On Blade Runner 2049

Back in 1982, an incredible movie came out, Blade Runner. It told the story of artificial human beings (replicants) that could pass as human beings, but had to be hunted down. The movie was derived from a novel by Philip Dick.

It took many years for people to get Blade Runner. The esthetic of the movie was like nothing else we had seen at the time. It presented a credible and dystopian futuristic Los Angeles.

As a kid, I was so deeply engaged in the movie that I quietly wrote my own fan fiction, on my personal typewriter. Kids like me did not own computers at the time. To be fair, most of the characters in Blade Running also do not own computers, even if the movie is set in 2019. Like in the Blade Runner universe, I could not distribute my prose other than on paper. It has now been lost.

Denis Villeneuve made a follow-up called Blade Runner 2049. You should go see it.

One of the core point that Dick made in his original novel was that human beings could be like machines while machines could be like human beings. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 embraces this observation… to the point where we can reasonably wonder whether any one of the characters is actually human. Conversely, it could be argued that they are all human.

Like all good science fiction, Blade Runner 2049 is a commentary about the present. There is no smartphone, because Blade Runner has its own technology… like improbable dense cities and flying cars… but the authors could not avoid our present even if they wanted to.

What we find in Blade Runner 2049 are companies that manage memories, as pictures and short films. And, in turn, we find that selection of these memories has the ability to change us… hopefully for the better. Yet we find that truth can be difficult to ascertain. Did this event really happen, or is it fake news? Whoever is in charge of managing our memories can trick us.

Blade Runner 2049 has voice assistants. They help us choose music. They can inform us. They can be interrupted and upgraded. They come from major corporations.

In Blade Running 2049, there is a cloud (as in cloud computing) that makes software persistent and robust. Working outside the cloud remains possible if you do not want to be tracked, with the caveat that the information can easily be permanently destroyed.

Losing data can be tragic, akin to losing a part of yourself.

Death, life, it all comes down to data. That is, while it was easy prior to the scientific revolution to view human beings as special, as having a soul… the distinction between that which has a soul and which that does not because increasingly arbitrary in the scientific (and information) age. I am reminded of Feynman’s observation:

To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out, there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday. (Richard Feynman, The value of science, 1955)

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

2 thoughts on “On Blade Runner 2049”

  1. Wow the review is really nice. I heard good reviews about the movie but your review made me to watch the movie. Yes, it was really nice. It is not available in theaters so I had to watch it on my movie app Tea Tv (May be useful to other to watch the movie)

  2. An interesting perspective. I particularly liked your thoughts towards the end on the similarities between mortality and data corruption, it did certainly seem that the film was leading us to ponder that connection. I also really liked the choice of the Feynman quote you included; it could practically be included at the start of the film and feel correct. If you haven’t played it, the 2014 video game Wolfenstein: The New Order featured a character who was obsessed with the lack of distinction between loss of consciousness and death alluded to by reasoning similar to the Feynman quote to the point where she would never willingly sleep (just pass out when the caffeine wears off, as I have this morning). Just a connection I made that I thought was interesting.

    All in all, a great review of a great movie.
    Keep up the great work!

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