We often hear that films, like all forms of art, are “subjective.” But what does that actually mean?
There is a deeply personal side to watching movies that we rarely acknowledge. Reviews, for good reason, generally address the more “objective” qualities of a film—the quality of its camerawork or soundtrack, for instance, or whether or not its actors were convincing in their roles. Then there is film criticism, which, like its literary counterpart, delves into the themes and background of the work. But even if you combine these, as Roger Ebert often did, you still have only half the picture of the true experience of a film.
How were you feeling when you entered the theater? Were you still thinking about how your boss chewed you out earlier in the day? Maybe the film triggered a long-forgotten childhood memory, or a character’s voice sounded just like your mother’s. Perhaps a comic relief sidekick everyone hated was your favorite character, if only because you once knew someone just like him.
These are not objective measures of a film, but we should not discount them, either. After all, there is a reason few critics agree on their favorite films. What pushes a film from great to magnificent is not perfect technical precision or classically trained actors; it’s the moments when something inside us connects with something in the film, and for a time, the line between reality and performance fades away.
With that said, let me tell you about a time when, for me, a great film became magnificent.
I saw Blade Runner 2049 four times when it entered theaters in October of 2017. I like to watch great films more than once, but four times in the span of a few weeks was unusual even for me. I’ve already written an analysis of some of the film’s themes, which provides plenty of reasons why I should like it, but that’s not the whole story. You see, in October of 2017, I was working as a manager at a big-box retailer (if you would like to know which one, consider that the experience of working there felt like repeatedly banging my head against a brick wall, and its name references that same wall). Despite several positive developments in my life (including marriage), I was languishing in depression. I have always had something of a morose personality, but the deeply cynical realities of working in this particular environment were driving me into the ground at an alarming rate.
Along came 2049. Somewhere around the scene where K (Ryan Gosling) learns—or thinks he learns—that he is more than your average replicant, I began to sense a working-class parable in the making. K is essentially a slave at the beginning of the film, and he is closely monitored for any signs of dissatisfaction with his role via a “baseline test.” He is an arm of the State, which could just as easily be a megacorporation, and his identity is tied to that entity. Developing his own sense of self is forbidden for two principal reasons: First, it would affect his ability to do his job. Hunting replicants depends on accepting the narrative that they are inferior and unworthy of free will, because denying that narrative means empathizing with those he is supposed to kill or capture. Second, a sense of self, with all the emotions and aspirations that come with it, would rob the powerful of much of their hold on society. Consider Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a rock star of an entrepreneur who derives his immense wealth and power from the assumption that his replicants are completely under his control. Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), K’s boss, also alludes to a figurative wall separating humans and replicants that must remain in place to prevent all-out war between the oppressors and their slaves.
I connected with K immediately, because I felt similar pressures to conform and defer to questionable authority. Staff meetings were thinly-disguised baseline tests; Incomprehensibly stupid instructions were sometimes given for seemingly no other reason than to ensure I would blindly do as I was told. Employees with difficult home lives or mental issues were steamrolled unceremoniously by an unsympathetic system run by traumatized nutbags. A certain deceased entrepreneur (you might say he contributed a “ton” of bricks to the “wall” I mentioned earlier. Gosh, I’m clever) was practically worshipped as a prophet for his pure and altruistic motives, even as the corporation he founded raked in monstrous profits by terraforming local economies to suit its business model. Wallace would have been proud.
It felt good to see K realize, all at once, that he had far more potential as an individual than he had been allowed to believe. The rage and sadness he felt at simultaneously understanding the extent of his oppression and becoming aware of his own capacity for free thought made me think about how I might have been limiting myself in my depressive haze. As tears streamed from K’s face, I recalled a time when I had broken down in tears in the middle of an aisle at work, having dwelled a moment too long on the vast difference between what I wanted to do with my life and what I was doing with my life. I felt trapped on a path I had never intended to take. I sensed that K, too, felt his life had been guided by a malevolent hand.
Of course, K eventually realizes that he is not, in fact, the “chosen one” he believed himself to be. This is the film’s most brilliant touch, because by the time this happens, K has already steered himself onto a path of self-actualization. As it turns out, the idea that he was the first natural-born replicant was never his primary motivator. It was simply a push in the right direction, a red pill that allowed him to see past the life society had built for him. His true motivation is the knowledge that he is an individual, that he serves no master but himself.
This internal drive is underlined by his rejection of the replicant freedom fighters, who seem at first to be saviors but treat him as just another cog in the machine, a pawn to be sacrificed, an arm of the rebellion. He defies their orders to kill Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), saving the old hunter instead. Rather than swapping one set of overlords for another, he serves only his own will.
The scene in which K fights to save Deckard, battling against the ocean’s inexorable tide and Wallace’s replicant minion, struck me more powerfully than any other part of the film. It has been noted by many critics that the enormous waves thrashing into K in this climactic scene function as a nod to Rutger Hauer’s final rain-drenched scene in the original Blade Runner. While this is certainly true, the waves meant something far more profound to me. As I watched K struggle to hold his ground against the unstoppable elements, I began to feel a perverse sense of pride. I know what that feels like, I thought. I’ve been doing that every day.
The waves represented every outside force conspiring to weigh me down. They represented internal forces like doubt, mental exhaustion, and fatalism. They represented the overwhelming power of a society that wanted to cram me into a corner and leave me there to rot. And yet, dealing with these same forces, K fought on.
Maybe I could, too.
From that day forward, whenever I began to slip into despair, I would remember K standing firm as waves whaled into him on the shore, and I would find the strength to keep going. I had never had what you might call an “idol” growing up, but suddenly K, a fictional character, fit into that slot perfectly. In less than two months, I found a job that was better in every way, a job where I could use my degree and where the work environment did not make me feel like I was competing on “Survivor.” This was no coincidence. Crazy as it may sound, Denis Villeneuve’s film inspired me to climb out of the quicksand and better myself. 2049 understands what it is like to be dehumanized by a power structure consumed with its own self-interest and corrupt, insular morality. It understands how people become machines, and how machines become people. Regardless of whether or not Villeneuve and the writers fully intended to create a story about a working-class drone rising up to defy the dictates of society, that was the film I saw, and I will forever be grateful for it.