Yesterday, after a long successful day of re-watching Mad Men, I decided to take a little break and instead turned to Blade Runner: 2049, a movie that I had loved in theaters and was really hoping would hold up on rewatch (it did). In our initial review Brian and I both raved about the movie, but we weren’t able to discuss what was pretty easily one of my favorite movie twists of the year: the reveal that Ryan Gosling’s “K” is in fact exactly what he always was – a replicant with false memories, not Rachael and Deckard’s child as he is led to believe for a majority of the middle act. Truthfully, thank god.
The original Blade Runner too focuses on a bunch of regular old joes. Sure, Deckard is particularly good at what he does, and sure, Roy Batty is particularly successful in his attempts to infiltrate Tyrell Corporation, but he’s not the first Replicant to go rogue (because, you know, the police have a whole division of Blade Runners to deal with that exact problem). They’re just two guys in this massive world machine who, at the end, make choices that define them in relation to that wider world. Roy’s decision to save Deckard, and Deckard’s decision to ditch are made all the more noble because they’re just random schmucks.
But somewhere along the line, media lost this thread. Maybe it was around the time when Luke went from being some random-ass farmer to the son of the major antagonist. Or maybe when Harry Potter was, from birth, The Boy Who Lived (and because that isn’t enough to make him special we later learn he has a prophecy about him as well). Somewhere along the line the most popular stories became about people who were special. Even when they aren’t actively “a chosen one” they still frequently feel like it – movies will oftentimes bend over backwards to prove that the protagonist is indeed special in some way, because they are the best at what they do and everyone cares about them.
“The Chosen One” is bad storytelling for a lot of reasons, but it’s understandable from both a structural and a wish fulfillment aspect. Structurally it makes the first act a breeze: instead of maneuvering your character into the story, the story reaches out to grab your character. Harry Potter doesn’t have to make any active choice to engage with the plot because the plot makes a thousand active choices to engage with Harry Potter. Everyone knows who he is, already loves him or hates him, and already wants him to triumph or kill him. Easy peasy.
From a wish fulfillment aspect, it also makes sense. When K begins to imagine he might be the replicant who was born, Joi eggs him on. “I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how.” He refutes her to which she responds “it’s okay to dream a little.” We all want confirmation we’re special in some way, and finding we have heroic origins sews that up for us easily without us ever lifting a finger.
But it’s not good storytelling, because in reality there is no reflection in reality. We understand the want to be special, to be “chosen”, but, unless you’re the second coming of Jesus currently reading this, none of us are “chosen”, none of us are special upon birth. That’s why I’m so happy that two of my favorite “twists” in the previous year buckled down on that and used our indoctronization to the “chosen one” against us. In both The Last Jedi and in Blade Runner: 2049, lineage offers the protagonists a way out of their average (or, worse, tarnished) pasts, and in both cases the promise of being inherently special is ripped away suddenly and quietly.
The Last Jedi did most of its “chosen one” work meta-textually – while J. J. Abrams didn’t explicitly reveal Rey’s parents and the did hint that it’d be important, it was ultimately the internet that began to cast her as the daughter of various characters: Leia and Han, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan, Jar-Jar Binks, etc. When she was revealed to be “nobody” people were pissed – but as I wrote in our December Round Up it works better this way, because we, like Rey, have gone through the emotional journey of trying to cast her as a player in the story. In the movie’s hilarious dark-side hole sequence the huge line of past and future Reys insists “this all needs to be leading to something”, implying her story has an arch determined by her beginning and leading to some predestined end. But that’s not true, and when Kylo Ren finally shatters her delusion (potentially self-delusion) she is freed to step outside that chain, to unshackle herself from her imagined special beginning and, equally, any sort of predestined ending.
K’s special beginnings are ripped away from him in an equally abrupt moment. Meeting with the leader of the replicant resistance he is told Deckard and Rachael had a daughter. He is stunned, and when the leader realizes what is happen she takes what seems almost condescending pity on him. “You imagined it was you.”
But, like Rey, and like Deckard and Roy before him, once K is freed from wondering and worrying about where he came from and if he is special (no) he can make decisions on their own merit. He isn’t a chosen one, so what does he do? He has no beginning and no end. Both Blade Runner films are obsessed with origins: who is replicant, who is human, etc. and both come down on ambiguity. Truthfully, it doesn’t really matter: we will always find ways to raise ourselves up and cast others down based on where they come from. And likewise, anyone from anywhere can be a hero.
K is tasked with killing Deckard, but before he sets out to do that he runs into a Joi hologram – not his Joi, because she has been killed, but another one. It’s almost a slap in the face, but it’s also a callback to the moment when she said she always knew he was special. She is a hologram, he is a replicant, they both come from nothing and nowhere with “factory settings” but that doesn’t strip their actions of meaning. She did see something special in him, regardless of why she saw something special in him – it could be a factory preset, but the movie suggests that their relationship is one of both nature and nurture, and they’re both special not because of where they’ve come from but because they have made a series of choices since they were originally unleashed into the world. K ignores his directive to kill Deckard and spares him instead, taking him to his daughter. As they stand outside in the snow Deckard turns to K and asks “why, who am I to you?” The answer could have been, a few minutes ago, that Deckard is the man who made K special, who made him a replicant “chosen one”. But now the answer is… not that. The answer is “nothing, you are no one special to me, and I’m no one special myself”. K makes the decision because that’s the decision he feels he should make in the moment. Isn’t that more powerful? Isn’t that more applicable to what we, all just random Joes ourselves, should aspire to?