Reproduction in Blade Runner 2049
Reproduction on Film, the recently published special issue of The British Journal for the History of Science, investigates the theme of biological reproduction in the history of cinema, television, and other screen media. It narrowly missed being able to comment on the much anticipated release of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which premiered in Los Angeles in October 2017. Picking up where Reproduction on Film leaves off, this essay will briefly examine the centrality of biological reproduction in Blade Runner 2049 and flags some of the resonant connections to identity and selfhood, on the one hand, and religion and mythology, on the other.
Villeneuve’s sequel returns viewers to a dystopian future where humans have created and subjugated a race of biologically engineered “replicants”, complete with artificial memories. As with recent science fiction films, including Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2014), as well as HBO’s Westworld (2016), Blade Runner 2049 explores the venerable theme of the line between human and artificial intelligence. What is different about Villeneuve’s creation, however, is the location of humanity not in the mind, but in the womb. Replicants can think and feel, just as we do, but they cannot breed; the ordinary “miracle” of birth eludes them. The biological and biblical power of procreation, the ability to “go forth and multiply”, is all that separates “us” from “them”.
In the world of Blade Runner 2049, biological reproduction becomes a value constitutive of human nature, almost a quintessential feature which shapes human identity. The question of identity, of “who we really are”, is epitomised by the protagonist, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a tormented detective charged with finding and “retiring” (killing) renegade replicants, and himself a servile replicant. The movie begins with K coldly retiring a replicant protein farmer (Dave Bautista) living peaceably in a desolated, oniric, and sepia-coloured space reminiscent of the sterile and post-atomic landscape of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Sterility is further represented by a dead tree, at the roots of which is buried a mysterious box.
The act of excavating this box and analysing its contents—a ritual performed through complex forensic techniques of 3D genetic analysis (well, we are in 2049)—sets the film’s narrative in motion. The “tree of death” turns into the biblical “tree of life”, and also into a “tree of knowledge” that generates the insight needed to drive the action and move the narrative along. The unearthed box carries the bones of Rachel (Sean Young), the love interest from Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982), herself a special kind of replicant. It also carries the mystery of generation, that “miracle” which is tragically evoked in replicant farmer’s last moments of life, while he also admonishes K for betraying his own kind.
Through forensic analysis, Officer K and the LAPD discover that Rachel died in childbirth, thus upending a well-known “fact” about replicants, namely, that they are unable to reproduce. What follows is not only a search for knowledge, but also a quest for personal identity, and the uniqueness of selfhood. “This is not possible!”, exclaims K’s (human) superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), when faced with the potentially disruptive anomaly of replicant reproduction. Fearing the collapse of a fragile social order and slave economy based the essential difference between (fertile) humans and (supposedly sterile) replicants, Joshi orders K to hunt down and eradicate all traces of Rachel’s transgressive progeny.
A crucial turning point comes back at the protein farm, when K, through the course of his investigation, discovers a date carefully carved into the bark of the dead tree. Until that moment K had assumed his memories were not his own. But the date reminds him of a small wooden horse, a childhood toy bearing the same date as that inscribed on the tree. Could he be the lost child whose birth the tree also marks? Could his nature be that of a “generated being” rather than a “made thing”?
Also in search of Rachel is the ruthless Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), head of the powerful Wallace Corporation (makers of replicants). Wallace is not coincidentally a blind man—he can “see” only via a prosthetic system of hovering “eyes”. Reminiscent of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, he insufflates inanimate matter with autonomous, sentient life, only to callously force his creations into slavery. As a creator, his ability to see and envision the future is augmented, yet his blindness represents the senselessness of the act of creation, a configuration that evokes a tangle of cultural references, from Jewish folklore (the tradition of the Golem) to the biblical Rachel. Wallace himself quotes Genesis while contemplating replicant Rachel’s skull: “And God remembered Rachel, heeded her, and opened her womb”. For Wallace, whose ambition is to populate the stars, the prospect of self-replicating replicants presents a business opportunity. For a growing underground army of renegade replicants, on the other hand, the knowledge of Rachel’s child has messianic potential.
The centrality of biblical and biological reproduction in Blade Runner 2049 distinguishes it from the original and also from recent science fiction films and television productions about unruly artificial intelligences. This essay has highlighted some of the resonant connections, to identity and religion, in one of the most thematically rich films in a dystopian genre obsessed with artificial creation. It serves as an epilogue to Reproduction on Film and as an invitation to scholars to further extend the project by exploring the persistently fertile and still mostly uncharted intersection of reproduction and cinema.
About the author: Lavinia Maddaluno is Rome Fellow at the British School at Rome. She holds a PhD in History and an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. She has worked on scientific practices in the Enlightenment, knowledge making and ideas of political economy in eighteenth-century Italy, and is book review assistant editor for the journal Nuncius. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Main image: 3d render. Human Clone Manufacturing and Futuristic Room/Shutterstock: 593141696 ©Ana Aguirre Perez