Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (BR 2049) follows on from Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film Blade Runner in the same sci-fi style and authenticity. What is the significance of nature and eyes in the film, and what does it tell us about the human condition? Welcome to part 1 of the analysis.
The article contains spoilers
Villaneuve calls us to question technological progress at the environment’s cost. The post-apocalyptic world that he has created is, unsurprisingly, mostly devoid of nature. But in such a world, nature’s occasional presence is only made more significant. The yellow flower under the dead tree outside Sapper’s house leads Officer K (played by Ryan Gosling) to discover the box containing Rachel’s remains. The yellowness re-appears in Vegas, where Officer K encounters bees (perhaps for the first time) on his way to find Deckard. The bright colour perhaps a symbol for Officer K’s enlightenment in his quest to find meaning to his life. Like Officer K, we are also called to question the purpose of our lives.
The constant presence of rain or snow in BR2049 is an allusion to the original film, and signifies the presence of mother nature. In Roy’s death scene in that film, he says “all those memories will be lost, like tears in the rain”. The loss and creation of memories are polar opposites, just like rain and snow. It is therefore fitting that it is constantly snowing outside Dr Stelline’s home (played by Carla Juri) – the home of the world’s best memory creator. The fact that nature responds in this way suggests that despite humanity’s efforts to transform the world, and even ‘play God’, mother nature and God still rules supreme.
The symbolism of water extends beyond the presence of rain. Luv, Wallace’s replicant enforcer, drowns. This symbolises the force of the natural overcoming the artificial – despite the replicants’ advanced physical abilities, they ironically succumb to the most basic element of life. Similarly, Joi, which is Officer K’s holographic companion, succumbs to rain and ‘buzzes’ in and out of existence in it. Villaneuve makes us aware that nature is most powerful, defeating the most powerful of our man-made creations.
On this point, perception is an ongoing theme in BR 2049. Eyes played an important role in the original film – Tyrell’s large glasses ironically reflected his myopic view on the impact of his greed and unchecked technological progress. The Voight-Kampff test was used to check for pupil dilation to determine whether one was human or replicant. Contrast this to BR 2049 where Sapper’s tiny glasses perhaps show his foresight rather than myopia. Sapper does not need a strong prescription to have a vision. In his dying moments, he comments, “You have not seen a miracle” and questions Officer K “what is it like to kill your own kind?” The inversion of the motif of the glasses similarly inverts the assumption that humans, the creator, are more powerful than replicants, the created. The myopic human in the original film is contrasted with the foresight of the replicants in the second.
In BR 2049, the fact that eyes continue to play an important role is perhaps Villaneuve’s way of calling us to question whether we actually know what we can and can’t see in our world. Do we truly know what the impact of our actions will be?
It has been said that eyes are the windows to the soul. The memory archives in Wallace Corporation materialise this metaphor. The archives contain eye-shaped globes which, once put into the computer, reveal the last few minutes of that particular replicant’s life. It is in this pivotal moment that Officer K learns of Rachel and Deckard’s relationship. Similarly, Dr Stelline’s ‘memory catcher’ device seems to be aimed at Officer K’s eyes as she views the memory that Officer K has in his mind. When Luv starts firing grenades into the wasteyard, narrowly missing Officer K, she wears a black VR headset that covers her eyes, symbolising the opaqueness of her true intentions.
Eyes also signify vision. Niander Wallace’s (played by Jared Leto) eyes stand out in an eerie green, green signifying greed, yet despite his eyes’ prominence, he cannot see. Wallace is not only physically blind, but he is also blind to his conscience and to nature. He cannot see the impact of his greedy vision on the world. This is shown by his blatant disregard for his replicants’ wellbeing – killing one almost the second it had been created, in the most vulnerable state it could possibly be. He is focused on commercial greed alone, to find out how replicants could possibly reproduce, so that his replicant production could multiply and further his off-world projects. However, due to his inability to see through the flaws in his plan – and realise that the replicants actually had a soul and plan of their own – Wallace’s attempt to achieve God-like status fails.
The internal struggle
BR 2049’s protagonist, Officer K, is the latest generation replicant specially designed to retire the older models. However, in many respects he is not the lone super hero we expect to find in a science fiction film.
Rather than knowing his role and saving the world, he is on a quest of self-discovery.
Officer K longs to be human. The discovery that Rachel (a replicant) had given birth to a baby troubles Officer K and his commanding officer, Lt Joshi. When ordered by Lt Joshi to destroy all trace of Rachel’s baby, he asks her whether that would be different to terminating other replicants – because something that was born would have a ‘soul’.
The dichotomy between soul and soulless, real and unreal, is again brought to the forefront by Officer K’s question. What does it mean to have a soul? By this point, the audience has developed a connection with Officer K, and we have come to know his empathetic nature. This is displayed primarily in his loyalty to Lt Joshi, his interaction with Joi, and the seemingly sentimental moments when he reflects on the photograph of the dead tree. Officer K is frequently juxtaposed with replicants who do not seem to share such qualities, leading us to believe that Officer K does indeed have a soul. This sentiment is echoed by Officer K’s companion, the artificial intelligence Joi. “You are special” she says. But as we learn in the film, Joi is, by design, programmed to say everything that Officer K wants to hear. Villaneuve is reminding us not to take for granted what humans are born with – a soul – and be consumed by artificial riches like the tyrant Wallace. A soul is easily lost, but difficult to gain.
Gosling’s interpretation of Officer K’s character also shows the humanly quality of curiosity. In his search for meaning to his life, Officer K is the reluctant terminator – in Sapper’s death scene, he pleads for Sapper not to stand up or resist his termination. He is incredibly upset when Dr Stelline tells him that his memory is real (although he fails to ask whether it was his own memory or not). This moment of realisation that he is the ‘baby’ he was looking for, has special meaning. Officer K is metaphorically ‘re-born’ – his attitude changes from this moment onwards. He fails the baseline test. He is constantly troubled, and has an urge to meet what he believed was his father, Deckard.
But ironically, his re-birth is short lived when he meets the replicant freedom movement, and realises that he is not the child – the child is Dr Stelline. Science fiction conventions are subverted in this moment of true enlightenment. It occurs in a dark, underground cell rather than a room bathed in light. We realise the that the true hero of the story is not the stereotypical lone male hero, but a woman, Dr Stelline, and Officer K steps aside to take a facilitative role from this point on. This turns the science fiction convention of the helpless heroine on its head.
Officer K’s new goal is to find Deckard and reunite his daughter with him, contrary to Fresya’s order to kill Deckard so he doesn’t reveal any information to Wallace. In his dying moments, Officer K succeeds in resurrecting the father – daughter relationship by bringing the two together. As Officer K lies on the steps outside Dr Stelline’s office and succumbs to his wounds, the falling snow flakes symbolising childhood wishes, he realises the meaning of his own life – making Dr Stelline’s wish come true. The contrast between the white snow-filled environment and Officer K’s bloodied presence emphasises the pure state of his death – ‘dying for the right cause’ – as the replicant freedom movement’s leader Fresya had foreshadowed.
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