The theology of Blade Runner

Dystopian science fiction films follow the secular worldview to its logical, dismal outcome

by Peter Benyola
Harrison Ford’s “Rick Deckard” and Ryan Gosling’s “Joe” reflect at the sea wall in Los Angeles 2049. image: Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros.

A familiar cityscape shows dots of lights in the night sky, all the way to the horizon indistinguishable in the urban smog. A flying car navigates through a line of factories spewing flames, smoke and ash into the polluted atmosphere. In the distance are two immense, industrial buildings reminiscent of Mesoamerican pyramids. This is the Tyrell Corporation, which bioengineers “replicants,” a disposable workforce of androids resembling humans. Tyrell now practically owns what’s left of earth after the planet has been depleted of its resources and most people forced to colonize off-world. Welcome to Los Angeles in 2019, a postmodernist dystopia speculated by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in 1982.

Vangelis’ brooding and melancholy synthesizer score for the film evokes the future whose unsustainable innovation inadvertently and tragically has left society in a hellish, post-industrial ruin. The depiction of Los Angeles laid waste is a rather overt postmodern analogue to the ancient Maya, whose immense ziggurats once marked a robust civilization sophisticated in its astronomy and chronology. It was a longtime great mystery why the Mayans abandoned their cities by the thousands to be overtaken by the jungle. Most archeologists now believe they fled en masse because the environmental ramifications of deforestation and poor agricultural practices would have meant widespread starvation, pestilence and death.

The Los Angeles cityscape in 2019 dominated by the Tyrell Corporation, as envisioned by Blade Runner (1982). image: Warner Bros.

Blade Runner, largely under the creative vision of Syd Mead, a renowned “visual futurist” concept artist, basically spawned the cyberpunk/neo-noir genre, a subcategory of science fiction. Most sci-fi presents a setting in the distant future with a pristine, cutting-edge, chimerical image of a fantastic society that thrives in its technological zenith. The world anticipated here is not so optimistic – deviating from most Hollywood conceptions of the future, Blade Runner is a high-tech homage to the mid-20th-century genre of film noir, which told stories of stylish crime dramas with often cynical detectives that are antiheroic protagonists.

In that vein, Harrison Ford plays a burnt-out and disillusioned policeman, Rick Deckard, whose livelihood becomes more complex by a moral conflict as he gradually realizes that those replicants, now fugitives, he has to hunt down and destroy are more human than the industrial machine intended. With their superhuman strength, immature sensibilities and short lifespans, the replicants are a threat, to be sure – but their determination to meet their creator and extend their lives incidentally makes them more genuine than the blade runners expected. Often sloughed off by humans as “skin jobs,” the replicants have lived in fear and dejection during their short lifespans. As the replicants become more and more human in their pursuit of purpose, the “real” human whose job is to kill them becomes more and more dehumanized, and the viewer becomes more sympathetic to the replicant. The future’s antagonist becomes the protagonist and the hunter becomes the hunted.

Blade Runner posed many provocative philosophical and existential questions. What might be the eventual consequences of unregulated industry, unbridled capitalism, ubiquitous advertising and pervasive pornography? Is a synthetic person who seeks significance any less “real” than a biological person who has given up his significance in a despondent world? Do implanted memories that seem genuine make a person “real” if they convince her of individuality? What does it really mean to be human?

Blade Runner‘s cult following waited 35 years for Blade Runner 2049. Most fans seem to agree that director Denis Villeneuve, combined with the brilliance of composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, did not let down the fans with a needless, careless sequel. 30 years after the events of Blade Runner, we again are immersed in the moody, paranoid, gritty, and ironic visual splendor of the original film’s world plunged into post-industrial high-tech squalor. Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard to befriend a new blade runner, Ryan Gosling’s “K,” who is an obedient replicant specifically created to “retire,” or kill, renegade older-model replicants.

Blade Runner 2049 does not tread entirely new ground, but it further explores the philosophical territory set by the original. Is a person willing to lose his family if it means protecting their lives? Is a manufactured person authentic if he can think, feel and procreate? Does he have a soul? Does an oppressed workforce of slaves that was manufactured for menial, unsavory labor deserve basic human rights? If a synthetic person, constructed for the purpose of killing his own kind, is thrust into a journey where he discovers that he is unique, then the revelation of facts shatter that dream – is that synthetic person made unique by virtue of simply wanting to be special? Is authenticity attained just by the struggle to find it?

The Tyrell Penthouse overlooks its industrial empire in 2019. image: Warner Bros.

If Blade Runner received any reasonable criticism in the ’80s, it’s that its pace was slow. That almost certainly would be true by today’s audience expectations. But in the modesty of its sensory quality, this cinematic masterpiece’s intellectual expression is overstated in ways that most sci-fi stories never can accomplish.

Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, falls in place in the annals of the best among science fiction: that which speculates a plausible future for the human race, follows our technological trajectory either to its utopian or dystopian outcome, and forces us to contemplate how those innovations will impose new complexities on the age-old questions. Both Blade Runner films remind us, for all that the advances in science and industry have done to enhance or diminish humanity, the fundamental questions of what is life, what it means to be human, and finding oneself haven’t changed – only the scenery will ever change.

This is where we take a hard left turn into the theological: What do we find at the center of those extant questions? An inescapable sense of the supernatural, of the eternal. Every work of fiction is written by a human being, and since all human beings have some sort of worldview, that worldview must be infused into the story at some level. Ridley Scott is a self-described atheist, and like almost all secular entertainment media, Blade Runner doesn’t fail to challenge our Christian sensibilities. Years before Blade Runner’s source material, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, authors were foraying into dystopian possibilities in classics such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. When we analyze the Blade Runner story’s substantive subject matter through the lenses of the biblical worldview, it does have some redemptive value: It doesn’t take Christian values to predict the outcome of a godless society. The secular world evidently is capable of doing that on its own, yet inherently falls short of being able to prescribe any real solution.

At the close of the 19th century, when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that “God is dead,” he sought not to make an ontological statement about God. Instead, he meant that in Europe, God was functionally absent, or practically treated as absent. Most people had become practical atheists, meaning they professed faith in the God of the Bible but in practice, they paid scant regard to ethical grid prescribed in the Christian faith.

This “practical atheism” coincided with the idealistic outlook on mankind’s future that developed in the penumbra of groundbreaking technological progress and scientific discovery. Humanists were pronouncing an end to war, disease, starvation and other vagaries of primitive civilization because mankind now had the tools to channel its “intrinsic goodness” into a global utopia that through its accomplishment proved it had no need for God.

Along came World War I, which extinguished much of this optimism — but even then, many people were convinced the “Great War” was an anomaly, the last attempt of a primal civilization to persist in chaos, “the war to end all wars.” Several decades later, World War II squelched the lofty ideology of guaranteed “progress” of the human race. We continue to live in the aftermath of these events and the prevalence of “metaphysical naturalism” — that is, the belief that nothing exists except that which can be measured by natural science — so that a gloom now layers over Western civilization. This figurative haze is visualized in the dirty nuclear winter that sits in the sky of Blade Runner‘s future world. The sociological problems of substance abuse, whether it be unhealthy food, alcohol or drugs; pornography and sex addiction; crass materialism; and pervasive nihilism all betray a worldview that holds life to be basically meaningless and that people should distract or busy themselves with whatever it takes to avoid thinking about the implications of that worldview’s ghastly and horrific, but necessary conclusion. (We do admit that dystopian fiction does make for the best drama.)

Of course, believing that we are the products of the fortuitous circumstances of a cosmic accident logically ends in the grim view that life is empty. If we entered this existence without purpose and are moving toward a future devoid of meaning, despair is the only response that is intellectually and intuitively honest. Though human beings or even theoretical “synthetic” human beings might seek meaning apart from God, no one can rid himself of the innate sense that God is real and that we are eternally accountable, for “He has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Every day, in business, in politics, in entertainment, as we are bombarded by the propaganda of a worldview that is essentially nihilist, we’d do well to remember what the apologist Dr. Cornelius Van Til taught: The lordship of Jesus Christ must govern our thoughts as well as every other area of life, so that we properly can identify and disarm everything that stands against the knowledge of God (II Corinthians 10:5). Every issue of society, culture, economics, theology, science, ethics and philosophy, and even personal meaning, takes on a very different appearance when we reject non-Christian presuppositions and seek to think consistently according to Christian ones.

In this way, even in the secular culture’s most creative and entertaining attempts to propound its dismal and ultimately hopeless worldview, such as in Blade Runner, we can find effective reminders of the hope we have in Christ.

Dystopia, however it is depicted in fiction, actually already is the reality of a world that denies and tries to suppress its knowledge of God. The biblical worldview posits that the most severe dystopia that humanity can imagine is a humanity deserted by God, as He gives us over to our own sinful proclivities, the greatest of which are lack of thankfulness and a refusal to glorify and honor God as we ought. As a race, we’ve been living in a dystopian storyline since Genesis 3, when our first parents rebelled, therefore plunging us into sin, and that corruption tinged every corner of God’s former utopia. That dystopia is still real for us, but by the same wisdom and power God used to create, He is restoring the utopia of the original creation. We as sinners are delivered from that dystopia, which really is separation from and enmity with God, by means of the reconciliation made possible through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Bible’s entire narrative distinctly points to the dreadful reality of the Fall, but also God’s graciousness in not leaving in that abject squalor those whom He has acted for salvation. That same gospel affirms the fact that for those outside Christ who persist in rebellion against God, their ultimate dystopian future will far surpass anything that can be conceived by the most imaginative writers of dystopian science fiction.

editorial, epistemology, philosophy