I finally saw Blade Runner 2049 on cable the other night. Beautiful to look at, sometimes moving, but what really struck me was the degree of low-talking going on.
There are lots of answers you could give to such a question. Perhaps the characters in this dystopia feared surveillance (but would a whisper really mask your speech to the future’s presumably hyper-sensitive bugs?).
Or maybe, since the main characters are androids, they speak in even, quiet tones like AI traditionally does (think of Hal in 2001) in science fiction films. I guess this is to connote emotional control — an inhuman equanimity. But then again, the replicants in this case seem desperate, rather than icy cool.
Or perhaps the voices of these beings are simply muffled by the ambient noise of their chaotic urban landscape, which sometimes seems scored to a track reminiscent of the Beatles’ classic “Revolution number 9.”
None of these answers satisfied me, though. There was something holy about their quiet. Combined with the dark lighting (as I remember it, the movie takes place mostly at night), the whispering made me think I was in a church. I could almost smell the incense.
The religious vibe of the film is inescapable; it’s literally dripping with the biblical. The narrative is centered around a miraculous birth, as a subculture of replicants is excited to discover one of their own was “of woman born.” The mother is Rachel, Sean Young’s character from the first film. At one point, a replicant describing this birth alludes piously to a verse from Genesis: “And God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and allowed her to conceive.”
Religious themes are common to science fiction. Reverential awe often underscores that moment when the wonder of a new technology is revealed: some new device or process cool or horrible enough to promise utopia or threaten apocalypse. The genre never tires of extrapolating on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
But Blade Runner 2049 is not that kind of film. The technology isn’t really new. These androids have been around since at least 1982, when the original film was released. Add to this the fact that the movie centers on a specific form of technology. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t feature alien craft, doomsday weapons or time travel devices. It’s object of meditation is the digital.
This focus is unmistakable, as revealed in a particularly poignant scene. Ryan Gosling’s “Officer K”, a replicant cop, views a comparison of android “genetics” to human: the former binary, the latter triplicate (the nucleotide groups of three that make up the human gene). K says something like, “That’s the difference between us and them…” in a despairing tone.
Alexander Galloway’s Laruelle: Against the Digital
A book I’ve been reading recently, by cultural theorist Alexander Galloway, addresses what might be called the “digital despair” alluded to in the film. In Laruelle: Against the Digital, Galloway argues that the way digital technology shapes our worldview produces a sort of alienation — one of the symptoms of which are weird fantasies of transcendence.
Galloway’s argument is complex, and I can’t do it justice here. But to simplify it greatly, he makes the case that digital technology, based in a binary code, is the latest in a tradition of Western thought, from Plato to Heidegger to Derrida, that attempts to describe the real by dividing it into two. Typically, a thinker decides upon two elements as key (whether these be mind/body, being/nothing, self/other, etc.). We are then shown how the two interact, synthesize or build into bigger structures, and voila, how reality “works” is defined.
The problem is, of course, that the “real” is an unwieldy beast, that refuses to be corralled into such schema. In the case of digital media, Galloway traces two results from such framing. First, it produces a feeling of unreality, for “digital relations are always already fake or simulated, for they arise from radical standardization at the atomic level.” And this leads to a second result: a drive to transcend.
A good example of the way this theory plays out, as Galloway alludes to, might be the widely accepted theory that the brain functions like a digital device — i.e. a computer. This leads to thoughts of transcendence, i.e., the search for a “ghost in the machine.” Or better yet, the fantasy that immortality will one day be attainable, once we upload our “minds” into heavenly digital clouds.
This dynamic is at the heart of Blade Runner 2049. The replicants, aware they are digital products, feel “less than.” They have been programmed to serve rather than to decide. They are alienated beings seeking, in contemporary pop lingo, to become “authentic.” In other words, like us chromosome-based machines, they struggle to be free.
And I guess there’s nothing holier than that.