Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Every now and then, a film comes along that treats viewers to an immersive experience in which we’re not permitted to be passive observers of the story, but are taken by the hand and led into an exploration of moral questions. Blade Runner 2049 is one such film. Although many excellent think pieces have already been written about the movie, I want to explore how it treats morality as it concerns the three types of creation — creation, subcreation, and procreation — as well as personhood.
As we move forward into — to borrow from the title of another dystopian story — a “brave new world,” we have to wrestle with the questions posed in Blade Runner 2049. A movie like this presents us with an opportunity to further develop our worldview concerning the future. When it comes to answering questions of creation and personhood, the common man is often left on the sidelines by powerful people, but God mandated us all to be subcreators and as such, we all bear a moral responsibility in shaping the world to come.
Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to the original Blade Runner, a ground-breaking science fiction film about a special type of police officer (a “Blade Runner”) whose job is to hunt down and “retire” (kill) rogue replicants. In Blade Runner‘s world, there are two types of people: the fully human, who are naturally born like you and me, and replicants who are classified as less-than human. Replicants are bioengineered humans created in a lab, “birthed” fully grown with implanted memories, and designed to be emotionless, obedient slaves.
Blade Runner 2049 picks up thirty years after the original film as Officer K, an LAPD Blade Runner, makes a shocking discovery that a replicant had given birth thirty years prior. Since replicants aren’t supposed to possess the power of procreation, the discovery sends K, himself a replicant, down a rabbit hole as he races to discover the truth, and the lost child, before Niander Wallace — the head and creative genius of the corporation in charge of creating the replicants — does.As we move forward into a “brave new world,” we have to wrestle with the questions posed in Blade Runner 2049.
If the subject matter were less weighty — if we weren’t dealing with the creation of human persons and the ethics of bioengineering — then this would be a basic science fiction romp. But Blade Runner 2049 is so much more than that, and to discuss it, we must first address the issue of sovereignty of roles: to whom do the functions of creation, subcreation, and procreation actually belong?
If you’re a Christian — and even, perhaps, for many theists from a variety of faiths — answering the first question is simple: creation — particularly the creation of life — belongs to God. The Law of Biogenesis states that “Life comes only from life,” so to create anything ex nihilo is impossible unless you are God. But humans create things all the time, so renowned British professor and author J.R.R. Tolkien came up with a term for human creation: subcreation.
Subcreation was coined by Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories” as a way to express the act of creating and peopling secondary worlds for his fantastical tales. Although Tolkien conceived of subcreation as a literary concept, it can be applied to any act of human creation within and subordinate to God’s created order. “We make still by the Law in which we’re made,” Tolkien writes in “On Fairy Stories.” We could say the concept of subcreation is as old as the Garden, where God told Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Subcreation, therefore, clearly belongs to mankind. It was given as a mandate to us. Create, but subordinately to your creator, who has given you the whole earth to fill.
To whom, then, belongs procreation? It’s part of the mandate in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply,” but not all women are capable of bearing children. Scripture is filled with stories of barren women whose wombs were closed until God opened them. And though we know scientifically how pregnancy and childbirth occur, bringing life into this world is still colloquially referred to as a “miracle,” and miracles belong to God. So perhaps the domain of procreation lies somewhere in the mysterious middle between creation and subcreation, where God meets mankind with the miraculous gift of the soul.
In Blade Runner 2049‘s opening scene, K retires a replicant named Sapper Morton who allows K to kill him to protect a secret: the birth of the child to the replicant woman 30 years prior. “You’ve never witnessed a miracle,” Morton tells K before he’s killed. K doesn’t yet know he’s referring to procreation, to the birth of the impossible child. The scene asks the audience to begin considering personhood.
Replicants are not extended full personhood by humans. They are made, not born, called “skin jobs” and “skinners,” accused of savage acts like cannibalism, and forced to defer to humans in physical signs of obeisance. Despite these things, the story is told almost exclusively through the perspective of K, a replicant, and when not following his perspective, other scenes are often filmed in such a way as to evoke sympathy for other replicants in the story (such as Sapper Morton) — sympathy and a sameness that moves that sympathy towards empathy. But with empathy comes a shared sense of humanity or personhood. If we the viewers see replicants as persons, how can the “real” humans in the Blade Runner world not see them as such?
It’s important that this question of personhood is woven into the themes of Blade Runner 2049 because it’s a movie about creation and what happens when man sets himself up in the place of God. There’s a warning in this film, and it wouldn’t be as effective if we didn’t view the replicants as persons: When a subcreator tries to take the place of the creator, he becomes like a devil. When man sets himself up as God, he will do devilish things.
A woman falls from a plastic bag, feet first onto the floor. She is nude and shivering, coughing as she takes her first breaths. A man approaches to inspect her — his new product, although he calls her, as he calls all his replicants, an angel. “Happy birthday,” he says, but shortly thereafter, he kills her — slitting her across her barren womb because she cannot ever bear life. She cannot procreate.
Although hardly on the screen for most of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime, the central antagonist, Niander Wallace, is Blade Runner 2049‘s driving figure, and it’s his obsession with being like God that makes creation the movie’s core theme. Almost none of the other main characters would exist without Wallace. Wallace’s products — from replicants like K to holographic virtual companions like K’s girlfriend Joi — drive the appetites, desires, and prejudices of the world in which they live, and Wallace’s obsession with unlocking the secret behind creating replicants who can procreate drives the story’s conflict. It’s in Wallace’s God complex, and the actions that stem from it, that we find the aforementioned warning.
To remove the creator from the equation, or to attempt to take his place entirely, is to act as the devil himself. And Niander Wallace is a devil. In fact, I’d argue that he’s a type of Satan. A popular fan theory suggests that Wallace is himself a replicant. If that theory’s correct, and he is a replicant, then by his own description he’s an “angel.” As an angel with a God complex and someone trying to create life in his own image — and not just a facsimile of life, but what he considers to be real procreative life — then he is undoubtedly a fallen angel. And not just any fallen angel, but the prince of fallen angels, and his actions are supremely devilish. “I cannot breed them,” he says. If he could, he would make trillions more. “We would storm Eden and retake her.” He doesn’t even try to hide his ambitions to be God.
And so Wallace performs horrifying acts, leading us into an examination of what mankind can stoop to when subcreator asserts himself over creator. Wallace creates life just to destroy it, sometimes from one breath to the next. He considers a woman to be a disposable product because she’s barren. He doesn’t acknowledge that his replicants have agency of their own. Wallace’s supplantation as subcreator for creator makes, in his world, everything permissible, and that should give us pause in our world that regularly wants to replace God with human masters.
Early in the story, K is ordered by his lieutenant to hunt down and kill the child born to the replicant. He hesitates and then says, “I’ve never retired something that’s been born before.” To which his lieutenant replies, “What’s the difference?” K answers, “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.”
Although he asserts he doesn’t have a soul because he’s a replicant, his lieutenant’s knee-jerk response is telling: What’s the difference, indeed? Again and again, the movie seems to tell us, people are people, whether human or replicant, born or made. And in the real world, as we move forward into a future filled with advances in human genetics and bioengineering — this despite being unable to define “personhood” in today’s abortion and embryonic research debates — one thing is certain: the ensoulment of human beings does not belong to us. Creation belongs to God, subcreation to man, and there’s a miraculous, ensouling element to procreation that we won’t ever understand this side of eternity.
Blade Runner 2049 gives us the space to engage with these issues, and to ponder their implications. It asks that we do not go passively into the future — that we at least begin to consider what it is to be human, what it is to be God, what happens when people play at being God, and by what factors personhood is determined.
God must stay in the place of God because, to return to Tolkien, if there is no “Law in which we’re made,” then everything is permissible. And that would make for a fearsome, dystopic future indeed.
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