Special Guest Post by Ken MayerOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

image credit: DNA strand by Peter Artymiuk (CC – BY) https://wellcomecollection.org/works/hg26huwq

The Greeks and many other peoples told tales of how humans and gods came into being, or Theogonies. What sort of theogony might a first world society create, when many are free from agricultural toil and have an excess of food? When nonetheless they see the limits of consumer culture and overpopulation? When scientists control reproduction, reconstruct limbs, and seem on the verge of custom-designing human bodies or even of engineering immortality itself? When reproductive rights–including contraception–are divisive flash points in the center of political discourse? Such a society might well invent a myth much like Blade Runner 2049. As in Hesiod’s Theogony, reproduction, both artificial and natural, is central to the film.

 

[Spoiler alert: reading further will dramatically lower your first-time enjoyment of the film]

 

Hesiod’s Theogony tells of the generations of gods fighting their offspring until Zeus came out on top. Part of Zeus’s winning strategy was to set humans apart from the gods. No longer would they live forever free of care and toil. Instead Zeus gave them Pandora, reproduction, and death. Among the gods, Zeus controlled reproduction so that no one more powerful than him could emerge, but he punted the gods’ problems to humans, whose lives became brutish, short, and wracked with pain, work, and offspring that would ultimately outlive and usurp their roles.

 

Similarly, the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish has humans created as part of Marduk’s consolidation of power. They are created from the blood of the defeated god Qingu to do the work of the gods, so the gods may rest. For peace to exist among the gods, teeming, suffering humans are loosed on the world. In Genesis also, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, they are cursed with pain, working the soil for food, and reproduction, in the form of painful childbirth.

 

These myths and other similar ones are born out of societies emerging in the first few hundred generations of subsistence agriculture, when most people worked hard soil in the sweat of their brows to perhaps fend off starvation. A dim memory of an idyllic hunter gatherer past beckoned, but the farmers could out-reproduce the hunters most years when their progeny did not overwhelm their agricultural production. These myths account for the human condition, circa 2000 BCE.

 

What about circa 2000 CE, when wealthy elites live like gods, and embark on god-like feats of creation? The mythology of Blade Runner does not hinge upon the differences between men and the gods who created them, but between men and their creations.

 

In the original 1982 Blade Runner, scientists had created replicants—artificially manufactured pseudo-humans—stronger than humans in order to work in harsh environments in other parts of the solar system, and were forbidden to come back to Earth. Much as mythological gods had created mortal humans to work the fields, humans made replicants and cast them out of the Earth and kept them separate from their creators. The main protagonist was Deckard, charged with the task of terminating rogue replicants who had secretly returned to Earth.

In the 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049, a newer generation of replicants has been allowed to dwell among men on Earth. The main protagonist is K, a replicant whose job is to hunt down illegal or malfunctioning fellow replicants. He eventually discovers the trail of an astonishing and unheard of event—a replicant that reproduced about twenty years ago. As in the modern telling of Pandora, reproduction enters the story in the form of a box, buried full of a woman’s bones with evidence of a difficult and ultimately fatal childbirth.

 

K’s human superior, Lt. Joshi, sees this birth as a gamechanger, something that undermines an order and division as fundamental as Zeus’s separation of mankind from the gods at Mekone. Joshi points out that replicant reproduction “breaks the world!” For her, “the world is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.” So Joshi gives K the mission of finding the missing replicant, the only one on Earth born from (replicant) woman. Along the way, plenty of clues lead K to conclude that he himself is that unique replicant child.

 

On first view, a Classics-informed audience member is bound to interpret K as following the path of every detective from Oedipus to Chinatown to Angel Heart. He is solving a riddle that amounts to a quest to find out the truth about himself, namely in this case that K—ostensibly a manufactured replicant—was born from woman.

 

Levi-Strauss’s take on Oedipus was that the myth mediated between two strong Greek expressions of identity: the claim that we (a tribe, a city, an ethnicity) rose up from the land in autochthony vs. the claim that we emigrated from somewhere else. Levi-Strauss’s famous claims may shed little light on the Oedipus myth itself, but he has correctly identified two persistent patterns in Greek and other mythologies. The “Blood and Soil” cries in Charlottesville testify to their unfortunate persistence in the US today. Are we natives sprung from the soil or does our strength/identity as US citizens lie in coming from elsewhere? In the film, the question seems to be”Can or Shall replicants be made or born?,” but, as in Hesiod’s Theogony, the issue—and the struggle—is really about who will control the means to reproduction. Modern society’s anxieties are about corporate, factory creations. Are we, our attitudes, and our progeny the labors of small-batch, artisanal mom-and-pop operations? Or are our experiences and attitudes generated by large, faceless corporate entities?

 

One could wish that the replicant factory were more faceless. The theme of reproduction is further foregrouded with a scene in Niander Wallace’s replicant factory, where a nude Pandora-like replicant gasps her first breath fully formed, adult, and barren. The villainous and half-machine Wallace is passionately and only interested in this replicant’s reproductive ability. When it is found wanting, he kills her in a repulsively unhuman and inhumane manner.

 

Meanwhile, K’s quest leads him to the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas, introduced with Ozymandian sets of vast and trunkless legs of giant nude showgirls standing in the desert. The ever-present, sexualized female imagery, such these statues as well as the hologram billboards, perhaps points to the persistent theme of reproduction. Reproduction is probably not the first way one would understand them. Clearly, the filmmakers want to have it both ways: they exploit women as consumable sex objects and also critique the process as hollow and unreal. Do our desires stem from our biology or from clever manipulation by the corporate gatekeepers of our information streams? The commodification of sex here ties into the new locus of anxiety about reproduction: how corporate and commercialized it has become.

 

The first signs of life among the stone statues and ruins, are several humming bee hives. Bee hives are also a strong pointer to reproductive issues, not only in their modern role as pollinators and “the birds and the bees”, but also as an ancient symbol of a new creation. In Vergil’s Fourth Georgic, probably the most famous bee passage in ancient poetry, a goddess of fertility instructs how to self-generate bees from a cow corpse.

 

In the film, Las Vegas is where a tribe of escaped worker bees (replicants) dwells, who guard the secret of the replicant child. In the child rest their hopes of a new era of replicant reproduction. They hope to no longer spring fully formed from a factory run by the twisted counsels of dark demiurge Niander Wallace, but rather they dream of a future of natural reproduction.

 

The rogue replicants reveal that K is not the child he is seeking, but rather a woman, Ana Stelline, who works as a shaper of false memories for replicants such as K. Ana Stelline and her DNA represent the replicants’ only hope of reproductive power, and the memories she creates and implants inspire hope in replicants such as K. Fittingly, for the Hope in a Pandora creation narrative, Ana Stelline is apparently trapped in a box.

 

The ambiguity up to this point in the film about whether the child is male or female adds a spin to the audience’s journey of interpretation. For example, on first viewing, some scenes fail the Bechdel Test: Joshi and Luv are talking about the child, i.e. K, the male lead, so the scene fails the test. But the real child turns out to be another woman, so in retrospect the scene passes the test. The film ends with K apparently accepting his lesser place in the scheme of things, dying so that Ana Stelline can live and further replicant reproduction. Although the film’s narrative is strongly centered on K’s experience, it ends by him—symbolically at least—ceding the center space to a woman, born from woman. Unlike the misogynist vision of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, where Apollo and Athena vouch for the notion that women are mere vessels for reproduction, the gods of Blade Runner 2049 care far more for the death of a woman than the death of a man.

 

The original Blade Runner explored the fears of new technology, present since the Industrial Age and mapped into modern myth since Frankenstein. It also expressed Philip K. Dick’s concerns with the limits of perception and the boundaries of humanity. By adding and foregrounding issues of reproduction, Blade Runner 2049 becomes a myth worthy of our millenium.