we all should be worried. The dark and perturbing nature of the sequel to the 1982 sci-fi cult classic has led to its setting being referred to as a dystopic future, a term I don’t think quite does the movie justice. A better label would be a Manmade Future, for in this envisioning of years to come Man is god, and the world in which He inhabits is entirely His own creation. And Man’s creation is truly ugly, a perversion of nature.

Everything about the film serves to emphasize the secular nature of this world, with even the setting drawing attention to how man has left God and nature behind. The film opens in a wasteland, sand and dirt everywhere with only a few buildings dotting the landscape and one lone, dead tree. It is an ugly place, grimy and desolate, yet the bleak high-tech setting for the rest of the story leaves you longing for it. It may be dirty, but at least it bears some resemblance to the world we know and a reminder of the beauty of nature.

The action then moves to the cityscape that dominates the rest of the movie. Most of the film takes place in Los Angeles, which looks a bit different from the bright and optimistic City of Stars Gosling sang about in his last movie, La La Land. Imagine New York City, but darker and more ominous, with no Central Park or even trees or bushes to be found anywhere, and with architecture so modernistic and utilitarian that if the Bauhaus school could see it they would feel a pang of guilt over what they started. There is no beauty to be found in this city, where everything is manmade and everything is dreadful.

The one reprieve from the brutality of the city comes when the protagonist, K, goes to meet a woman who creates memories for the replicants to prevent the stress that would undoubtedly come from waking up one day as an adult with no knowledge of who they had been. He finds her in what appears to be a forest. After over an hour staring at varying shades of darkness, the sudden explosion of green on the screen is a surprising and welcome change. The sun cascades down through the thicket and it all just seems to be serene and peaceful. The special effects throughout Blade Runner 2049 are amazing, yet among all the futuristic scenery and imagery in the movie, this one scene depicting a simple forest is the most beautiful. And sadly it too is synthetic, merely an illusion that disappears in a flash to reveal a vast steel chamber where the memories are designed.

The world of Blade Runner 2049 is a modern Tower of Babel, a monument to humanity’s attempt to usurp God, that celebrates not only mankind’s virtues but also its vices. Secular morality is subject to the caprices of man, which are often more concerned with pleasure than righteousness, and with making life easier, even at the expense of others. Without some higher authority in place humans tend to turn primal à la Lord of the Flies.

Humanity’s inherent shortcomings in moral decision making are on full display in the film. Mankind mimics God by creating life, through the genetically engineered biorobotic androids known as replicants. But rather than treating their creations with love, humans promptly use the replicants as slave labor. Like God, Man seeks to give his creation a partner and helpmeet. But Man gives the replicants subservient, unthinking, unequal holographic spouses that have more of a master/servant relationship than a marital bond.

In an unusual reversal of roles, it is the replicants, not their creators, that have a true understanding of moral behavior, embracing ethereal values like the sanctity of life and self-sacrifice. This moral code is only possible because the replicants discover a cause higher than themselves. Despite being created incapable of reproduction, one of the replicants becomes pregnant and has a child. The replicants describe the birth as a miracle, and fight to protect the child. In another odd sort of twist on Christianity, it is the birth of this miraculous child that gives their lives meaning and purpose. The humans in the film lack this purpose, which is why they live only for themselves.