Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, 2017
“I have memories, but I can’t tell if they’re real.”
Recall for a moment your earliest memory. It may be of your first day of school, or of a beloved childhood pet, or perhaps the loss of a loved one. When asked to remember such things, we usually bring up a memory of something traumatic or profound, an image accompanied by a particularly strong emotion. But what are we really remembering in this case? Is it the image itself, or merely our own response to it? Do we remember reality, or some facsimile drafted by our own conscious thoughts? Indeed, how is such a memory formed in the first place?
In reimagining Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in this “2049” reboot, Denis Villeneuve flips an interesting theme from the original film on its head. The film talks of genetically manufactured “replicants”, effectively artificial intelligences created by humans to be used as slaves. In Scott’s original film, one of these replicants believes she is a real human because of her memories, only to have her reality shattered when she learns that her “memories” are in fact implants from another’s mind. In Blade Runner 2049, however, the question is not whether our reality may be manufactured, but rather does this manufactured nature make it any less real?
‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant living in a dystopian future where he is tasked with “retiring” replicants who do not have a natural life span. He begins to unravel a mystery that leads to him questioning his own position, and how he can know whether he is indeed replicant or human. He believes his memories to be false implants, and seems to be coolly detached from this realisation, having made peace with his own false reality. However, certain discoveries soon lead him to think that his memories may be real after all, and that he may be more human than he thinks.
But what does it mean for something (for example a memory) to be real at all? Inspired by the work of John Locke and René Descartes, Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) developed a radical and disquieting answer to this question, known as immaterialism. Berkeley believed that objects and matter do not exist in themselves, but rather only in our own perception of them. We can only ever know the properties of things, and these only by our senses, and so the thing itself may not be real. All we can know for certain is that our idea of the thing is real.
Think about a smell. Does the smell of garlic cooking on a stove exist independently of the person smelling it? What of the sound of the pot bubbling? Berkeley maintained that everything exists not as substances, but more as a bundle of properties. Properties which are only given to these things by the observer. Or, to use a famous old adage, if a tree falls in the wood and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? To Berkeley, independent of the observer, there is no tree. The only thing that is real is our ideas, the image the tree creates in our mind.
Berkeley’s radical conclusion, that the material realm either does not exist, or its existence is irrelevant, derives from this central argument, often given as “esse is percipi” – “to be is to be perceived”. The very essence of a thing is the way it is perceived by the subject (i.e., my mind). While this conclusion has many modern detractors, it can point to something about memory. The memories that we recall may be based on false information (like those of replicants in the film), but does that mean that they are not important? It is precisely K’s false memories that allow him to find his purpose. His purpose is to search for reality, in whatever form it may take.
When K remembers hiding a favourite toy as a child in order to stop it being stolen by bullies, he also remembers the emotional resonance of such an act. It is a formative moment for him because it causes him to see himself as apart from others, and the architect of his own destiny. Whether this memory is real or implanted, it made him who he is, and as such is real enough.
The film is full of examples of unrealities becoming real. K’s love interest is a holographic artificial intelligence (Joi, played by Ana de Armas), with whom he has more of an emotional connection than with any humans or replicants he meets. He wants to make her real, and she wants to make him real, mirroring the sentiments of Pinocchio, finding himself to be a “real boy”. But what does it mean to be real if reality is just our perception of things? If I perceive my memories to be real, then what does it matter if they are or not?
While Berkeley’s ideas on the nature of reality do not have much support in the modern age, Blade Runner 2049 shows us how they still have some value. We know we perceive things to be a certain way, and whether that is real or not is incidental to how valuable those perceptions are. K learns to overcome the unreal/real distinction and see a new purpose in his own existential growth. It does not matter how he relates to objects, for it is the subject, the one who perceives, that is of paramount importance. I must find my own way, and not let that way be defined by history, programming, or the voices of others.
Just as the snowflakes fall on K’s hand and disappear into nothingness through his bodily warmth, so our memories suffer a similar fate. There is an initial imprint of reality, which as we consider it and bring our own emotional warmth to it, melts into a puddle of indistinct meaning and human interpretation. This is how we experience everything. We perceive, and instantaneously apply our own perspective, driven by our very natures, taking the reality out of the thing. So where else does this leave us, but trying to build our own world.