“The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry out their dream.”
– Les Brown
Warning: Heavy spoilers inbound for Bladerunner 2049.
In Dennis Villenueve’s science-fiction film Bladerunner 2049 (2017), Ryan Gosling plays K, a bladerunner whose job is to hunt down (or “retire”) rogue and dissident replicants—genetically engineered, synthetic humans. K is himself a replicant, and passes his Baseline Test—an examination designed to assess the extent of psychological trauma in replicants—with ease after retiring Sapper Morton, a replicant protein farmer laying low. When K unearths evidence that replicants are capable of reproducing sexually, he is tasked by his superior with finding and retiring the offspring of Richard Deckard and Rachael from the first film to conceal the truth, apprehensive about a brewing all-out war between replicants and humans.
As the story unfolds, K begins to suspect that his artificial memories, implanted with the purpose of better personalizing him, are authentic. He arrives at the conclusion that he was the replicant child all along, failing his post-traumatic baseline test and seeking out Deckard to elucidate his origins. However, K is separated from Deckard, who is detained and interrogated by the corrupt Dr. Wallace. K later learns from the leader of the replicant freedom movement that, to his disappointment, he is not the offspring of Deckard and Rachael—his salient childhood memory of a wooden toy horse belonged to Deckard’s and Rachael’s true offspring, Dr. Ana Stelline, a manufacturer of artificial memories who gave K the idea that he was “born, not made.”
With the exception of the jaw-dropping visuals and goosebumps-inducing score, my preliminary viewing of Bladerunner 2049 in IMAX 3-D left me feeling, bluntly speaking, underwhelmed. I was almost put to sleep halfway through the film, when K visited an irradiated Las Vegas to search for Deckard—a scene which dragged on for 30 minutes. Seven months later, I watched the movie a second time with my friend Kris on Blu-Ray and developed a deeper appreciation for the point the movie was trying to make. I looked past the film’s slow-moving pace to find an immensely thoughtful, nuanced commentary on the philosophical implications of this notion of individuality. (In that sense, it’s not a Bladerunner film if you can’t gain entertainment value from watching it one, two or three more times.)
Bladerunner 2049 prompted me to ask heavy questions—the kinds of questions I wouldn’t ask myself if I watched a movie just to turn my brain off. For instance, what does it mean to be born, not made? Can a thinking, feeling, inorganic entity still have a soul? And at an existential level, how do you deal with the prospect that you are not the central protagonist of your story—that you’re just an average Joe no more or no less important than everyone else?
Naturally, you are inclined to convince yourself that out of the 7.4 billion other people on the planet, you are the first to bring something truly fresh, exciting and unique to the table. But chances are, no matter how fresh, exciting and unique your talents are, someone else has already come along and used their talents to accomplish more than you could ever hope to accomplish in ten lifetimes. Think about it: Jesus Christ championed Christianity. Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Charles Darwin introduced the theory of evolution. And many more great minds redefined social, political, religious and scientific institutions to the degree that the modern world couldn’t exist without their contributions. And you think that, of these great minds—past and present—yours is even greater?
A common misconception is that every human being is equally inherently valuable. Wrong: Every human is equally potentially valuable. Value is cultivated, not freely assigned to a person simply because he or she exists.
Take note of the most profound scene from 2049, where K observes a 3-D hologram advertising the artificially intelligent girlfriend, Joi, a variant of whom K dated extensively prior to her death by Wallace’s replicant servant, Luv. K realizes that, like the Joi in the holographic advertisement, he is a carbon copy of every replicant that yearns to be human, but has yet to satisfactorily demonstrate its humanity. He therefore tracks down Deckard and Luv, killing Luv, rescuing Deckard and covering up his death to reunite him with his estranged daughter, the true protagonist of the movie. He has demonstrated his humanity and completed his character arc, dying peacefully from his wounds.
Maybe you are the next Jesus Christ, Christopher Columbus, Thomas Edison or Charles Darwin. But it’s not enough to recognize the value you bring to the world. You have to act upon it, too.