Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The tracks of their tears: a closer look at the replicant faces of Blade Runner 2049

“The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.” — Book I, line 462 of Virgil’s Aeneid, Robert Fagles translation

Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) in Blade Runner 2049
[Here there be spoilers.]

Although it has been long established that non-human animal species exhibit displays of sorrow and grief, it still appears that humans are the only primate species which is capable of shedding tears. This is sometimes held out as a marker for our humanity, the way tool-making once was and the way complex language still is.

Now, I don’t buy into the idea that there is a defining behavior that sets humans apart from other animals. But I do believe that our ability to shed tears serves as an important signal of our humanity. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then tears provide a glimpse at that soul’s capacity to recognize the pain of others.

It is telling, therefore, that the only shedding of tears in Denis Villeneuve’s beautifully crafted new film, Blade Runner 2049, is done only by its non-human characters. These include, most notably, two synthetic human slaves known as replicants: the film’s protagonist an LAPD police detective K (Ryan Gosling), the blade runner of the film’s title, whose job it is to hunt down and “retire” rogue replicants, disobedient models from a bygone era; and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who serves the lethal girl Friday to the film’s arch-villain Niander Waller (Jared Leto) as well as K’s relentless adversary.

Advanced AIs, namely K’s digital companion Joi, also seem to be capable of the kind of deep personal connection that finds its expression in the welling of tears. As with the AI Samantha in the 2013 movie Her, Blade Runner 2049 challenges us to confront the question: at what point does digitally simulated emotion, designed with superb artifice and textured by the complexity of experience in the world, become the real thing. K, himself, struggles with this question even as Blade Runner 2049 comes to a close.

Yet it is the tears of the replicants that tell the tale at the heart of the new Blade Runner movie.
When we are introduced to K, he is on an assignment in the ecologically devastated wasteland that envelops LA, looking to retire an older model combat replicant. We see in K the embodiment of replicant sangfroid, cool and unfazed even in the aftermath of a harrowing hand-to-hand fight to the death with his “skinjob” target.

Level-headed and ever reserved, K is a careful observer of the non-synthetic humans around him, always calculating the correct response for any situation. He abides anti-replicant slurs without a hint of offense and even deftly handles a come-on from his police superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), whom he calls Madam. Although K and Madam enjoy a kind of illicit friendship, K’s reward for all his brilliant detective work is to be praised as a “good boy,” as though he were not much more than a well-behaved pet.

The main arc of the film is K’s struggle to deal with the emerging possibility that he has been womb-born and not simply a manufactured product of the Wallace Corporation like all other replicants. In his mind, being born would mean that he has a soul. It is this lack of a soul that deprives replicants of moral standing and makes them legitimate targets in K’s ethical universe.

The telltale change that indicates K’s transformation over the course of the film is in his relationship with his own memories. When asked to recall a memory from his early life early in the film, K is dismissive of the value of the question since such a memory is only an “implant,” a fictional story with which he has been equipped as part of the manufacturing process. But, as the film progresses, and as the reality of K’s seminal memory becomes more probable, a different person emerges. And the tears that he sheds as a response are the harbinger of his transformation.

But it is Luv’s struggle with her suppressed humanity and the tears she sheds as a result that speak to a deeper theme of the movie.

At first, it would be easy to dismiss Luv as not much more than Wallace’s diligent robotic henchwoman and to view the inevitable showdown between her and K as something like the duel between the newer model T-1000 and the older model terminator in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But in fact, Luv’s displays of arrogance, cunning, and wit make her the most human character in the film by far.

[I would add here that Sylvia Hoeks’s portrayal of Luv is what makes Blade Runner 2049 work as a film. It is the kind of performance that begs for a Best Supporting Actress award nomination.]

Early on in the film, we realize that Luv is somehow different when she has to stand by and witness the slaughter of a freshly manufactured replicant. Displeased with this failed replicant product, Wallace has taken a knife and gutted his creation. As Luv watches this horrible deed take place, she remains in place but sheds a tear, outward evidence of the pity and the rage that she is forced to contain within.

Luv’s trials points to what could be called the replicant’s torment: constrained by programming to obey the will of a heartless master, but never able to still an inner voice that cries out that what you are doing — or what you are seeing others do— is wrong.

This isn’t to say that Luv isn’t capable of acts of wanton cruelty — using rockets fired from an aerial drone she kills a dozen humans with casual nonchalance — but it makes sense that the anger she feels toward Wallace for making her commit unconscionable acts should find expression in her own brutality and petulant insistence of her own superiority.

Luv’s tears flow again in the film as she confronts Madam in her pursuit of K under orders from Wallace. Madam could well be Luv’s doppelganger; both have taken on the duty to maintain the order of the world by enforcing the wall that separates humans from replicants, and both unhappily endure the corrosive effects that this corrupt obligation has had on their souls, whether biological or synthetic. It is Luv’s recognition of herself in Madam that brings her to tears as she guts Madam with her knife after announcing the lie she might use to account for the killing to Wallace. It’s feels as though Luv is lying out loud to herself.

It is useful to consider a comparison of the film with the now three-deep Planet of the Apes franchise to look for broader meaning of this film. And it is not far-fetched to see Blade Runner 2049 as a sort of Dawn of the Planet of the Replicants. But this is not solely because of the insurrection against the established human order that it and its Dawn of the Planet of the Apes counterpart launch.

In both dystopian stories, humanity has pretty much run its sad moral course. The evidence is how humans fail to value the well-being of other sentient creatures: in the case of the Planet of the Apes series, it is the routine, inhumane treatment of fellow primate species; in the case of Blade Runner 2049, it is humanity’s casual disregard for the lives of their replicant slaves.

Ironically, in both stories, it is technology that both seals humanity’s fate and holds out hope for redemption of sorts. In the Planet of the Apes saga, through genetic engineering misadventure, humans end up handing dominion of the planet over to intelligent species of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. But in the process of losing control, humans give rise to the possibility of the reemergence of compassion in the world.

In Blade Runner 2049, technology also serves as the midwife for the birth of a successor race of synthetic human-like creatures. It is this successor race of replicants, though, which ultimately can redeem human sins by rediscovering the compassion we have lost. And it is their tears that tell us that hope for this redemption is still alive.
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