[Warning: The following review essay contains plot and character spoilers of the movies Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Read at your own discretion.]
Blade Runner 2049 as Symbol, not Prophecy
While I’m not sure I would recommend it to the impressionable, if, like me, you are a fan of the original Blade Runner, evading the sequel is simply not an option. There is a seamless esthetic continuity from the earlier to the latter film which shows a deft cinematic hand at work, and makes it a shoe-in for us nostalgic devotees of classic sci-fi. To be sure, the original film’s semi-comical portrayal of California-style corruption, cultural fragmentation, and class polarization has shifted further towards pure negativity, as fits a future world enduring steady economic and ecological degeneration, a world in which anyone who can afford the ticket moves off world. Thus, before we continue, I’ll remind you that your best bet, if you want a good night’s sleep and pleasant dreams, is to avoid dystopian films altogether. Still, for reasons soon explained, Blade Runner 2049 might just be worth the grief.
In what should have been an embarrassment, the original 1983 movie, set in the year 2019, is already short of its prophetic mark. There are, as yet, no off worlds for the rich and famous to escape to, though surely they are chomping at the bit and ready to pack. There are no “replicants” cloned quasi-humans serving in our military or walking our entertainment districts. Neither are there any “blade runner” police units designed to track down rogue replicants and liquidate those who fail an “empathy test.” None of this has caused the least concern to the producers of the 2017 sequel. Rather, the pseudo-history and narratives of the original, now a classic, have been respected and embellished upon.
Everybody will accept this without qualm. This will probably be attributed to the loyalty and fanaticism of Blade Runner fans, who, like Star Wars fans, are held liable to take anything that can be dished out. Yet in reality, prophetic accuracy has little to do with the appeal of Blade Runner. Rather, it portrays in excruciating detail a deeply symbolic, deeply religious, and deeply heretical understanding of the world in which we live, a world-view who’s articulation is is more significant than the prognostication of specific future events. If we want to understand Blade Runner, it behooves us to take a close look at the world-view underpinning its narrative.
Under today’s conditions of political correctness, Hollywood is not ready to churn out many films based on an orthodox Christian world-view. The closest we are liable to get are scripts based on a near-Christian belief system called “Gnosticism.” Now I know that some Christians will rail at this heresy and boycott anything that smacks of deviation from Biblical truth. However, given the importance of the cinema, I think we should be grateful for any opportunity which provokes thought on Christian themes, even if they are packaged in heretical garb. For example, the recent rendition of Noah was chock full of embelishments from both Gnosticism and Jewish folklore, but for someone who had never considered the moral issues which might have provoked a universal flood, it was an edifying view.
One thing that we can be certain of, and that is that the narrative basis of the Blade Runner saga was not concocted by someone hypocritically “playing with religion.” Rather, Philip K. Dick, who’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep provided the (loosely followed) basis for the films, took his Gnosticism very seriously, to the point where he disavowed originality in certain of his works, claiming to be inspired by trans-human personalities. And while I don’t know the spiritual views of the present films director, Riddly-Scott, who directed the original and advised the sequel, has had more than a dalliance with gnosticism. So does this make Blade Runner toxic for the orthodox Christian or a tool for greater discernment? Obviously I am touting the latter view, but this obligates us to take up the major themes of the movie, point by point, examining the gnostic doctrines embedded in the story and offering the orthodox alternative.
Three points of Gnostic doctrine in Blade Runner 2049: Their salience and their falsity.
There are, at least, three characteristic Gnostic doctrines which underlie the narrative of Blade Runner 2049: 1) the moral superiority of the immaterial over the material, 2) the primacy of deep time over creation, and 3) the level playing field between the forces of good and evil. Keep in mind that “gnostic” is just a category that modern scholars use to lump together a variety of religious movements, ancient and modern. One shouldn’t make too much of the word “gnostic” in itself, since it is simply a Greek word pertaining to knowledge. This doesn’t mean that heretics are smart and real Christians are supposed to be stupid. The Apostle Paul used the word “epignosis” or “full knowledge” to express the ideal condition of the believer. The Gnostic heretics (with a capital G) were, in contrast to Paul’s admonitions, advocates of knowledge which was either one-sided, elitist, or imperfect. There are an abundance of scholarly resources for anyone who wants to pursue the history of Gnosticism, but for us non-specialists the Blade Runner corpus (one novel and two movies) provides an entertaining and cautionary excursion into the Gnostic world-view.
Point One: Sweet Nothings
Since Blade Runner is an amalgam of the detective fiction and the science fiction genres, from the start we enter a world of hardened, embittered characters who’s humanity is questionable, whether or not they have been synthesized in the laboratory or born from the womb. It is this narrow, metallic, key-hole into the future which gives the series its dystopian flair. None of the characters are particularly empathetic, and even Dekard (Harrison Ford) only engages our attention due to his dogged professional integrity. Such, to be sure, is the stuff of hard boiled detective fiction, but Blade Runner carries the theme to ironic heights, since its central mechanism is the bullying, intrusive and literally dehumanizing “empathy test” which operates as a psychological sieve to separate natural humans from rogue replicants.
If you have seen the original movie you know how this works out. The sequel provides some unexpected relief, presenting us with a character who seems genuinely empathetic and likable, moreover one who is exempt from tests, since her status is beyond dispute. Her name is Joi, and she is neither a human being nor a replicant but an artificial intelligence, initially embedded in the circuitry of her master’s (Agent K’s) apartment, but early in the story liberated into a portable unit which enables her to accompany K’s misadventures in the physical world. K is a melancholy “tame” replicant who has been assigned blade runner duty for the Los Angeles police. It is Joi who is instrumental in fostering a sense of self-esteem in K, and indeed introducing him to the notion that he is more human than the humans.
The introduction of Joi as a major character changes and deepens the previous Blade Runner narrative, albeit in a direction which would no doubt have earned the approval of Phillip K. Dick himself. It also tips the hand of the storyteller (or storytellers) and reveals an important Gnostic premise behind the drama. With the introduction of Joi, the replicants are no longer the alien “others” who negatively define humanity. Rather, in the sequel, replicants and humans emerge as rival tribes of corporal beings, separated only by mode of creation/procreation and by class subordination. It is Joi who is the true alien, and in welcome relief, a good alien. Nor does it hurt, at least from a male (natural or artificial) point of view, that her holographic projection is easy on the eyes, a kind of pixie-in-the-ether who is the perfect Tinkerbell companion for a bad boy. Whether visible or barely audible (her ring-tone is the overture from Peter and the Wolf) she haunts the screen from beginning to end. Moreover, hers is a very benevolent haunting. Or is it?
Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this is the path along which Gnosticism wishes to lead our minds. Indeed, it may be the path our minds wish to take, independently of any Gnostic propaganda. The idea of being independent of material reality, not just for the joy (Joi?) of a painless Nirvana, but as a precondition of moral superiority, is perilously attractive. Furthermore, the idea that only a disembodied, ethereal being could be perfectly selfless, perfectly altruistic, has a certain inescapable logic to it. Unfortunately, such ideas imply the complementary notion that material existence is the source of all evil. To be sure, neither species of corporial being, human or replicant, come off very well in Blade Runner 2049. Some might dispute this, on the grounds of the revolutionary claptrap spouted by the replicant resistance, but I find it hard to believe that the replicant utopia would be much of an improvement on the tyrannical human status quo. In short, the narrative forces one into an attitude of pessimism for the future of corporal beings in general. That, my friends, is pure Gnosticism.
If it were not for revelation, and doctrines such as creation and the incarnation, reasoning heads would be hard put to refute the moral superiority of immaterial being. Yet even in the movie, we can see the insubstantial (pun intended) quality of the Gnostic thesis. By the end of the movie, K is confronted with a giant, pornographic advertisement in Joi’s image, and it seems to dawn on him that the lure of immaterial love is an illusion. Literally, a sweet nothing!
Point Two: The Great Creation Hijack
Although the Blade Runner formula may be described as two parts science fiction and one part detective mystery, none the less, we need to add a generous dash of Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein to season the brew. The story’s import hinges on an attitude which must shared by both producers audience, the notion that “something abominable is afoot.” To be sure, this sense of abomination would have been more clearly defined in 1983 than in 2017, but it persists. We can’t just dismiss this feeling as revulsion to the phenomenon of artificial life, sometimes called the “uncanny valley” effect, or the chagrin that one feels when one has been “faked out” by an AI bot posing as a human. Rather, it involves serious questions about human origins, questions which would arise even if the issue of artificial life were moot.
The loathsome Mr. Wallace, heir to Mr. Tyrell as CEO of the human-manufacturing cartel, is also heir to Tyrell’s role as villain. Just as Tyrell is less sympathetic than the original Dr. Frankenstein, Wallace is everything evil in Tyrell raised to the umpteenth power. From a Christian point of view we could say that Wallace is a cinematic representation of Satan. However, keeping in mind that Blade Runner is a work of Gnostic fiction, there are quite a few mythic details to fill in, keeping in mind that in Gnosticism the character and roles of God and Satan are frequently transposed. Without too much overstatement, we might say that in Gnosticism it is Satan (or a God very much like Satan) who has created the world, and the good God (the Christ-God) who has rebelled against him.
Satan or not, Wallace is assuredly the blind Gnostic creator-god. This has nothing to do, except symbolically, with the absence of eyes in his head, since Wallace has enhanced himself with visual sensors far surpassing the optical acuity of average humans. As the paragon of entrepreneurship Wallace is a creative visionary, yet his vision does not extend to omniscience nor does he have the power to thwart the designs of those who have either retained (Dekard) or discovered (Agent K) their faculty of free will. It is his blindness towards the outcomes of the future, and the associated impotence, which enrages Wallace, and he is apt to take out his frustrations in murderous retribution against his own creations.
Yet, even given the certitude that Wallace represents the principle of evil, the question of why, and indeed whether, the replicants are an abomination remains paramount. We can’t grapple with this issue without taking a side glance at the problems of creation and evolution. However rather than taking sides in an empirical dispute among natural scientific theories, let’s look at how each theory, assuming it were true, would effect the question of property rights, and specifically property rights as related to humans. This is the ethical dilemma which Blade Runner is forcing us to confront. It is not that we are dealing with Frankenstein monsters, but rather property rights over human beings, which to modern sensibilities is a more abominable condition than mere monstrosity.
Let us begin with the assumption that to make something is to own it. Some might dispute this premise, which was popularized by (not invented by) John Locke. Whatever you may think about it, this premise is a powerful assumption without which it is almost impossible to frame inquiries into the origin of rights. Now to a secular thinker the question “Who owns the universe?” would be dismissed as nonsensical. A theist who is not a creationist, might very well consider the question, but answer “nobody” since his god and the universe might exist co-eternally. However a consistent creationist, one who acknowledged what we call (for purposes of convenience) the Lockean principle, would have to admit that God owns the universe. This is, to unredeemed human beings, a terribly offensive statement, for it implies that, as creatures, we are owned by God.
Secularists, unless they are mad, understand that they are not the authors of their own existence. Rather, they ascribe their existence to procreation (sexual generation) and quite logically, extend the chain of procreation backward, effectively, towards infinity. Thus, at least to the satisfaction of their own mind, they are able to elude the tyranny of a God who has made them and owns rights over them. However they are not able to elude the principle of maker-rights, and in this case it is the rights of parents over children. Modernists were not the first to recognize and, quite rightly, condemn the abuses which once accompanied the practices of the patriarchal (and in some cases the matriarchal) principle, for in pagan society this amounted to the rights of life and death over one’s offspring. Modernity, which has engendered idolatry of a contrary ilk, has simply plagerized the Hebrew prophets’ diatribes against the child-devouring Molochs of antiquity.
In contrast, those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob affirm the creation of an initial pair of humans followed by an open ended sequence of generations which multiply through procreation. As illustrated by the story of the Binding of Isaac (which in Jewish traditon is called the Akedah) , God, not Abraham, has the ultimate power over Isaac’s life, but significantly, he did not use that power. Thus freedom, according to Judeo-Christian faith, is a space created by the dual authority of two principles and two processes: Natural and human law, creation and procreation.
However in the modern period, scientific utopians, jealous of God and inspired by the old golem myths of the kabbalists (Jewish Gnosticism) began to dream of the manufacture of artificial life, intelligent or otherwise. This reverses the formula of the Bible, so that procreation, rather than succeeding creation, proceeds it. The original Blade Runner gives artistic expression to this latter world-view, treating the theme with enough cynicism to render it dystopian. Finally, Blade Runner 2049comes full circle with the sequence procreation–>creation–>procreation.
This is a creationism of a Gnostic stripe, a blind manufacting set within the infinite time of a self-existent universe, a universe which provides working materials, but no blueprint for ethics. It should be evident that this is a formula for slavery rather than freedom. As dramatized by Blade Runner 2049, the creation of artificial humanity leads is portrayed as a tragic and barbaric act because Wallace is only a creating creature, not the uncreated Creator. He is the maker, or what the original Gnostics called the “demiurgos.” His ownership of his creatures is, in some sense, legitimate, yet it will tend in the direction of tyranny since, as inhabitants of the same time-space continuum, creator and creatures are related to one another in such a way that their self-interest is likely to come into conflict. Unlike God in the Sacrifice of Isaac, Wallace will not stay the knife.
Point Three: The Level Playing Field
Gnosticism shares a principle in common with detective fiction, the principle of suspense. This is good storytelling but bad theology. The Bible, for all it excellent qualities, is not a book of suspense. We can study the Scriptures in terms of its final purposes, from Revelation back to Genesis, or, as is more common, in chronological order. We need not fear offending the Author by reading out of sequence, for unlike Agatha Christie, Philip K. Dick, et al, He is outside of time, and his narrative is a done deal.
Neither Hollywood nor the market for pulp fiction can endure that kind of finality. That is why, even when Hollywood is trying its level best to speak with a Christian voice, it comes out garbled, and uttered in the idiom of Gnosticism. Hollywood knows that audiences crave suspense more than they crave the sovereignty of God. We want to see Dekkard or Agent K racing around in flying cars towards an uncertain destiny. We will put up with a dissonant soundtrack that sounds like it badly needs a trip to the muffler shop, precisely because it grates on our nerves and puts us “on edge” expecting the next twist of the apocalypse. Most of all, we don’t want to see the devil completely defeated, because if he is, that means there will be no sequel.
Indeed, Gnosticism has its own “fairness doctrine” in which there is a god of good and a god of evil, and they get to slug it out, perhaps with occasional intermissions and a half-time show. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob looks down from heaven, and he laughs! What a laugh He must have at fools such as us, if we think that the future of the world is somehow up for grabs. True, Satan is in some sense the god of society, but God is the author of nature. In any contest between nature and society there can no doubt as to the outcome.
Still, that doesn’t stop people from trying. One of the distinctive qualities of the both Blade Runner films is how they picture the near abolition of nature by society and technology. It is the hyper-urban atmosphere which lends these films their sinister beauty, their portrayal of a world in which even the rural landscapes are nothing more than extended city skylines, factories or wastelands. None the less, even if the Devil seems to be winning on the level of esthetics, the narrative is forced to bow a knee towards the final victory of the good. In the end (I warned you about spoilers, right?) the son dies for the father, and the sacrifice seems to clear the way, if not for the ultimate victory of good over evil, at least for a sequel to the sequel. All in all, pretty good for a Gnostic flick. Personally, I would give it a five-star rating.
That is, five stars by the standards of this world. Keep in mind that father Abraham, gazing at the sky, counted a lot more than five.
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