By Stephanie Pacheco
The Blade Runner films show us a version of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that looks exactly like we do. My take on Blade Runner—both the original and Blade Runner 2049—is that it concerns androids less than appearances suggest, but rather asks us: “What makes us human?” The 2017 sequel utilizes dazzling cinematography to wrestle with that question, while arriving at no clear answers as the Replicants gain the ability to procreate and make families. The main sources of our humanness, the film suggests, are in the ability to believe in a cause worth dying for, and the role of birth. Both of these square with a Christian anthropology which sees our capacity for the infinite in our quest for meaning and the positive role (nay—necessity) of families and birth in human life.
The Ability to Believe in a Cause Worth Dying For
Blade Runner inverts the classic trope that many stories hinge upon: our deep human need to be special. Plotlines from Neo in the Matrix, to Harry Potter, to Luke Skywalker and Rei in Star Wars center on the main character discovering that they are “the one,” uniquely called to greatness, almost as a savior figure. Longing for this same unique calling, Detective K (Ryan Gosling) gradually falls for the line of thought that he is this One, the birthed Replicant who symbolizes a unique and novel humanness for Replicant-kind. His AI digital girlfriend Joi, who offers “whatever you want to hear,” encourages this erroneous understanding in Gosling’s character. In a sense, this longing is itself a desire for the infinite, a recognition of our innate human knowledge that we are uniquely loved and willed by the Creator God.
Nevertheless, the paradox is also true: if everyone is special, no one is special. In the Christian faith, we recognize only Jesus as the unique savior of humanity. Great though many of us sometimes are, we humans are a pretty humdrum, normal lot. Inspired by false confidence in his status as “the one,” Detective K seeks out and ultimately finds the Replicant resistance movement. But once there, he faces the harsh reality that he misinterpreted the clues and that he isn’t not the born-Replicant-child-all-grown-up.
The grizzled, female leader of the Replicant resistance, however, neither mocks nor chastises Gosling for what might be called his delusions of grandeur. She recognizes the universal longing in him as yearnings for the infinite and gently explains that life is worth living—and dying for—regardless, if there is a cause great enough. She asks him, “What is more human than dying for the right cause?” This question impels K through the rest of the film and gives him meaning despite the deflating anti-epiphany of not being “the one.”
In locating humanness in our ability to die for the right cause, I cannot but think of the martyrs who died for their faith in Christ, who were willing to live and die for ideals, rather than passing fancies or mere pleasure. What Blade Runner posits is that our ability to see and value life beyond ourselves—as evidenced by dying for a cause—makes us human.
This same ability to probe the infinite is what leads us to God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of humanity’s innate need to seek God in our desire to know truth and search for the infinite. It says:
“The human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material”,9 can have its origin only in God.” (CCC 33)
The soul, it says, is found in our questioning, in our looking for eternity, a search which involves our “freedom,” “moral goodness,” and “conscience,” —in short, our uniquely human abilities—and which has “its origin only in God,” he who is truly infinite and good, the source of our being. The soul in Blade Runner seems to be found in the same place, in the desire to see value in something beyond ourselves and dedicate ourselves to it.
For the Replicants in the film, the cause is freedom. For Christians in real life, the cause is Jesus. C.S. Lewis once said: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” We find our souls in the search for the infinite, for the eternal, and in our capacity to interact with it, to grow in prayer to touch realities of a world broader than our limited individual consciousness.
The second strong emphasis on humanity in Blade Runner 2049 is, in a very earthy sense, on birth. To the Replicants, birth itself—and the unspoken reality of natural procreation through sexuality—is the decisive factor for what makes them human rather than mere constructs of humanity. Being born is what the Replicants believe gives them their soul.
With a renewed emphasis on birth, we see a special value placed on the role of women as mothers, as life-givers, who alone have the capacity to bring a human soul into the world. In the gritty world of Blade Runner, birth is no saccharin purview of suburban housewives, but a powerful, almost war-like strength, which empowers an entire race of would-be people—the Replicants.
I do not intend that comment as a denigration of stay-at-home-mothers—I was one myself for five years—but to shed light on reality that birth and family life have nearly lost their sense of daring in our society. They are seen largely as the boring middle-class option, when really, to bring a child into the sometimes dark and dangerous world is a profound act of great courage that carries with it a hope in the future and in the well-being of the human race and life on our planet. True, such a notion is rarely articulated, but this is truth inherent in childbearing, in the spirit required to nourish and guide a child toward a good we must firmly believe in or else that child is abandoned to nihilism and neglect in the worst possible of ways.
The daring, war-like power of birth in Blade Runner 2049 is very accurate to the true nature and power of sexuality, birth, and procreation. Childbearing is physically demanding and risky. Rachel, the mother of the first naturally generated Replicant, dies in childbirth and isn’t present as a character. There is power in birth, and it takes personal power to do it—power to give life to a race. Birth itself turns out to be a cause worth dying for, and as such, the importance and strength of birth shows brilliantly in the new Blade Runner.
The Replicants in Blade Runner see birth into the family as empowering to the point of full personhood. The Catholic Church, likewise, has always seen the family as the first and most important anchor of the person as they come into this world. In Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “The Christian family, in fact, is the first community called to announce the Gospel to the human person during growth and to bring him or her, through a progressive education and catechesis, to full human and Christian maturity” (Familiaris Consortio 2).
The then-pope articulates the Church’s view of the family as charged with an all-important mission: to bring forth the next generation and to raise that person “to full human maturity.” The Church recognizes the truth written into us that our families provide our first context and accordingly have the foremost call to educate and form the souls of the young.
A Christian understanding of the person has always understood the role of the family as pivotal to the person; for this reason, Jesus’s mother, Mary, is also a central figure in the Catholic faith. The Church understands that our roots and our physical formation in our mother, and among other humans, matters.
For the Replicants in Blade Runner, participating in the cycle of sexuality, birth, and family gives them an identity that goes beyond the mere physical construction of cells into body parts, which they already possessed. In their birth and families, they locate a higher level of being human. Both our physical selves from birth onward, and our spiritual souls which can believe in a cause beyond ourselves, are our imago Dei, the image of God, implanted in us to make us human.
Stephanie Pacheco has an MA in Theological Studies from Christendom College’s Graduate School of Theology (2012); BA in Religious Studies, minor in Government from the University of Virginia (2008). She has written freelance since 2012, tutored 2017 and I’ll be teaching 5th grade at St. Thomas More School in Arlington in August. I’ve been published by America Magazine, Sojourners, Crisis Magazine, Ethika Politika, The Truth and Charity Forum of HLI, Soul Gardening Magazine and the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. Her articles have been syndicated by EWTN and Zenit. Check out her blog and her resume on LinkedIn here.