How 'Blade Runner 2049' Corrects How We Think About Destiny
Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi masterpiece turns a long-standing cliche inside out.
If you have not seen Blade Runner 2049, you shouldn’t be reading this. You shouldn’t really be reading anything. You should be on your way to the movie theater to buy a ticket for one of the most daring, challenging films of the year. Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic dystopian masterpiece is disappointing at the box office, despite strong reviews and Ryan Gosling, and if audiences can’t turn this movie into a hit, we lose the right to complain about Hollywood not trying anything original anymore.
Because Blade Runner 2049, sequel though it may be, is nothing if not original. Though it’s clearly a student of its predecessor’s spirit, it’s wise enough to plumb its own depths and in so doing, unearth different treasures. The original was deeply concerned with the concept of how memory defines the human experience, and 2049 certainly has our recollection of the past on the brain as well. But it also explores the idea of destiny, inverting some very common Hollywood tropes in the process.
It’s almost impossible to discuss Blade Runner 2049 without getting into spoilers, so there will be some big ones following. Read on at your peril.
As you probably know, Blade Runner takes place in a dystopian future in which mankind lives alongside replicants—androids almost indistinguishable from real humans. In the first movie, replicants had a brief lifespan to keep them from evolving, and were banned from actually living on earth. In the sequel, a new breed of replicant has been created to be more subservient and thus, less dangerous. That’s the idea anyway.
Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant who works for the LAPD tracking down old, illegal replicants and “retiring” them (which involves a bullet between the eyes). K isn’t anything too special, until he starts receiving clues that maybe, just maybe, he is. It turns out that, decades ago, a replicant gave birth to a child—an artificial life creating actual-ish life. And this child, some replicants believe, could grow up to lead a revolution—rescuing replicants out from beneath the boot of tyranny becoming their inspirational leader on the quest for freedom and equality.
That would be an easy and obvious narrative trope. So obvious, in fact, that the trope has a name: “The Chosen One.”
The most obvious examples of The Chosen One trope are baked into our collective pop culture consciousness. Luke Skywalker is a classic example. The Lord of the Rings is full of Chosen Ones, from Frodo to Aragorn, both of whom are plucked by fate from obscurity for grand destinies. Or what about Harry Potter, an unspecial child living under a staircase who discovers that he is a magical celebrity: The Boy Who Lived. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy learn that they are fulfillments of ancient prophecy. Or even think of The Matrix, which went so far as to name its protagonist “The One.”
It’s a pleasant narrative, especially for us—we who do not always feel particularly interesting or important. That’s why we create stories like this. Because we feel, deep down, that life must be better when you’re not one of the nameless, faceless billions who lives a life of extraordinary mediocrity.
Christian culture is far from immune to this sort of thinking. Back in the ’90s, stories about the tragic massacre at Columbine High School inspired Christian teens to prepare themselves for just such martyrdom. Popular Christian rock band Delirious wrote an anthem called “History Maker”, urging Christian teenagers to become singularly famous for displays of “extreme!” faith. Pastoral rhetoric about setting the world on fire and changing the world for Christ became commonplace then, and remains so today.
There is nothing wrong with teaching the inherent value of every single life or chasing after your big dreams. The problem is how easily this can lead to discontent with the everyday. What happens when you start to believe your youth pastor’s lines about how you’re destined for great things, only to wake up 10 years later with a life that is not bad, but not particularly grand?
This is the case with K who, just as he starts daring to believe that he is the special, unique chosen one, learns that he is not. He’s not the special son of a replicant. In fact, there is no son at all—the child in question was a girl. K’s not the chosen one. He’s not singularly destined for glory. He’s just another guy who must strive to do the best he can with an unremarkable fate. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff noted: K thought he was Jesus. He finds out that he’s just John the Baptist.
And so, Blade Runner 2049 becomes a story not about Harry Potter, but about one of the any number of nameless wizarding students in the background who gets to watch everyone else fuss over The Boy Who Lived. It becomes not about Luke Skywalker, but about one of the Rebel pilot extras. It becomes, in other words, a story about most of us.
But that would be a cynical twist indeed if that was all Blade Runner 2049 was. Fortunately, it’s about a lot more than just deconstructing the idea of of The Chosen One—it’s about building something better and truer in its place. Once K accepts the fact that he is not destined for grandness, he’s able to truly understand the role he has to play. Not to be a savior, perhaps, but to still be a hero in whatever way he can. It may not be glorious. It may not be one for the history books. But it’s the part that he is best able to play.
“If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear?” Paul asks the Corinthians in his first letter to them. “If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell?” When we fall prey to the narrative of The Chosen One, you end up with an awful lot of body parts fighting to be one single part, and that body is doomed to death. But fortunately, Paul has a better idea.
“The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. … All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.”
Nobody would accuse Blade Runner 2049 of being an overly joyful movie—this is a dark dystopian sci-fi film we’re talking about—but there is joy to be had here, if you know where to look. The joy of embracing the role you were born to play. The role of accepting reality and learning contentment. And the joy of understanding that just because you’re not the Chosen One doesn’t mean you haven’t been chosen.