REVIEW OF BLADE RUNNER 2049: on the ontology of replication

by Terence Blake

"There is no subject without an incomplete Big Other" Slavoj Zizek


I had been looking forward to this film for a long time, with impatience and suspicion, eager to re-
enter the Blade Runner universe and fearing that it would be ruined by this new instalment. To my
delight, I found the sequel to be an engrossing story, visually impressive and thoughtfully told.
A quick search online for reviews and reactions revealed a repeatedly expressed view that the
second film is even better than the first, just as the replicant is supposedly "better" than the original
baseline human, "more human than human".
The question that resonates throughout both films, in different ways, is: can a fabricated sentient
being have a soul, or is it merely a made object, an intelligent machine of heightened complexity,
but as soulless as a zombie?
This is a question that comes up today with increasing force in discussions over new technologies of
genetic engineering. A designer baby or a clone may have no parents and may even be produced for
a particular function (super soldier, organ farm). What would knowing that one had been designed
by technicians or produced without parents mean for one's subjectivity.
The question "does AI have a soul?" is both valid in itself and a useful metaphor for exploring the
implications of the engineering approach to the reproduction and/or replication of human beings. If
a sentient or self-aware AI is possible does that retrospectively change our vision of human beings
that were "naturally" conceived and birthed?
Can a copy be as good as, or even better than, the original? If not a copy, then a creative repetition?
Can the successor species to humanity, or the sequel to a film, have a soul?

I greatly enjoyed BLADE RUNNER 2049 but I do not share the opinion that it is better tnan, or that
it somehow "surpasses" the original film. My impression is that the new film is much more explicit
about some of the issues raised by the first film, and even about its enigmas, which are no longer
simply suggested but explicitly discussed.
Unlike some commentators I have no wish to see a further sequel recounting the ascension of the
replicant "messiah" to the head of a robot uprise, in the disastrous manner of the planet of the apes
franchise. THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE REPLICANTS would be a soulless film indeed.
The film BLADE RUNNER 2049 is not such a thoughtless and soulless sequel. It poses the actual
question of the possible status of an artificial intelligence. In the film the replicants are the ultimate
proletariat, submissive and diligent slave labour, programmed for obedience.
As indicated above, the metaphor concerns the operationalisation of human beings, the production
and conditioning of made-to-measure humans. To what extent are they sub-beings, ineligible for
and unworthy of the full range of human rights?
Like the first film, the sequel poses the question of whether an AI can have a soul, and of how this
could come about. The film gives several answers to this.
The protagonist, K, gives one answer near the beginning of the film, endorsing the principle that to
have a soul one must be born, not made. This thesis is the official doxa and forms an essential part
of the dominant ideology that justifies the world order. It contains the presupposition that replicants
cannot reproduce, but must always be made. This implicit hypothesis is falsified at the beginning of
the film by the discovery that the replicant Rachael from the original BLADE RUNNER gave birth
to a child, who is presumably by that fact both replicant and ensouled.
This discovery threatens to "break the world", as Robin Wright's character Joshi phrases it, as the
world in place is based on a Cartesian (and Christian) dualism separating made replicants from born
humans. This ruling ideology is spelled out again and again in the film, with its pedagogy of
explicitation and repetition.
Another response is suggested even before this ideological doctrine is stated, by Sapper Morton, the
replicant that K "retires" in the incipit to the film. He declares that K and his line, the re-asimoved
obedient nexus-9 series, have no compunction about killing their own kind because they "have
never witnessed a miracle". It takes a miracle to break the world, but it also requires a subject who
is faithful to that miracle.
Antagonists like Joshi and Wallace (the mad hubristic creator of the nexus-9s) are not open to the
event, they do not see the possibility of a miracle. They see the potentially world-changing event
reductively in terms of political management or technological innovation.
Political uprising is another mode of becoming ensouled, and Freysa's army of replicants waiting
for their miracle-born messiah are already revolting against their programming (unlike her, who is
presumably one of the free nexus-8s). K obeys, until he understands that disobedience is an option.
K later seems to get indoctrinated into acting on Freysa's principle that giving one's life for a good
cause is the most human thing that a replicant can do. However, the risk is that this simple inversion
of the dominant political ideology maintains its dualism without subverting it. Something more is
The political miracle may already have taken place. Freysa tells K that many others took themselves
for the chosen one, believing that they were born not made. This self-illusion implies that they had
memories that were emotional and messy. The nexus-9s were re-asimoved into obedience and into
inability to harm a human being (see this short prequel to the sequel) but they were also equipped
with real, messy memories. They thus contained an inherent flaw, an inner tension or dialectical
contradiction, permitting their re-subjectivation, or ensouling, under the right circumstances.
These memories may need to be dwelled on, not just alone in solipsistic isolation or in "interlinked"
subservience, but in free speech and loving exchange. Love is another of the modes of ensouling or
of subjectivation proposed by the film. K has only de-humanising relations with humans, his police
colleagues insult him or shun him as a "skinjob", his superior manipulates him. It is only with his AI
companion JOI that he divulges his memories and aspirations.
The most appropriate comparison is not so much with Pinnochio wanting to be a real boy as with
the Tin Man in THE WIZARD OF OZ, who wanted a heart, little realising that he already had one.
Joi listens, gives him a name, borrows a body to make love to him, accepts mortality to accompany
him, tells him in her last words she loves him. All this seems to confirm that by sharing thoughts
and feelings each has come to subjectivise the other.
A counterpoint to this "miracle of love" hypothesis is foreshadowed in the buggy Elvis hologram,
when he sings "I can't help falling in love with you". Later, in the creepy dialogue between Deckard
and Wallace, this idea of programmed love comes up again. Wallace tells Deckard that he may have
been designed to fall in love with Rachael and to run off and procreate with her. This is a heavy-
handed moment when the possibility that Deckard himself is a replicant is not only suggested, as in
the original film, but explicitly discussed.
Memory and anamnesis are not enough to induce soul, the memories have to be worked on and their
sense extracted and incarnated in actions. Joe, at this stage of his quest he is no longer simply K,
having learned that he had been deluded about his past, declares that all the "good" memories
belong to Stelline. However, his memory of hiding the wooden horse from the older children who
ganged up on him to take it is not a particularly happy memory. Initially K thinks that the date
carved on it is his birth date and that his memory is proof that he was born, and thus has a soul.
The transition from K to Joe is accomplished when he understands that this meaning is not only
false, but too superficial. The deeper meaning comes from owning the memory and appropriating its
sense of battling the bullies and hiding the treasure, which is what he does at the end in saving
Deckard and faking his death. This act steps out of the little Oedipal drama he had concocted with
Rachael and Deckard as his lost parents. He can now live his subjectivity as both separate and
interlinked, and abandon Deckard to his daughter. This deed echoes Deckard actions, who to justify
his abandonment of his and Rachael's child, tells Joe:
"Sometimes, in order to love someone, you have to be a stranger"

There is no reason why the mystery of the replicant baby in the sequel should be tied to Rachael and
Deckard from the original BLADE RUNNER. The pat Oedipal conclusion could have been avoided
while still giving closure.
Stelline, the replicant Messiah, despite all her work on memory and attention to detail (getting the
beetle's movements just right) seems rather insipid. Yet she is a fitting counter-power to the creepy
Wallace, demiurge and Antichrist. Wallace is a memory of the creepy, mad hubristic creators that
Ridley Scott is so fond of in his Alien franchise.
Perhaps we shall not be spared a sequel PANDORA, on the analogy with PROMETHEUS, where it
will be made even more explicit that it was hope that emerged from the box of bones discovered at
the beginning of the film.
This film is nostalgic, it "remembers" its original in almost every shot and plot point. It is not so
much an action film, the story of the origins of a robot rebellion, but of one person's struggle with
soul-making in a de-humanising world. It is a thoughtful sequel that comprehends and transforms
its original, extracting its sense from a memory of someone else's film, just as Joe seeks to extract
the meaning of his life from his memory. The new film creatively explicates and re-expresses the
old, giving one possible interpretation and prolongation amongst many.

So far I have been giving a Badiousian reading of this sequel to BLADE RUNNER. I have taken as
my guide the statement at the beginning by the replicant Sapper Morton that a replicant can become
human by being faithful to a "miracle".
The sequel is more explicit than the original in that it is the story of the subjectivation of a replicant
who from the beginning knows he is one. It is the story of becoming-subject., of the transformation
of K. into Joe. There is also a greater sense of process in the film, as compared to the original.
This process is envisioned reductively by the main characters, each according primacy to one of the
four truth procedures that Badiou describes as necessary conditions to philosophy and to true life:
science, politics, art, and love.
Wallace sees the birth of a replicant baby as a scientific miracle whose secret he urgently searches,
Freysa welcomes it as a catalyst to political revolution, Stelline draws on it as a means to perfect her
artistry, and Joe K hopes that it will be an opening to love. Each of these conditions developed apart
from the others can lead to a reductive world view: scientism, politicism, aestheticism, romanticism.
In contrast, the film is thoughtful in that it attempts to maintain a balance between all four ways of
seeing and acting.
The original version of BLADE RUNNER had neither the voice over by Harrison Ford nor the
happy end showing the escape in the car. Supposedly this cut was felt to be too estranging or too
confusing for the ordinary viewer, and the contextualising narration was added, along with the
traditional Hollywood happy ending, to give coherence to the montage. A visual summary of the
different versions can be found here. Ambiguity and incompleteness are an essential part of the
mode of enunciation of Ridley Scott's film.
Denis Villeneuve's sequel re-inscribes this formal, enunciative ambiguity and incompleteness at the
level of the enunciated content. The replicants possess implanted memories, flawed and incomplete
fragments, ambiguous and unreliable, yet, as we have seen, this messy aspect makes them real even
though they are not authentic.
K's inquiry-cum-quest for closure reveals him to be even emptier than he thought. He is not only
officially programmed for obedience and equipped with false memories, but his entire secret, the
unofficial history that he uncovers, is itself a fabrication
The revelation that his previous "revelation" (i.e. that he was the first replicant born, not made) was
false leaves him in a state of subjective destitution even more thoroughgoing than that of Rachael in
the first film. The film ultimately suggests that this subjectivity as unprogrammed void is what there
is in replicants that is "more human than human".
Deckard declares, to justify his abandoment of his and Rachael's child:
"Sometimes to love someone, you gotta be a stranger".
This statement has more far-reaching import than he himself realises, implicating the spectator in
the same discovery as the replicant protagonist. Behind our familiar roles and cherished memories
there is the strange void of our subjectivity. To be human is to be a stranger.
The true anamnesis is not the recollection of facts and anecdotes about one's past life, nor even the
meaning that one may extract from them, but the discovery of this pure subjectivity void of content
and the retroactive perception that it was present all along.