I finally got around to watching Blade Runner 2049. I know, I know, I missed the hype train from when it came out entirely, but hey, I watch movies on my own schedule.
Blade Runner is many things: it's an action movie, a gritty cop movie, a comment on slavery, a futuristic dystopia that shows what the world would be like if tech bros ran everything (God forbid we let tech bros run everything). Most importantly though, it's a movie that brings up a question that is important now, but will also be more important as we move ever closer to our own futuristic dystopia where the tech bros run everything.
The question is simple enough that it's easy to miss along the way, but the best way to put it is this: is it real? Three words three syllables, and that question drives the entire movie. The reason is that the setting is a dystopia where the differences between natural human and engineered replicant have been entirely erased.
If you watch through the prequels, you know that the reason is that the nexus 6-8 models of replicants (in the movie's terms, essentially the older versions) led a revolt and released an electro-magnetic pulse bomb. This EMP led to a blackout and to the almost wholesale destruction of records relating to replicants. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe the whole movie is a metaphor for why you should back up your hard drive?
Anyway, the blackout erased enough of the records that it would be almost impossible to tell a replicant apart from a regular human. But that isn't the only area where the line between the real and the synthetic is blurred. The other side of the story is that the world's ecosystems have collapsed leading to widespread famine. In the midst of this emerges Niander Wallace, the tech bro I mentioned earlier, whose invention called "Synthetic Farming" leads the world out of starvation and toward glorious new existence. Oh wait, not that second part.
No, instead, the world is basically eating gruel made from ground up bugs. Tasty. But hey, at least they're eating. This leads world leaders to essentially be indebted to Wallace (and his company). And the only thing Wallace asks in return is that they lift the prohibition on creating replicants. This will allow him to create what he calls his angels. Nothing bad could ever come of that, right?
And so the prohibition is lifted and Wallace mass produces the Nexus 9 models of replicants. These include Blade Runner models who work for the police to track down and destroy nexus models that have gone rogue.
That's a whole lot of summary, and we haven't even gotten to the question yet. The thing is, that is all the set-up of the actual movie. The story itself starts with K, a blade runner replicant, who has finally tracked down a combat medic replicant who went AWOL from the military. You kind of need the set-up to understand the rest.
As the story unfolds, there are hints that Wallace doesn't just make replicant humans but animals as well. He isn't just creating people; he is also creating everything else that's needed in the world. In other words, because he saved humanity in its darkest hour, humanity has given Wallace exclusive rights to create a synthetic world.
That synthetic world is where the action of the story unfolds, and it is also why we come back to the question: is it real? And the answer is always the same. When the line between the synthetic and the natural is so blurry, no one knows. The question has less to do with modality and more to do with ontology. It's not asking is this one mode of being or another; instead, it's really asking what it means to be. In world where there's as much synthetic as there is real, that question takes on philosophical importance that goes beyond the question of the truth of a thing's existence.
There's a really funny scene in the movie that captures the essence of the question really well. When K finally finds Rick Deckard, who has apparently kept busy reading books and keeping bees since the 80s, Deckard has a dog with him. During the course of their interaction, K asks if the dog is real. Deckard's response is a sarcastic "I don't know. Why don't you ask him?" It's a very Harrison Ford throw-away kind of line, but it gets to the heart of the matter really quickly. The only way to know if something is real would be to ask questions. But there's a further question built in: does it matter?
Deckard's dog looks like a dog and generally has all the characteristics that we associate with a dog, so why should we care if it's real or not? In other words, if you get all the same companionship and love out of a synthetic dog that you would out of a real one, does that question matter?
Well, personally, I think it does, and this is where I get to why this question matters in our own day as well. We aren't quite in a tech-bro-run dystopia yet, but there are a few ways in which we are headed that direction.
Social media creates bubbles of unreality, misinformation, and faux-outrage that we and our digital friends can inhabit. News media creates little, synthetic echo chambers of people who all think exactly alike. If you watch enough advertising, you start to notice that it's less about informing you of a product you want and more about selling you a way to synthesize identity out of brands.
Meanwhile most of what you do online (if you aren't careful) is tracked, and coded, and stored as data. That is to say that while you exist in real life, your memories, dreams, desires, thoughts, and urges also exist as a series of numbers in some server-prison that you can't access. Is your digital doppelganger you? Is it your representation? Is it your double? Who can tell? At a certain point, the two become indistinct.
And that's to say nothing of the fact that most tech companies are heavily investing in artificial intelligence at the moment. And so we come to a question for our own time: is it real? At the moment, we can still tell. We may not be able to keep it that way forever.
But does the question matter? Well, it depends on your interest in truth as an objective thing. If all that matters is the subjective experience of things, as our post-truth world posits, then the reality doesn't matter one bit as long as you are comfortable in your own beliefs. On the other hand, if external reality is in fact real and exists outside of our personal points of view, then the question is extremely important.
To put it as simply as possible, it's a distinction between your truth and the truth. The distinction matters as long as we are interested in looking at things exactly as they are. Blade Runner 2049 presents us with a world where your truth has completely overwritten the truth, and it is not a good world to live in.
Overall, Blade Runner 2049 has less poetry than the original. You get "less tears in the rain," which I find a little unfortunate. However, you exchange it for some hard philosophical questions on the nature of truth and existence that I think we would do well to consider. And maybe even keep considering in the future.