- 'Cells. Interlinked'Sympathy and obligation in Blade Runner 2049
I can't tell you howI knew–but I did know that I had crossedThe border. Everything I loved was lostBut no aorta could report regret.A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;And blood-black nothingness began to spinA system of cells interlinked within cells interlinkedWithin one stem. And dreadfully distinctAgainst the dark, a tall white fountain played.–Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Where both Blade Runner films (Scott US 1982; Villeneuve US/UK/Canada/ Hungary/Spain 2017) can be said to revolve centrally around the question of what makes us human, a subtle but complex shift in Blade Runner 2049 to the measure of humanness reveals a more dramatic, if not pragmatic, shift in perceptions of human nature. Rather than the original film's focus on empathy, as measured by the Voight-Kampf (VK) tests, I argue that sympathy best accounts for the updated distinguishing marker in the second film that is based on emotional stability. By privileging a form of consciousness predicated upon imaginative approximation instead of identity, sympathy presents a much more nuanced model for the Nexus-9's affective depth and humanising qualities. Offering a close reading of 2049's scenes of emotional interrogation through the prism of Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire, which is their source text, we can begin to tease out the underlying assumptions distinguishing replicant from human. Moreover, grounding this analysis in Elizabeth Povinelli's work on obligation and affect creates an overarching framework within which the questions of humanness, emotion, communication and power are interwoven in Blade Runner 2049.
In her work on empathy, D. Rae Greiner argues that humanising an ontologically distinct other is accomplished through self-consciousness, and can, in practice, range from the animation of the inanimate, through the objectification of the self, to, eventually, 'feeling into' others. Indeed, this empathetic [End Page 107] capacity to 'feel into' is, famously, the basis of the Voight-Kampf test, where those entities who appropriately display empathy are deemed to be human and those who do not become identified as replicants and are duly 'retired'. The suspense in the 1982 film builds, however, as it soon becomes clear that this is a false binary; not only are there virtually no displays of empathy by those determined to be human, but the replicants themselves display emotional nuance and depth that suggest the requisite humanising capacity for empathy. Even putting aside the critical question about Deckard's (Harrison Ford) own humanity for the moment, the canny responses offered by Rachael (Sean Young), the female protagonist and a replicant, to Deckard's questions hint at her ability to anticipate their impact on him, i.e. to feel into him. Moreover, Leon's (Brion James) violent frustration when questioned about his mother and the climactic battle scene where Roy (Rutger Hauer) yearns to convey what it feels like to 'be a slave' after having saved Deckard's life both suggest precisely the kind of emotional complexity that the VK test seeks to confirm.
Crucially, the test is ostensibly premised on an objective analysis of measurable responses. The very test itself, one that examines the face of the subject–measuring pupil dilation, muscle tension, perspiration, etc.–relies on the face not as in-and-of-itself meaningful but as a conduit to meaning, indicative of an inner depth (or lack thereof). Thus, there is a tangible materiality to empathy and to meaning, and yet, as Rebekah Sheldon suggests in The Child to Come, this materiality does not proclaim a universal truth or stable fact. For the face to transmit meaning, an other, as witness and interpreter, is required: 'The face [is] an ontological predicate'; that is, it is predicated on the existence of a 'human subject able to meaningfully respond' (Sheldon 11).1 For an animate body's face to be an index of that body's humanness, then, the viewer must herself be capable of interpreting the nuance and data that emerges from the observation. In other words, the ability to decide an animate's humanness, most powerfully enacted in the debates concerning Deckard...