This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The following contains major spoilers for both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049.
To think an origami unicorn could create so many years of speculation. To this day, debate still rages over the status of Blade Runner‘s Rick Deckard: is he a human or a replicant? The origami unicorn certainly hinted as much: folded by Deckard’s enigmatic partner, Gaff, and left outside Deckard’s apartment, it had distinct echoes of the anti-hero’s earlier dream of a unicorn roaming through a forest. And if Gaff knows what Deckard’s dreaming about, doesn’t that imply that he’s as artificial as the replicants he hunts?
Director Ridley Scott has long insisted that Deckard has to be a replicant; the filmmaker charged with crafting the sequel, Denis Villeneuve, has expressed at least a shred of doubt. Whichever way your thinking goes, the origami unicorn is but one example of the symbolic use of animals in both the original Blade Runner and its sequel.
This all goes back to Philip K Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, which depicts a future where animals are so rare that they’ve become a kind of status symbol for the rich. In this claustrophobic, ecologically barren future, the next best thing is to own an artificial animal – protagonist Rick Deckard owns a fake sheep, but his plan is to save up enough money from his day job of retiring artificial humans to buy a real animal.
Deckard’s purchase of a live goat doesn’t feature in Blade Runner – like a number of things in PKD’s novel, it’s been pared away – but animals still play a role. An artificial owl presides over Eldon Tyrell’s office, its keen eyes glinting in the skull-crushing final act; the scales of an ersatz snake lead Deckard to the workplace of one replicant, Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). A dove flutters from Roy Batty’s lifeless hand at the climax – an obvious yet moving symbol of a departing soul.
Earth seems more deathly than ever in Blade Runner 2049, set 30 years after the events of its predecessor. A famine has left much of the surviving population subsisting on protein, farmed from grubs on specialised farms. Trees are almost nonexistent. San Francisco is a rubbish dump. The human race is seemingly on its last legs, at least on Earth, yet it’s still fixed on creating artificial humans – or replicants – to use as slave labour both here and on other planets. Meanwhile, older models of replicant, like the ones Eldon Tyrell used to make 30 years earlier, are being hunted to extinction by Blade Runners like K (Ryan Gosling – ironically, a replicant himself).
During one routine mission, however, K makes the chance discovery of a buried box of bones – the remains, we later learn, of Rachael (played by Sean Young in Blade Runner), who died in childbirth. Anyone who’s seen the earlier film will come to the logical conclusion that Deckard must be the father; the question is, who was the child, and where did it go?
Again, animals hold a special significance in Blade Runner 2049. K has childhood memories of an old wooden horse with a number engraved underneath: 6-10-21. K originally assumed this memory was artificial – placed there by his makers as a kind of ‘cushion’ against the harshness of reality. But when K discovers that same string of numbers at the base of the tree where Rachael’s body was buried, and then later uncovers the wooden horse where he remembers it being hidden, he begins to wonder whether he himself is the missing child.
Determined to uncover the truth, he locates Deckard’s old partner, Gaff, who fashions another origami figure as he talks: a sheep. In Hebrew, Rachael means ‘Ewe’, and in the Bible, Rachel – wife of Jacob – was initially unable to conceive, until she finally had a son, Joseph. It’s a clear echo of Blade Runner 2049‘s theme of conception and childbirth; replicants don’t have the same rights as humans because they’re made rather than born. Replicant-maker Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) wants to find a means of making replicants conceive so that he can produce them more quickly and cheaply – which is why he has a reason to get his hands on Deckard and Rachael’s child.
Beyond the obvious thriller element – who’s the child, where’s Deckard – concerns about human nature, compassion, empathy and the soul run deep in Blade Runner 2049. Although he didn’t create the environmental cataclysm that has pretty much ruined our planet, the pompous, bearded Niander Wallace is symbolic of the kind of thinking that has brought it to this point. Science has reached the point where it can recreate people and animals almost perfectly, yet the residual side effect of all that progress is a ruined planet where humans are forced to eat grubs. Our species has spread to other planets, but only on the backs of an artificial slave labour force.
One exchange in Blade Runner 2049, between K and his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), repeats the old adage that only humans have a soul: “To be born is to be human, I guess”, K says, off-handedly, to which Joshi replies that K’s done just fine without one. Time and again, however, Blade Runner 2049 raises the question: is the distinctly human idea of an immortal soul an illusion? Worse, is it a sign of our entitlement – the same entitlement that causes us to run roughshod over the planet, carpeting it in concrete, or in the case of Blade Runner, creating artificial yet sentient replicants to use as slaves?
One of the most significant – and moving – sequences in Blade Runner 2049 arrives in its third act, when K learns that he is not, in fact, Deckard and Rachael’s missing child. K is what he was told he was all along: a replicant, nothing more, nothing less. For a while, K seems lost, as he processes the truth – that the memories in his head belong to somebody else, and that he doesn’t have the connection to the human race that he’d hoped. As he looks up at a spectral advert for Joi (Ana de Armas) – his now deceased holographic lover – it’s easy to imagine him wondering whether his inner life, his consciousness, is as artificial as Joi’s.
Whatever’s running through his mind, it leads him to make a bold choice: he rescues Deckard from Niander Wallace’s clutches, and is mortally wounded by the deadly Luv (Syvia Hoeks) in the process. K then uses his final moments to take Deckard to see Dr Stelline (Carla Juri) – Deckard’s long-lost daughter.
In the final analysis, maybe it’s safest to conclude that whether Deckard is a human or not doesn’t actually matter. In the future of Blade Runner 2049, the differences between the two are largely academic; Niander Wallace is nominally human, but he requires tiny robots to give him artificial sight, and he’ll slit a newborn replicant’s stomach without a moment’s hesitation. K is employed as a hunter and killer by the LAPD, but he has to undergo regular tests to ensure that he doesn’t begin to display human-like responses.
If there’s one thing that will finish us off, Blade Runner 2049 implies, it’s not artificial intelligence, but our species’ entitlement, its seemingly hardwired belief that it’s the lord of all creation. Environmental collapse; nuclear irradiation; the mass extinction of animals all spring from this same blinkered, self-obsessed paradigm.
Quietly, poetically, Blade Runner 2049 ends on a thoughtful note: having navigated through a world of selfishness and emotional dislocation, K sacrifices himself for a final act of kindness.
Blade Runner 2049 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and on demand now.