Do androids dream of electric sheep? Perhaps androids could if they actually slept. There’s not a single scene in Blade Runner 2049 where a character, human or replicant, is seen dozing off. Considering the experience of the film, that might precisely be the point. Each scene is so beautifully and evocatively rendered that it feels as though we’re in a dream, which goes on to complicate what’s “real.” Blade Runner may have asked what it means to be human, but 2049 forces us to reconsider the validity of emotions and memories and whether they’re exclusive to the human experience. Because if the human experience can be manufactured, what does that make humanity other than a baseline for something better?
We find Officer K teetering on that baseline. K is a Nexus-9 replicant, a Blade Runner tasked with “retiring” his own kind (a cruel euphemism for killing). He has orders to retire Sapper, a Nexus-8 with ties to a growing replicant freedom movement. Under the illustrious tycoon Niander Wallace, replicants are more docile and functional, freedom all but out of the question. K does as he’s bid, but not without suggesting Sapper turn himself in. Sapper, of course, goes out on his own terms.
K is both the evolution and devolution of the noir detective. If Deckard was the apex of that masculine archetype, K is the inverse. He’s obedient, yet anxious. Tough, but forlorn and vulnerable, shrinking at bullying bystanders whom mock him for not being real (a phobia stemming from an insecurity that man is not as evolved as he thinks). K otherwise looks human enough. There are no wires underneath, no electricity, spark, or complex innerworkings. Replicants can bleed. They can be wounded. They can die. We have to remind ourselves K is a replicant. The world, however, never lets him forget.
What lurks beneath is the makings of a soul, exhibited through compelling restraint by Gosling (his talent as a performer is transmission through the eyes). K’s story has more in common with Pinocchio than The Terminator. He comes home to his girlfriend Joi, who is revealed to be a hologram. This is doubly complicated by the way K treats her as if she were real. He’s responsive, maintains eye contact with her; he’s even conscious of her space, taking his feet off the table when she motions to sit. Everything about their interaction is staged like a sitcom, but there is clearly a yearning for something more.
Joi is but a voice and an illusion and broadly not real. Which is perhaps why K’s brief happiness is eclipsed with shame (a shame on both ends). If it’s a personal connection he seeks, then this one could easily be construed as hollow. By extension, so could his own feelings about said connection along with Joi’s and so on. Joi is programmed to serve K, the same way K is made to serve the LAPD under Lieutenant Joshi in almost the same exact way Luv, a replicant secretary/enforcer is subservient to Wallace’s bidding.
They are bioengineered to fulfill a purpose. Their names are obvious tags and serial numbers and otherwise devoid of meaning. Replicants are nothing more than indentured servants confined to a system of labor, their oppression entrenched in what they are so clearly meant to replicate but are denied: human identity. It’s the lone plane of transcendence for characters like Sapper, K, Joi. Even Luv, who stands by as Wallace callously dispatches of a replicant in front of her, eliciting a distinct emotional reaction on her end. K’s slow, unperturbed movements and relentless poring over crime scenes hint at the gradual unraveling of 2049’s meditations on human consciousness and identity. K is searching for a place in the world, a place that neither he nor any of these characters will ever find.
At Sapper’s farm, K fixates on a lifeless tree, or a tree of life. Beneath lies the remains of a familiar Nexus model: Rachael. A biopsy scan reveals she has miraculously given birth to a child – the first human-replicant hybrid of its kind (or pure replicant-born if you take Deckard as a replicant). Either way, replicants can reproduce. Fearing the repercussions, K’s superiors order him to terminate the child, a directive that blurs the nature of K’s function. “I’ve never retired something that was born before,” K laments, “…to be born is to have a soul.” Lt. Joshi tells him not to fret: “You’ve been getting on fine without one.”
K has some soul-searching to do, and this search for the child incidentally leads K to himself. Though he may objectively be a synthetic, he suffers from a very human conflict – identity crisis, one stirred by the trauma of a childhood memory. The memory in question involves recollections of himself as an orphan with a wooden toy horse (a miniaturized version of Deckard’s unicorn). On the hooves lies an inscription: 6.10.21, seemingly meaningless. K is aware of implanted memories and its purpose – a way of making replicants’ responses more genuine, lifelike (or, as the defunct Tyrell Corporation slogan goes, “More human than human”). But when that same inscription is found etched in the base of Sapper’s tree – the buried remains having set off this search for a miracle child – what purpose does this implanted memory serve then? How does that same memory transform in meaning?
Following Sapper’s retirement, K undergoes his routine post-traumatic baseline test. If the Voight-Kampff measured empathy, then the baseline test measures apathy through callous recitations of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire:
“And blood-back nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.”
In the novel, the “tall white fountain” is a specific image the narrator had during a near-death experience. He reads about a woman’s similar experience in the news: “Beyond that orchard through a kind of smoke/I glimpsed a tall white fountain and awoke.” This coincidence is identity-shaking, a single image having connected two separate souls. The narrator does some investigating but when he probes the newspaper, it is revealed to be a misprint. This misinterpretation serves as metacommentary on K’s own investigation, and dreadfully so.
The distinction between what’s real and what isn’t blurs entirely when the truth of K’s implanted memory is put beneath the microscope. It sends him spiraling down the recesses of a familiar orphanage (another system that confines both lost and unwanted souls). Deep within its bowels, a furnace. Hidden in the furnace, the wooden horse, and a memory made real. This is confirmed by Dr. Ana Stelline, the leading designer of replicant memories. She, in a Freudian-style analysis, peers into K’s fractured psyche and recognizes something terrifyingly human. A human discovering she’s a replicant is traumatizing enough, as was the case with Rachael in Blade Runner. But K discovering that he might be the next step in evolution is earth-shattering.
This throws K way off his baseline. He lies to Lt. Joshi claiming he’s emotionally compromised after retiring the child. She gives him 48 hours before he himself is selected for retirement, thus removing him from the only institution that supplied him with a purpose. With no other option, he’s then compelled to seek out his supposed father Deckard to secure the only place he has left. This continued search for meaning is rooted in an identity that’s been robbed of him, which Joi manages to give back. “You’re human,” she believes, and we see that K does too.
The wooden horse echoes K’s grasp of consciousness and greater self-actualization, all driven by a need to validate its existence. Memories are something we cannot physically retrieve. We remember them and go on to remember different versions of them over time. Therein lies the unreliability of memories and how they can paint our experiences. Memories can betray us; we can become subservient to our interpretations or misinterpretations. Because what are memories other than dreams of the past?
Misinterpretations, K learns, can prove fatal. Because despite his wishes, he is NOT the miracle child he believed himself to be. The memory, the wooden horse belongs to Dr. Stelline; it was implanted in K to scramble the identity of Rachael and Deckard’s child (not even Ana knows who she really is). Unbeknownst to her, she’s part of an underground replicant revolution that plans to use her existence as proof that replicants are human. Though the memory belongs to her and is shared through K, this need, this ongoing attempt to validate one’s existence is a connection shared by all. Every replicant in the story wants to believe they are special: Luv wants to believe replicants aren’t disposable, Joi wants to believe she exists, and K wants to believe he’s human (cells and cells interlinking). Because to be special is to be human, to be real. In many ways, they are all children seeking assurance and validation.
K may be a replicant in the end, but that doesn’t deter the impact the memory had on him or the meaning attached to his existence as a result. It informed the same purpose that memories serve in all our lives: the construction of a personal identity. K’s search and subsequent rescue of Deckard and reuniting him with Ana is a decision he consciously makes. K forges his own path, signifying his self-awareness and personhood that he so longed for by discovering he isn’t special after all. There’s nothing more painfully human than that.