Set in the years 2019 and 2049, the worlds in the two Blade Runner films confront key themes facing the human species: what will be the future and what does it mean to be human, especially in an advanced technological society with “artificial intelligence” everywhere. That much seems obvious. But the combination of “the future” and “being human” points to the ultimate existential theme in both Blade Runner films: the challenge of human evolution or what Nietzsche referred to as the “Ubermensch” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. What comes next for the human species? That’s the unstated question in both films—unstated, but visually right before our eyes. The films are visual masterpieces featuring existential and philosophical challenges.
The Future: Is It Fucked?
Directed by Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve, respectively, Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) are situated on a long trajectory of dystopian futures in science-fiction film. The trajectory of the dystopian city begins in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and passes through Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973), and many others, right up to Blade Runner 2049. Dystopian sci-fi films are animated by themes of megacities, overpopulation, regimentation, dehumanization, nuclear warfare, ecological destruction, and endless forms of technology running amok. As a counter to these dystopian futures, Disney tried to imagine an optimistic, utopian technological world in the film Tomorrowland (2015); despite the serious and thoughtful attempt, this future seemed mostly cliche.
Numerous books and essays have sought to explain and theorize these dark films and dystopian futures. As discussed in my own book from 2012, almost all of these films offer visions of an “End” and a “Beginning,” usually centered on a warning for humanity, followed by some kind of transformation of consciousness and/or a clean slate for a new future (that no one outside of Disney seems to be able to depict). Despite the scientific and technological wonders of the modern world, it seems our best artists cannot imagine an optimistic collective future for the human species.
The Blade Runner films extrapolate and amplify the themes of over-population, dehumanization, and crowded megacities, existing amid ecological destruction on a planetary scale. What’s unique about both films is the warning is clear, yet the possibility of a new beginning and/or transformed consciousness for humanity seems remote and perhaps even impossible. If there is a new beginning, it is for the replicants, as suggested by the final scene in both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049.
In both Blade Runner futures, there is no idea for any new meaning for actual humans. Megacities and technologies will proliferate, within which we’ll have hologram lovers, very cool fashions, and some sleek buildings, along with dirty streets, polluted air and land, rising oceans, drone warfare, and a likely police-state. Corporate titans will be building replicants as slave laborers to keep the consumer-media machine running, while companies strip mine various planets, home to the “off world” colonies.
In Blade Runner 2049, the only place we see “nature” is in a virtual reality simulation featuring trees and insects. Can we doubt that outside Los Angeles and California there is a massive extinction event? The replicant K visits massive wastelands and landfills. We see decaying factories where children and/or replicants are exploited as a cheap labor force. Though we see mirrored solar farms, they must be ineffective, given all the air pollution—apparently caused by fossil fuel consumption. Climate disruption and rising sea levels must be happening, as there is a giant seawall to keep the ocean from flooding Los Angeles. But we’ll look great in all the cool clothes.
The Blade Runner films present an awe-inspiring and strangely beautiful future, but it is also very bleak. In other words, humanity’s long-term collective future seems mostly fucked! At least if you care about the future of the human species and the other species and ecosystems on Earth.
Being Human: What Can We Hope For?
Despite all the wonders of modern science and industrial society, the optimism of humanity’s technological achievement was countered by fears of a new monster of our own making, the merger of humanity with technology presented in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. By seeking to overcome death and become our own Gods, we apparently risk our own doom, too.
Shelley’s Promethean tale foreshadows many modern dystopias about robots and synthetic humans, from the HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to the T-800 in The Terminator (1984) to the replicants in the Blade Runner films. Of course, every fan knows that Blade Runner explores “what it means to be human.”
What is overlooked is Blade Runner’s clear comment on human evolution in the wake of modern industrial society. Blade Runner presents another vision of the “new man,” the new species to come with science and technology of the 21st century. To grasp the full significance of Blade Runner’s meaning, we need a little back story on the “new man” (or the “new human”) of the modern world.
Science, technology, and democratic society sought to propel humanity from the superstitious past into the scientific future—from medievalism to modernity, ignorance to enlightenment, servitude to autonomy, scarcity to abundance, poverty to wealth, and yesterday into tomorrow. In the wake of the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions signaled the birth of modern democracies and the demise of monarchies and theocracies, both with their myths and sacred texts. The dark ages were in the past. A new world populated by a new and better human seemed possible.
By the early 20th century, the Soviet Union sought to create the Marxist New Man, the new human liberated from capitalism and united under industrial communism and “scientific” materialism, supposedly destined to operate on an international scale. Countering the Marxist New Man, Nazi Germany concocted a racist Aryan Man, a mythical superman from the past supposedly destined to rule modern Europe and much of the world. Of course, both of these visions of a “new man” resulted in genocide and mass slaughter in totalitarian societies, culminating in World War II and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people before, during, and after the war. Given that these alleged “utopias” became disasterous dystopias, it’s no wonder that dreams of a better human species have all but disappeared.
Meanwhile, America offered a 20th century vision of a Democratic Man to counter the Marxist and Nazi visions. This democratic human would live in a society where “individualism” and “equality” were conjoined in equal “opportunity.” Citizens supposedly would be content with voting in elections, exercising their free speech rights as needed, getting some publicly-funded education, and, most importantly, having families and building a mechanized and mass-produced consumer society of epic scale.
As the Norman Rockwell painting suggests, America would be “free from want” and soon have the power to satisfy an endless array of needs, desires, and identities. Everyone has the opportunity to get rich and make themselves anew without the anchor of the past. In America, the only “superman” would be Superman, Batman, and subsequent legions of superheroes to save us in movies. Of course, America’s utopian vision of opportunity/equality for all was also a myth, as illustrated by the racist policies of slavery and the near-total genocide of Native Americans, left marginalized on reservations. Though slavery was ended and progress toward political and consumer equality has happened, the legacies of systemic and institutional racism continue today.
Following their tag-team destruction of Nazi Germany in World War II, the Soviets and Americans decided to become enemies and built 60,000 nuclear weapons to prove who was the baddest nation on the planet. It was called the Cold War and it was completely insane. After all, America showed it would drop nukes on cities of civilians in Japan—Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the threats of nuclear annhilation and the spread of ecological destruction, it’s no wonder that science-fiction became fixated on dystopias since World War II.
Given all the above, should we be surprised that since Sigmund Freud appeared on the scene, 20th and 21st-century humans have been fixated on “being human”—on maximizing “human potential” and finding “happiness” and contentment in modern consumer society. In the happiness quest, humans are being advised by analysts, therapists, televangelists, TED talkers, gurus and personal trainers, and the zillions of self-help books and YouTube videos promising a “new you” soon. Capitalism took Freud and psychoanalysis from the psychiatrist’s couch to the suburban sofa, conveniently parked in front of the TV. Powered by focus groups and psychological research, television provides the simultaneous stimulus-narcotic, while advertising touts endless products promising instant human happiness in consumer society. The ads and instant happiness are needed to counter the news, which traffics in nonstop fear, the very thing that Norman Rockwell said we were to free from in 1943. Seven decades later, American culture traffics in nonstop fear.
Television was followed by the echo chambers of the internet, empowering tribes to scan the media world, vent their frustrations, and offer instant solutions. Now we can recycle or reproduce any image from the past. Personified by Joi (the human-like hologram), the holographic Elvis, and the other replicants, we can make better and better copies of ourselves, but we still can’t seem to make better humans by the year 2049. We are fixated far more on improving the copies than improving the original. A better Elvis, sure, no problem. A better human, no way.
Given a world of endless consumption and entertainment, filled with instant happiness countered by constant fear, should we be surprised at what emerged from the mighty titans of the Cold War, from Russia and America of the 21st century—the presidential punks known as Putin and Trump? If these two leaders are the evolutionary political products of what were the two most advanced nations on Earth, then we must question if there is any human evolution toward a better species or an enlightened civilization? Or are Putin and Trump the new Supermen, the devolutionary Ubermensches of the 21st century?
And that gets us to the deeper existential meaning of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. What’s next for the human species? What can we hope for humanity? Is this the best we can do—keep on making ever-better copies of ourselves, via photoshopped selfies and robots like Siri, while we cause a sixth extinction event and a reality-TV star tweets nuclear war with Kim Jong-un, the maniac running North Korea?
The Ubermensch: What Comes Next?
Ultimately, Blade Runner is an Ubermensch story, a tale of what comes next for humans. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche explores the death of God, the eternal recurrence (the endless recycling of world events), and the possible appearance of the Ubermensch.
Since humans are the superior species that evolved from apes, Nietzsche theorized that an equally superior species might evolve from humans, especially in a modern world where God is dead, having been destroyed by Copernicus, Darwin, and our rapidly advancing industrial civilization. Nietzsche’s name for this new man was the “Ubermensch” (the “Overman” or “Superman”). Nietzsche wrote:
“What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.”
The Ubermensch would live by a new code, a new system of thought, not bound to the sacred fables of theism or the banality and mediocrity of the democratized masses, enthrall to the charms of consumption. In a bastardization of Nietzsche, the Marxists and Nazis thought they had the new man. Though there has been much debate about what forms the Ubermensch might take, it need not be a racist master race, totalitarian rulers, dominating conquerors, or mere cartoon superheroes inspired by Nietzsche (Superman, Batman, etc.). Nietzsche suggested the next stage of human evolution could occur if we accepted our place on Earth — in the material world — rather than looking to otherworldly Gods for meaning and purpose. Nietzsche wrote that:
“man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”
So what comes next? What will emerge in the next stage of human evolution? As shown in Blade Runner, we have yet to make the intellectual leap. Apparently, the abyss is too great or the horrors of the past are too heavy.
In my view, the highly evolved Ubermensch could simply be a much more intellectually advanced human species that embraces its place on Earth and in the cosmos and develops an advanced philosophy and universal narrative for humanity. In effect, the human species has produced a technological Ubermensch — the massively evolved techno-civilization far beyond anything conceivable at the time Nietzsche was writing.
This new form of technological civilization is best seen in space exploration and the great triumphs of Apollo, Voyager, and the Hubble and Kepler telescopes (among many others). Yet humanity has nowhere near produced a philosophical Ubermensch — an intellectually advanced and enlightened species that might represent the next stage in human evolution in terms of the art, philosophy, science, and cultural values needed for a united and cooperative planetary civilization. That’s why we are nowhere near the original Star Trek, as demonstrated in Interstellar (2014), the other space masterpiece to complement 2001. We are missing the secular narrative and cultural philosophy to complement the science and the mind-bending technological discoveries.
Blade Runner Speaks
Despite all the creativity put into the story, the visuals, and the music of the Blade Runner films, the writers and directors do not present any kind of vision for a better human being or a more enlighted secular technological civilization. By that, I mean actual biological human beings, not our simulacra, not our technological copies. As suggested by his final words, Roy is the closest to the technological Ubermensch, the man-made superman:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Roy is pre-programmed to have only four-year life span. Like us, he is destined to die. But he is not a human; the replicants in Blade Runner are the best that humans and their technology can do.
So far, secular philosophy has yet to produce a widely-accepted narrative that maps an enlightened and meaningful destiny for humanity in the cosmos as we know it—in a vast and majestic universe of two trillion galaxies, a universe in which we are not the center of eveything. In both Blade Runner films, there is no nature and no universe beyond the human techno-world. Immersed in our electrified megacities, we are utterly divorced from nature and the universe from which we evolved.
As evidenced by all the sci-fi dystopias and apocalyptic superhero films, secular philosophy can only imagine collective doom for humanity. That missing secular narrative is why Blade Runner 2049 has to rely on retread rebellion and theological tropes to push the narrative—Deckard and Rachel have given birth to a child replicant and the other “rebel” replicants refer to it as the “miracle” that inspires the rebel replicants seeking their “freedom.” This is no different than The Matrix, V for Vendetta, or any other “rebels against the system” storyline. Though still a great film, Blade Runner 2049 contains an intellectual crater that is consistent with 21st century culture, where science is under assault and leads to ruin, while evidence-free “miracles” lead to rapture.
In the Blade Runner future, we can improve the replicants, make giant holograms of sexy people, build bigger skyscrapers and megacities, and extract ever more resources to power the systems of consumption and entertainment, with little regard for the ecosystems on the planet. As deployed by Luv, we’ll build more elegant weapons for war. Sitting in her sleek pad, “Luv” gets her nails crafted while she uses her glasses (something like Google glass) to kill rebels with drones guided by GPS linked to the glasses. In fact, the Blade Runner future is at once beautiful and horrible.
As a species, we are stuck being violent war-mongerers who exploit others and dominate the planet, while getting it on, primping our hair and nails, and pretending to be happy in our selfies. We can keep cranking out futuristic fashions, but we cannot fashion an improved future society, species, or better planet. We seem trapped in a world of consumption and copies, where we work to improve our species in a machine, to make a better series of simulacra, but not a better species or better society. That’s the key existential theme of virtually all the sci-fi dystopias.
Visual and cinematic masterpieces, Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 both spoke—they said the human species cannot be improved or evolve in a better way. At least not by 2049.
Barry Vacker is author of the new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), which outlines a new and entirely original space philosophy for the human species. The book is available in Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble (here), and Amazon (here).