Originally published on Ocdtober 24, 2017; republished in celebration of Director Ridley Scott’s 80th birthday.This article contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
Sci-Fi and Social Mobility
Dystopian societies in fiction are generally rife with metaphors for obstacles to social mobility, a lack of individuality, and the suppression of free will. Our hero generally starts as a faceless, nameless player within a strict social structure who adheres to the rules, until they rebel, realize their potential, and break from the mold, possibly to bring down a restrictive regime. But the underlying themes and metaphors present in these types of stories vary surprisingly wildly from work to work, criticizing anything from social or economic inequality, militarism, nationalism, propaganda and the media, racial prejudice, or overly restrictive social norms.
But in some cases the futuristic is used as a way to delve into the existential, moving beyond contemporary issues to explore the human experience, often in a surprisingly spiritual way. In these cases, predestination and pre-determination are turned scientific, in which it is not the divine dictating our fate, but a secular equivalent – the seemingly immutable facts of our DNA. The portrayal of biological determinism in dystopian fiction is complicated, used with varying levels of success and to achieve different thematic ends.
When Blade Runner 2049’s K scans through the DNA code of the missing child born of a replicant and GATC appeared on the screen, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gattaca and the similarities between the two films, and the nuance with which they confront the human struggle with the idea of destiny, exploring age-old spiritual ideas using futuristic technology. Gattaca and Blade Runner 2049 involve futuristic science and DNA just as much as they involve spiritual questions of identity, destiny, and divine will.
In Blade Runner 2049, K is a replicant in charge of rounding up replicants who have gone rogue. He was manufactured for obedience, with implanted memories, little companionship, and no name beyond his ID number. In the world of Gattaca, gene selection can be used to maximize an unborn child’s potential, controlling their physical makeup and disposition for disease. Vincent is a janitor in a space station, a young man who was born naturally, an “In-Valid,” in contrast to his “Valid” brother who was born using a eugenicist’s process of selection. Vincent has a weak constitution and his assumed lifespan at birth is just over 30 years. “I’ll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God’s hands rather than those of her local geneticist,” Vincent says of his birth. In Gattaca, the overlap between science and religion are present throughout.
Most interesting to me is the way Vincent and K struggle with exploring what they cannot change about their destinies, what they can, and the way their stories stories subvert what we expect in terms of “chosen one” narratives. The two ultimately have very bittersweet journeys that end in imminent deaths. Vincent is still chronically ill, likely not to further exceed his life span of 30 years long enough to return to earth. K is not the miracle child born of a replicant, but manufactured after all. They are not chosen in any sense that relates to the nature of their biology, but are rather people who choose to defy expectations. For Vincent and K, their purpose and identity is earned through strength of character, despite the fact that their biological makeup is not and will never be on the side of their aspirations. What makes Gattaca and Blade Runner 2049 unique is the way they explore the limits of human will while still heralding free will as, in fact, the stuff of human souls.
More Human Than Human
When identity is both externally imposed and based on something unchangeable, it allows for society to settle into their roles and ascribe their identity to them, allowing for passivity, structure, lack of responsibility, and belonging, which we see in our protagonists. K is told he’s fared just fine thus far without a soul, a successful blade runner. Vincent is comfortably employed, capable at his job as janitor. Yet both are without any interpersonal connection, without love, without identity and without purpose. When Vincent saves his genetically superior brother from drowning, and K finds out that a replicant had once given birth; and the seed is planted in their minds that defying DNA might be possible, and would improve their lives.
K is obsessed with finding out what happened with the missing child born from a replicant, because deep down it believes it is himself. All those years of loneliness and isolation – it must be him. If he is truly human, after all, he will be better, he will be special after all. Vincent believes that he can keep up the ruse of being a Valid enough to completely assimilate into Valid society, fool everyone around him, prove himself, and lead a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, he will have both played God and achieved his dream. Their motivations are rebellious to a point, but they are still working within the mindset of the system in which they live, in which superior beings are still determined by genetics.
Grasping for higher rungs on their perspective social ladders is not shown to be sufficient in satisfying K and Vincent’s aspirations for humanity. K does not find his true purpose until he chooses to fight for Deckard and his daughter’s reunion, a relationship with which he truly connects, instead of either the causes of the LAPD or the replicant revolution. Vincent is truly alone until he connects with Jerome, whose identity he’s stolen, and is honest with Irene about his true identity. They must, instead of working within the mindset of the society in which they live, find another purpose above and outside of the structure that has subjugated them, and connect not only with themselves and their individual abilities, but also with the people around them.
Ethos Anthropoi Daimon
Blade Runner 2049 and Gattaca also explore a heartbreaking acceptance of human limits. There is not a fantastic realization that God (or DNA or chance) has made a mistake, or the revelation that either Vincent or K has a hidden gift gift that will give their life purpose. When Freysa, leader of the replicant rebellion, says to K with so much sympathy, “You thought it was you,” it’s heartbreaking because the audience likely did too. But a revelation that K was somehow an anomaly, does not come.
The biblical quote that begins Gattaca is Ecclesiastes 7:13: “Consider God’s handiwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked?” These stories bear that out in a multi-layered way; DNA can be read as a secular representation of divine forces outside of our control, that does not make mistakes that cannot be altered. But genetic makeup also does not preclude either Vincent or K’s humanity or free will. There is no realization that “after all, you were in fact chosen,” but rather “after all, you still have the power to choose.” That’s a remarkable and complicated power to hold, shown to be very much wrapped up in what a “soul” is – choice, responsibility, will, morality, and character. Heraclitus wrote that “ethos anthropoi daimon” – man’s character is his fate, or that ethics, beliefs, morality, will allow man to find freedom within destiny and to realize one’s potential through strength of will.
Vincent being Invalid is only a hindrance if he lets it be, despite what society has told him to keep him in check. K being a replicant is only a threat to his humanity if he lets it be, despite what society has told him to keep him in check. This mindset places the onus on individuals, to maintain their free will despite the struggle that entails as a necessary condition of their humanity. In the end the cost of not exercising one’s free will is far worse; passivity, apathy, lack of purpose, lack of true identity.
It’s a refreshing theme in a society that seems more and more convinced that the aspects of our birth we did not choose (nationality, economic status, race) are our destiny, a mindset that can make capable people into victims and underplays what may be our greatest strength. Despite the fact that it demands more of us, there is undeniable inspiration to be found in the belief that while what we are is uncontrollable, it is what we do that is under our control, and holds the nature of our fate.
These are the spiritual musings of a relatively secular age, rooted in sci-fi conventions but undeniably connected to the same debates that have taken place for centuries. That we know so much about biology doesn’t mean we have any firmer grasp on our purpose and destiny than those who came before us. Sci-fi and fiction involving dystopian societies in particular are often used to comment on contemporary events, but to push beyond the contemporary and into the universal and existential is truly a feat, and can make a piece of art both moving and timeless.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures/Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures