Friday, October 27, 2017

A Unicorn Called Rachael: Biblical Allegory in Blade Runner 2049: Part II

In the first installment of this analysis, we established a clear connection between Detective Rick Deckard’s love interest and the biblical matriarch Rachael. If you have not read it, I suggest you get up to speed here. We left off with the death of Rachel the matriarch, the repercussions of her tragic life, and asked if and how similar repercussions beleaguer Agent K and Nexus 9 models like him years after the death of Deckard’s paramour. But in order to do that, we must first explore what it means to be special.

Special K

In the bleak dystopian Los Angeles of 2049, world-weary denizens shuffle into work stations under dreary skies, stormdrains swirl with their faded memories, and they live transfixed by artificial holograms dancing to their hopeless dreams. No place or time could be more in famished of memory, dream, and hope. In fact, phony advertising wouldn’t hold the thrall it does were it not buttressed by a shitty world that keeps us moth-drawn to the pretty neon. This goes for future Los Angeles as well as our own lives.

Enter Agent K, a blade runner in his own right who carries out his brutal work in the tradition of Rick Deckard, stands stolidly through dressdowns by a hard-ass Lieutenant Joshi, and comes home to a cherubic AI hologram aptly named Joi, whose sole task it is to make K feel…special. Holographic steak. Light your smoke? How was your day? You’d hardly know it’s a task. And maybe it isn’t. All the conundrums of the Spike Jonze film Her our Blade Runner 2049 simply takes for granted. And this leaves the audience to imagine what premiums people are willing to pay just to be told in so many sweet nothings that they matter to someone. What is something like that worth? To be special? Evidently a lot. And perhaps onliness resonates all the more to numbered, prefab drones slaving in the ninth circle. To paraphrase Lieutenant Joshi: we’re all just looking for something real. Even when it’s not.

This humble writer believes Joi’s love is as real as yours and mine. But that’s just me.

Following the discovery of a burial plot while on assignment, a quiet identity war begins to rage in Agent K (in his soul?) over the fierce legitimacy of memory amid the existential void. The plot picks up when Agent K begins to suspect some of his own memories might be real ones, that he might have been born, raised, or be a miracle hybrid offering hope to untold millions. And right here is where films typically place viewers into the cockpit of a hero for their dose of self-centered megalomania, as oracle after oracle drips the honeysweet nectar that they have all the makings of the indispensible man. Neo was constantly told he was “The One.” The eldritch Fremen insisted to Paul Atreides that he was their hopeful advent. Omens read Perseus as divine, so gorgons beware! And as the hero drinks it all in, we tipple on it with him facing every headwind. And like Christ, as the hero rises we rise for having believed in him. Hero high.

And yet Blade Runner 2049 shatters the mold by letting us down late in the game that our man never was the hero of the story. He’s an aside. A pawn. An engineered nobody. Before this tumble the film carries us along that oh-so-obvious path to give us every indication that Agent K is our One, and his notional uniqueness only compounds as it finds an ally in Joi’s endless faith. And elated Joi even insists K take a human name to mint his uniqueness; Joe. But later, in classic Philip K. Dick style, a resistance leader cruelly unplugs that vain delusion leaving the hero to be someone else and K to simply be K, now minus his beaming Joi to console him in her tiny nook of warmth. For me, K’s sinking realization drove home the hardest when a rain-sodden K, rived of Joi and his messianic hopes trudges over a bridge to be greeted by the towering hologram of his former romance arrayed in her most generic consumer format. Joi, the font of his special wishes, coquets him and affectionately calls him a “Joe.” Just like she calls every other unspecial passerby. The film never reveals whether or not Joi was sincere or merely fulfilling a directive, yet here is when K halts stripped of the pretty lie he paid for all this time and the gates of hope slam shut.,fl_progressive,q_80,w_800/xzgfkmnvakdfui3py5a7.png

Trinity: Neo, Morpheus sacrificed himself so we could get you out. There is no way you're going back in.
Neo: Morpheus did what he did because he believes something I'm not.
Trinity: What?
Neo: I'm not the one, Trinity. The Oracle hit me with that too.
Trinity: No, you have to be.
Neo: I'm sorry, I'm not. I'm just another guy.
Trinity: No, Neo, that's not true. It can't be true.
Neo: Why?

Blade Runner 2049 abruptly ends for K right there, with a hero learning he’s not the hero and yet still offering what little he can to a cause, his worth owing to more than himself. And for anyone that can be a bitter pill. This selflessness is further detailed here in an article by Liz Baessler, wherein lies all the grist we need to understand the Rachel and Joseph allegory in the life of Agent K.

So where to from here? What motifs bind Joseph to Rachel, his mother? And what themes then loop K into the Joseph narrative?
Jacob is an imperfect man. We grimace as the patriarch sews the venom of envy into a new generation through his unhealthy favoritism, betraying a lurking flaw that reflects lowly on him as a father and a husband. Jacob prefers Rachel over Leah and makes it known, probably slighted by Laban’s chicanery and resenting Leah for it all the more. This tilt injects sibling rivalry between all of his sons. The firstborn of Rachel is Joseph, gifted with prophecy, a doting father, and a radiant cloak. Then we have Benjamin his younger brother who is also of Rachel’s stock. All the older sons, Asher, Gad Reuben, Judah, Levi, Simeon, et al. are either the sons of handmaidens or the sons of the other woman, Leah. And father’s love flows accordingly as he chases his bewitching phantom through the children she left behind. Making matters worse, when Joseph’s cryptic visions paint him as ruler over his older brothers, G-d Himself seemingly cosigns on their father’s golden boy as well. And for the brothers left as collateral in the wake, their shame must have been unreal.
Out of what appears G-d and father’s bin of rejects – father’s failed attempts to arrive at a Joseph – emerges Judah as ringleader of the leftovers. And as the story goes, he leads the brothers to toss Joseph into a pit, later to be fished out by merchants and sold into slavery, from slavery to wardship, and from wardship to the office of grand vizier over Egypt. Near the end of the story, it falls on a reluctant Judah to repent, save his brothers, and defend Benjamin, his father’s second favorite son of Rachel. Yet even after the family reunites, once again everything is still all about Joseph. Judah must come to bitter terms with the hard facts that father will always love Joseph more, that G-d dispenses greatness as He sees fit, and to finally be okay with that. Which is unbearably hard. And in this wrenching abasement Judah attains a stroke of greatness all his own, stepping aside in humility to let G-d be G-d. But G-d would not soon forget Judah. Sadly, Judah would never live to see his seed flower into the Davidic Dynasty nor its summit exalted above Joseph through the Messiah, son of Judah.

In parallels with Judah, we find Agent K procuring threesomes with working girls of split personas (Gen. 38). He is a speaker for the ordinary and a champion of an expendable rank tickled with a shot at greatness for once in his life. He continues on this path until his replicant dreams of being special for a change come crashing down around him. Onward from such hurt there were many resentful paths K could have taken in retaliation to his cruel desserts. After all, goodness never stopped for him, did it? He could have assassinated Deckard. He could have attempted to regain his macabre day job and purchase another Joi to shower him with her birthstone-and-participation-trophy brand of love. But nobody wants to be loved just because, right? He could have ratted out a revolution that was never about him. But he never lashed out. Instead, he did the other thing, graciously receding and passing the baton off to Ana, reuniting an aging father with his child dreamer whose destiny it was to lead her people to greatness.

The film drags our downtrodden Agent K through a gauntlet of temptations and invincible letdowns that whittle away at his life’s worth until all he has left are the choices he makes when nobody cares. Blade Runner 2049 foists a synthetic man into organic dilemmas offering zero reward for any virtue he chooses along the way. And so while precious Ana becomes a lighthouse of hope for future equality with humans, Agent K is the hidden Judah who vouchsafes that it’s deserved. In quiet magnanimity to accept and serve, Agent K becomes more human than human. And a very good one at that.

The bible rings clear: blessèd are the chosen, but blessèd more are those who choose.

The Birth of a People

The Matrix, Dune, and Star Wars base themselves on picked heroes rising to lead a movement of struggle and liberation. But Blade Runner 2049 veers away from that tract after teasing us in that direction. As the story progresses and disabuses K, he bails on the call of revolution to assassinate Deckard and selflessly reunites him with his daughter instead. This powerful tonal shift emphasizes what truly matters in this dreary world. True power is not with the mighty, but the ordinary ones. In the Bible itself, all greatness buds forth from faint tremors. It rises from the struggles of small families, and empires spill out of unseen courage of all the forgotten little people long passed. Just as well, all the grandfatherly hang-ups leapfrog the generations to tinge the dynamics of the future race. To wit, the Torah recounts a despot in Sumer building a tower “to make a name for themselves” and then casually dashes their little pillowfort. From thence, the text segues into the life of a childless nomad just leaving that region and promises to confer him a name that would endure forever: Abraham. Names aren’t found in towers; they’re found in faithfulness. His penniless grandson fleeing Canaan happens on a fleeting angel he can never quite have, and so he wrestles with G-d and Man and sets in motion the domestic squabbles that would establish the tribes of Israel and all their deep recriminations to boot. K’s metamorphosis is complete as his mission fluctuates from epic to personal. If replicants merit a future, this is the way. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blade Runner: Meeting a unicorn in the land of ziggurats. Father switches out the subject. Sacrificing one’s all for her. Stealing her from her father. A fugitive life. A curse of counted days. Barrenness.

Blade Runner 2049: Miracle birth. Death during childbirth. Distant burial. Envy in the shadow of the chosen and the trauma of being obsolete. A child of dreaming whom father loves most. The child of dreaming set to lead a people. The child of dreaming sent away in exile. The leader of the rejects beds a whore with split identity. The child of dreaming concealing its identity when visited by the leader of the rejects. The leader of the rejects accepts what is meet and returns father to a lost and favorite child.

Hypothetical Sequel: After said events Genesis closes yielding to Exodus and liberation.

Among the myriad misconceptions about the sequel from the online peanut gallery is an insistence that Niander Wallace depicts a trite, bloviating, two-dimensional mastermind who enjoys hearing himself recount his otiose plans as he sulks through his lair. I think he’s what he needs to be. But his prophetic allusion over Rachael’s skull, once apprehended, reveals a hidden story arc and should proliferate fan theories for another generation among the critics who matter most: the fans.

A misconception of this film franchise overall is that it is nihilistic. No. An origami unicorn is rubbish – kipple, I dare say – to some. Yet even garbage can be folded into something lovely. Veiled within that kipple hide the loveliest of all things: dreams. Fragile, evanescent, and yet more piercing and defiant of darkness than any other solid faculty. And when interlinked dreams become durable and lasting. And so throughout Blade Runner’s smoggy void of nothingness winds a cord of pearls tougher than cables and strung with haunting memories, meaning (not always the expected kind), and hidden kindness all daisychained into the future. Nihilistic? Blade Runner is wistfully melancholic, darkly romantic, achingly tragic, poignantly human, and inwardly radiant. But it is only nihilistic if you want it to be.

“Please hear our prayers, in the merit of our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and ensure that the glow of our lives will never be dimmed. Show us the glow of Your face and we will be saved. Amen.” - Woman’s Sabbath Prayer

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5

Movements are led. The golden child is chosen. A castoff suffers in noble silence. A people are made. The course of history stands altered. Further speculation would be base pedantry. All of what was, is, and will be we lovingly clasp away in the locket of a single moment; a passing glance where a boy met a girl and a velvet moment glides on forever.       

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