“All the best memories are hers.”: The Christ Figure in Blade Runner 2049
Science fiction has a long history of Christ figures, from Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still to Valentine Michael Smith in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land to Neo in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix. In fact, the Christ figure has become so ubiquitous in science fiction as to lose much of its meaning. Any character prone to self-sacrifice and with mysterious origins is labelled a Christ figure and the thematic reading is left at that, as if Christ was nothing more than a well-meaning outsider with a death wish and not a means of understanding the narrative or thematic ambitions of a story. This supersaturation leads to a general disinterest in the genuinely-fascinating Christ figures in science-fiction works when they do arrive, such as Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 2049 is the sort of thematically-rich film that doesn’t bend to one specific interpretation of its text. Equal parts Pinocchio story, examination of the sentience of androids and artificial intelligence, and mood piece about alienation and the possibility of connection in an apocalyptic future, the film provides many thematic and narrative avenues to explore. However, ignored in the pieces which have explored its echoes of the original film or criticized the many ways that Blade Runner 2049 does not conform to the safe progressiveness of current pop-culture has been any examination of its use of the Christ figure. I hope to rectify this absence, even just a bit.
The film’s plot concerns a mysterious replicant child born to Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) sometime after the first film. Replicants are not meant to give birth and yet, Rachael somehow did, no small miracle in this world of android slavery and a dying Earth. Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant Blade Runner working for the LAPD, begins to think he might be this child, but the film ultimately reveals that a minor character introduced earlier in the film, the memory maker, Dr. Ana Stelline, is actually the child of Deckard and Rachael, the “miracle” that Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) describes in the opening scene.
While the film had been flirting with themes of salvation and the existence of the soul prior to the reveal that Ana is Deckard and Rachael’s child, the film’s savvy use of Christ symbolism coalesces after this reveal. In fact, the film proposes a replicant Christology. By examining Ana’s role as a Christ figure, we’re better able to comprehend how Blade Runner 2049 envisions personhood for replicants, conceives of salvation, and personalizes the universal struggle for meaning.
First off, characters repeatedly refer to Rachael’s replicant child as a “miracle” and a means of breaking down the wall between civilizations, to play on the phrasing of Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi. Essentially, this replicant child proves that replicants can reproduce and break the constraints of human manufacture, thus achieving autonomy and perhaps personhood or a soul. (Also, if we’re to read Deckard as human, Ana would become a literal joining of creator and creation, human and android, bridging the gap between worlds. In fact, this reading might make Deckard’s humanity more likely than not.) However, once we learn that the child is not just a nebulous saviour referred to by others as a means of salvation—similar to John Connor in The Terminator for instance—but instead an individual who creates memories—a person and not just a symbol—the thematic implications of the child deepen immensely.
While I initially thought that having Dr. Ana Stelline be a memory maker was merely a fanciful science-fiction concept, retroactively I realize that her occupation is thematically necessary. First of all, it proves that a replicant is capable of creation. No replicants in the first film or this one are ever seen producing art or creating other replicants of their own. Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) never creates. Instead, he acts out his anger on his creator, murdering Tyrell and all others (save Deckard) who come in the way of him and more life. He’s a Miltonian or Byronic hero. His death is tragic and he enacts mercy on Deckard, proving that he’s capable of human virtue, but he is merely a witness to life, not an active creator of it. Rachael is the only possible exception, as this film proves that she was capable of giving birth. But even then, the mere act of birth kills her, robbing her of the ability to repeat her creation. Ana is different.
She is an author of memories and these memories are implanted into replicants like K to round out their personalities and allow them to better mimic emotions by connecting current encounters back to past ones. This is key for understanding Ana as a Christ figure. Just as in the Christian tradition, Christ does not retain salvation for himself but shares that salvation with his followers through the presence of the Holy Spirit, Ana does not keep her memories to herself. She shares her creations with other replicants, allowing them to share her memories and, by extension, her capacity to create.
This is also not merely symbolic. Anna is the product of birth, not manufacture, and has lived a life as a human, not an android, thus allowing her human experiences. We learn late in the film that “All the best memories are hers,” meaning that the most potent memories she designs are drawn from her own experiences as a child, such as the memory of the wooden horse in the furnace that K remembers and reenacts in San Diego. This means that other replicants like K are allowed to share in her autonomous nature or personhood, comprehending the experience of being an individual with a soul by having her memories and growing from them as a result. Like humans with Christ, replicants are able to become one with Ana and share in her salvation. To borrow the original film’s phrasing, she allows them to become “more human than human.”
The effect of Ana’s authentic memories are not analogous to Rachael’s memories in the first Blade Runner, however. While Rachael’s memories (borrowed from Tyrell’s niece) are a trick, Ana’s memories are not meant to trick K into believing that he is a human—although he does mistakenly think they are his own memories for a sequence of the film, which we’ll get to in a bit. Instead, they are Ana sharing her essence with others like her, redeeming replicants by sharing the human experience with them even as they know the experience is not their own.
K is fully aware that the memories are implanted. Instead of tricking him, the memories lead him to embrace his own personhood and reveal his true self, just as an individual would discover his or her true self in Christ. This even leads K to give himself a name, “Joe,” with Joi’s (Ana de Armas) help, which, however bland a name, is an act of autonomy and ownership. As we learn in Genesis, Adam naming the animals gave him ownership over them. K finally naming himself allows him to own his own personhood—to gain a soul, so to speak.
It’s also important to note that K achieves moral salvation through the presence of Ana’s memories. At the beginning of the film, he is an automaton, killing his own kind under orders and helpless to deny his programming. Once he becomes aware of the memory of the wooden horse, he starts to disobey orders and conceive of himself as a person. He works to find the child and help his fellow replicants. This leads him to consciously choose to sacrifice himself for the sake of others in the end. He martyrs himself for the sake of the replicant rebellion and Ana and Deckard, in particular—it’s no accident that he’s metaphorically baptized in the waters of the Sea Wall when rescuing Deckard. Just as the Holy Spirit allows people to act truly selflessly and escape the cycle of sin, so do Ana’s memories allow K to escape his programming as an agent of death and achieve a fuller personhood.
By the time K dies, he has achieved a comprehension of himself that is not dictated by his programming and perhaps even comprehends a metaphysical existence beyond the material world. To understand this, it’s important to examine K’s death in contrast to Roy Batty’s death in the first Blade Runner. Roy dies in the rain, discussing how his wondrous memories will disappear “like tears in rain.” K dies in the snow, quietly succumbing to Luv’s (Sylvia Hoeks) wounds. Both scenes share the same musical cue, so we’re meant to connect them. But they are tonal opposites.
Roy Batty’s death is a wistful death, one in which he regrets that his experiences will not live on beyond him, aside from being a part of Deckard’s memories. He wants more life, but that life is denied him, and he sees nothing beyond the pale of death. It’s a poetic and ultimately tragic means of explaining the futility of experience. K’s death is the opposite. Instead of speaking about how his existence is about to end, he spends his last moments admiring the snow, much as Joi admired the rain upon first leaving K’s apartment early in the film. K’s fate is not tragic, while Batty’s is. This is because Ana’s memories have allowed him to transcend himself. Batty was never given that opportunity. Essentially, Batty lives and dies in a world before Christ, while K in a world after Christ.
I’d also like to note that the difference in tone between these scenes, between nihilism and spiritual optimism, can be attributed to the difference in the directors. Ridley Scott has spent many films exploring the futility of existence (The Counselor) or declaring life to be a cruel joke (Prometheus, Alien: Covenant). While Villeneuve has his share of dark films to his credit, his most recent film, Arrival, centred around the idea that life is meaningful and worth living despite the knowledge that it ends. It is a prospect to be happily entered into, as life’s meaning transcends the linear plane of time and material existence. It would be a stretch to say that K is going to end up in a heaven of some sort after dying, but by reading the scene through Villeneuve’s recent work, we realize that his death is not a sad end.
Also playing into Ana’s role as a Christ figure is how Blade Runner 2049 personalizes K’s experience of her memories. First of all, when K starts to investigate Rachael’s death, he begins to wonder that Rachael is not simply a mother, but his mother, much in the same way that followers of Christ see their existence as echoes of Christ’s life. This makes Rachael a kind of Virgin Mary, mother to all replicants as Mary is mother to the Church. Christians do not simply want to be kind of like Christ, but to literally be one with Christ, to live his life, take up his cross. Blade Runner 2049 understands how the messianic experience is personalized. Much as Christians intend to solve the meaning of their own existence by comprehending the details and meaning of Christ’s life, K comes to comprehend his own existence by solving the riddle of Ana’s existence. He makes her memories—her experiences—his own, and in so doing, becomes one with her.
There is so much more to thematically explore in Blade Runner 2049, but that the film is able to create such a compelling Christ figure—to outline what amounts to a replicant Christology—with so many implications is a testament to how rich this film is. Blade Runner 2049 comprehends the true nature of a Christ figure, employing this metaphorical tactic to help us comprehend K’s burgeoning personhood and the nature of the salvation awaiting the replicants in its world. It is one example of how Blade Runner 2049 ranks among the best of the genre, not only creating a fascinating future world for us to indulge in, but exploring some of the most potent themes of what it means to be human and comprehend our own existence.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017, USA)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on characters from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juni, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, and Jared Leto.