(note: absolutely massive spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 are within)
When I’m seeing Harrison Ford in anything, it’s hard to miss the fact that most of the time, he’s Harrison Ford playing Harrison Ford. Han Solo is Snarky Space Pirate Harrison Ford. Indiana Jones is Snarky Pulp Hero Harrison Ford. James Marshall is Beset President Get Off My Plane Harrison Ford. Et cetera. So for a long time I kind of assumed that Rick Deckard was merely Jaded And Monotone And Somewhat Depressed Harrison Ford.
After seeing Blade Runner 2049, I’m not so sure that’s true.
I don’t actually want to talk about Harrison Ford here, or indeed Rick Deckard so much, so let’s switch tracks and get into memories and emotions.
In an AI story, obviously one of the things you’re going to have to deal with at some point is emotion. Can artificial life feel and if so how does it do that is such a done question as to be past the point of trope and into the territory of cliche, but I always thought that Blade Runner put a somewhat novel spin on that by linking memory to the inevitable development of emotion, with implanted memories functioning as a kind of cushion for the potential chaos of emotions emerging in a mind that never experienced the emotional development of childhood or adolescence.
It resonates with me in significant part because of what it implies: that who we are is determined by who we were on a level far deeper than people often mean. That, because our experiences determine how we make sense of the world, we would be unable to make sense of the world without them.
The deepest level on which people make sense of things is the level of emotion. If emotions don’t make sense, then nothing does, and if you don’t believe me, ask someone whose emotions are somewhat off the rails in some way.
You can ask me, because I have cyclothymia, and because I spent a significant part of my adolescence in an abusive family environment. I’ve seen some shit. I see some shit. I know.
I’ve always liked Ryan Gosling, always thought he was a competent actor, but on Sunday night I walked out of the theater having witnessed something pretty special.
It would be easy to watch Gosling’s performance in this film and call it “wooden”. It would be easy to call it “emotionless”. That’s not an accident, and it’s not bad acting, or at least I sincerely doubt it. Gosling spends the entire film looking and behaving like someone who does in fact feel things very intensely, but has a very stunted idea of what to do with those feelings, how to express them, how to process them. When he breaks – in longing, in fear, in grief, in bewildered rage – it is to some degree always explosive, even if it’s quietly so, because K does not know how to not explode.
There’s no midpoint setting for him. It’s nothing until it’s everything.
K’s implanted memories are enough to “cushion” him. He’s socialized well enough to function, to do his job, to be minimally part of human society without breaking down. But minimal is the key here. His apartment is essentially devoid of personal effects – of course it is, because the personal experiential history that would motivate someone to accumulate personal effects is not in fact his own, and he knows it.* He has no history. All he has are memories he explicitly understands to be false, and that’s been the case for his entire short existence.
Imagine what that’s going to do to a being capable of feeling emotion. Imagine how much that would fuck with your head, every waking second of every day.
He has no close emotional ties, no friends – except Joi, who is, if anything, even more artificial than he is. She’s not materially present,** and until K purchases a holographic emitter, she’s unable to leave his apartment. Yet he’s desperate to be close to her, both emotionally and physically, and the one love scene they share (I think it’s highly significant that we see hardly any of it) struck me as far more about that yearning for closeness and intimacy than any real sexual desire.
(Quick sidebar, which could be an essay in itself: Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most asexual films I’ve ever seen. Yes, there’s copious female nudity, but it’s either utilitarian or sexy in a way that’s profoundly desexualized. The only moments of what most people would consider typical movie sexiness are aggressively unsexy and frequently grotesque, if not outright nightmarish (I’m thinking here of the gigantic female statues in post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, which looked to me like figures in a Zdzisław Beksiński painting – see right). The most powerfully erotic moments are about emotion. K reads to me as entirely demisexual; he feels sexual desire for Joi because he’s bonded more closely to her than to anyone else he’s ever known.
I want to set this aside from the rest of my point, because I don’t want to be mistaken as connecting asexuality to stunted emotional development. It’s simply another aspect of the film that I think is important and shouldn’t be ignored.)
Point is, K is emotional. He could not be more emotional. The scene that truly cracked that open for me is the moment at which he discovers that his implanted memories, which he always believed were artificially constructed, did in fact happen (not to him, as you know if you’ve seen the film, but he assumes they did). It’s like seeing a human volcano erupt, an emotional spring coiling and coiling until it snaps free – K quivers, tears welling in his eyes, until he hurls himself into anguished howls. It’s not even only anguish; Ryan Gosling somehow manages to inject discrete elements of horror, terror, rage, and relief into a few moments of silent, motionless weeping followed by a few more moments of screaming and violent physical movement. It’s fucking majestic, and it’s gutting to watch.
And that’s when I started noticing: K isn’t the only replicant we see unable to healthily process intense emotion, or to express it in ways that come off as, well, off. Just as it would be easy to dismiss K as wooden, it would be easy to dismiss Luv as a cold terminator-type, but that would be a serious misreading of what we actually see. Luv is every bit as desperate as K, and her desperation only increases as the story progresses. She’s in tears as she kills Lt. Joshi; I interpreted those tears as coming from much the same painfully confused place as K’s did.
It’s a moment of intense intimacy between these two women, though it’s intimacy of a very particular kind. They look at each other, and each of them understands exactly what they’re seeing. Each acknowledges the truth of the other; that one of them is killed and one does the killing ultimately doesn’t matter except inasmuch as close-quarters killing is always going to be perversely intimate.
I was talking to my sister about this earlier, and she said something that I think is key to parsing who Luv is and why she’s doing what she’s doing: The last thing she says before she dies is “I’m the best one.” That’s not cold cockiness, and it’s not contempt or scorn. It’s a moment of pure, triumphant affirmation for her. She was created to be a thing that does a thing; her entire existence is a task, and for her, the legitimacy of her existence is hopelessly bound up in what she can do and how well she can do it. She’s a tool, fine; she wants to be the best tool.
For K, his worth is found in finally disobeying orders he believes to wrong and in dying for what he believes is right. Luv finds her sense of worth in completely the opposite place. In the end, both of them find that worth alone. They’re both denied the emotional connection they needed, although K does have it for a preciously short time.
There’s a level on which this is somewhat bland. There’s also a level on which it’s very much not.
One of the most important through-lines this film and its predecessor share is the way in which both principal antagonists regard replicants as their “children”. It’s important for a lot of reasons, but for my purposes it’s important for one very specific reason, which is that their children are the direct product of how they’ve been treated by their parents.
Tyrell and Wallace are both the abusive, neglectful fathers of abused, neglected children, and it shows most piercingly in how their children process – and fail to process – emotion. This manifests a bit differently in each film, and I’d argue much more clearly in the second, but it’s always there. As fathers, they appear to imagine themselves as benevolent and caring, at least to some degree. When Tyrell finally encounters Roy Batty, at first he’s gentle with his prodigal son. What he doesn’t understand until it’s far too late is that Roy really has come looking for his father. He wants more life, but he also wants to understand why he’s alive at all, what his value is, what he’s worth, and he needs that worth to be more than the sum of his use.
He was never truly loved, never valued, and when he’s brought face to face with that, he reacts how you should expect. Throughout the rest of the film he’s a burning core of wildly expressed emotion, boomeranging from rage to grief to glee to pain to scorn to hatred and finally to peace. As with K, he’s all or he’s nothing. He’s calm or he’s tearing the world apart.
Replicants exist in an uncomfortable limbo between having a parent and having none, between knowledge of a distant and detached creator and the knowledge that they’ve always been alone. There’s obviously a god-thing going on here, and it’s not especially subtle, but there are also deeper questions at work regarding what this limbo actually does to a thinking, feeling entity. Implanted memories might function as a cushion, but they don’t make up for a parent who was never there, and they don’t paper over the knowledge that you were created to be a thing with no other purpose beyond the purely functional.
The horror in which replicants live is to be fully and completely aware of all of this, of the falseness of the experiences that were given to them to train their feelings, and of their inability to be genuinely close to anyone.
Blade Runner is telling a story in significant part about how ruinous it is to be denied a personal history. Survivors of child abuse have been denied the same thing in a lot of ways: the time in which children are supposed to be learning what it is to feel healthy emotion and form healthy connections is disrupted and destroyed, and difficulty in processing intense emotion is a common result. That includes difficulty in understanding what emotions even are, in the task of articulating them to oneself. What we can’t articulate or understand, we can’t control. And intense emotion is terrifying, because intense emotion hurts.
K isn’t behaving like an android with clumsily developed feelings and implanted memories. K is behaving like an abused child who has no idea what he’s worth, no idea what’s going on in his head and heart, and no idea what any of it means, and the very nature of his creation is forcing him to deal with it alone. That said, Joi isn’t an artificial substitute for a “real” partner; indeed, because of who and what she is, she’s in a position to empathize with him better than anyone else in his life ever could. But she’s in the same boat.
Joi is something of a missed opportunity here, because we never get to explore how she understands herself. We never get to find out if she has any memories of any kind, how she processes them if she does, how she feels about their absence if they aren’t there. She actually seems to be better grounded than K in a lot of ways; is that merely programming, or something more? If she has no implanted memories, that might actually be why she appears to have a better grip on herself; she hasn’t been lied to on any level, or coercively forced to internalize lies. In a sense, she might be free from a shattered un-past in a way K isn’t.
K’s entire life is abuse. His identity is founded on abuse, because there’s nothing more existentially abusive than to know for a fact that the person who made you never loved you as anything more than a product and is content to let you suffer and die. His psyche was formed through the violation of lies, and he wasn’t even allowed to believe they might be true. I don’t think you can really understand his character – or Luv’s, or any of the other replicants featured in either film – outside of that frame.
His reaction to finding out that his memory of the horse and the furnace is a genuine one is something I keep coming back to, not merely because he’s reacting to the realization that this memory was real and was his, but because in that moment, K is hurtling headlong into the realization that he had a childhood at all.
His memories? Real. His history? Real. His identity? Real. He is real, and he’s real in a way he never thought possible. Watching K in that scene is like watching a second birth. It’s violent, and messy, and unspeakably frightening.
And it only makes it more horrible when he’s confronted with the fact that the memories weren’t his. The ground is smashed out from under his feet in the most brutal possible way. He’s not real after all. None of it was real – or it was, but it was never truly his. He’s been robbed of absolutely everything, all over again, and for that reason, aside from the scene in which he visits Stelline, the scene in which he comes face to face with a giant blank-eyed Joi is probably the most important scene in the film. Looking up at her, knowing that she’s a lie on every possible level, he discovers that even the name she gave him was part of an advertisement. Even that much was never real.
What do you do after that, except die?
How do you die?
The child abuse theme isn’t confined to replicants. We see it in the orphanage when Mister Cotton explains his ethic: that play is acceptable and even encouraged but only because it has practical utility, and that work is the only thing that gives a child any genuine worth. There’s a much longer piece to be written here about the dehumanization inherent in capitalism and the reduction of human identity to the quantifiable value of labor, but if it hasn’t already been written in some form or another – and I’m guessing it has – I don’t think I’m going to be the one to write it, and this thing is long enough already. Suffice to say that, while Blade Runner 2049 is about a lot of things, one of the things it’s most about is personal history and emotion, and what happens to the latter when the former is broken or damaged – or, perhaps even worse, an utterly shameless lie.
“More human than human” is a key phrase in the first Blade Runner, and it ushers in a host of typical SFnal questions about what being human truly is, about how we know ourselves through the lens of legitimatized or illegitimatized humanity. One of the answers both films offer is in death – in Roy’s and in K’s – and in how we die and what we die for. If death is the only thing that gives life any meaning, then we can’t understand our stories through our histories anyway. We only understand our stories once they’re over, and most of the time it’s up to the living to make some kind of fractured sense of it all.
But we need our memories. We need to know where we came from. We need those stories in order to feel real. When we’re denied them, or they go horribly wrong, it breaks us inside.
The missing story I’m left most wanting to know is Rachael’s. If Deckard is a replicant, then Tyrell was lying and Rachael wasn’t the first to receive false memory implants, but we already know Deckard’s story. I want to know how Rachael made sense of things, and how she made sense of her own child, knowing that her child was going to have what she herself never did – or did, but knew was never really hers.
And I want to know what she thought in the moment she understood that she wasn’t going to be there to remember it.
* It’s worth noting that the accumulation of personal effects is an important side plot point in the first film, and for replicants who don’t have any implanted memories. “Did you get your precious photos?”
** In retrospect, one of the most quietly poignant moments in the entire film is when Joi asks K to remove his feet from a chair so she can sit down, and he does so without batting an eye. He treats her as a material being even though she’s not, and I think it’s probably mostly unconscious on his part. He treats her that way simply because he wants so much for it to be true.
Thank you.I am studying things like this now and it helps a lot. Growing up I never really understood emotions, I emulated what I saw around me and copied what I read in books and understood people through the lens of the stories I read. My modelled emotions became more detailed over time and served well enough but they were always slightly greyer as if felt through a fog. Just in the last few years it feels like the emulation became detailed enough and the processor fast enough that I have turned from a puppet into a real boy. I now have emotions I never had before and am struggling to cope with some of them without them damaging things around me. This all helps the process a lot.
An excellent, insightful read. Thank you.
I came back and read this again after seeing the movie last night and it is so powerfully RIGHT. Man, this is wonderful. Thank you.
Truly, one of the best fundamental insights into this amazing movie. Thanks!
Good timing on someone commenting and bringing this back to my attention…
I’ve discovered a lot about myself on the journey reading this article has been part of the last AlmostYear.
Otherwise more background watching, the Netflix series “Another Life” has an AI clearly masking and then having an autistic meltdown from oversensation combined with an inability to process new emotions, something I recognise so clearly in myself now.
He was going along fine and seemed completely functional until the threshold was crossed.