“It’s too bad she won’t live,” muses police officer Gaff at the end of the original Blade Runner. “But then again, who does?” Although his cryptic, now-iconic line has particular meaning in the context of the film, the question of what it means to live is the basis of many of our greatest movies. Ironically, the films from this year that most poignantly address what it means to be human aren’t really about traditionally developed characters, but robots (Blade Runner 2049), animals (War for the Planet of the Apes), and anonymous soldiers (Dunkirk). Through these films, we come to see humanity not as a biological charge, but as a category to be fulfilled and a kind of task to be undertaken.
A neon, grayscale dystopian epic, Blade Runner 2049 tells the story of replicant police officer K (Ryan Gosling), who struggles to understand his place in an unfolding mystery about the identity of the first organically conceived replicant child. This child has the potential to “break the world” because of what it represents: a tearing down of the wall between humans and replicants. Through coming to believe that he is this figure, K starts to ontologically become human, which is to say that he starts to behave as if he is one.
Believing he’s more than a replicant, K becomes aware of his own curiosity, desire, vulnerability, and, ultimately, the potential for devastating loss—emotions that were previously foreign to him. He transforms from being simply a blade runner—basically a police-sanctioned killing machine—to a free-thinking subject who must make decisions on the basis of his own commitments and beliefs. He begins to care about what he does, because he starts to recognize that what makes life special is the fact that it can so easily be lost. This is why the death of his digital girlfriend—who also becomes “real” in a sense, when K transfers her data to a portable device with no backup—is so tragic for him. In the end, he comes to understand that the emotions he feels and the decisions he makes are what give his life meaning.
So, when an incredible twist reveals that the sought-after child isn’t, in fact, K, but memory designer Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), it throws into crisis the question of his “humanity.” K then chooses to sacrifice his life to save Ana’s father, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), preventing Deckard from being tortured into giving up Ana and ensuring that the revolution survives. Though K has no obligation to Deckard, he gives his life for the sake of a political idea: the now-plausible emancipation of replicants. This is the brilliance of Blade Runner 2049: that it shows how a protagonist born with no conception of freedom—or in the film’s vernacular, no soul—can come to freely decide how he ought to live.
In the excellent Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy, we’re told a similar story in which an experiment-gone-wrong gives apes a heightened capacity for reason and logic. In a moving scene from the first film, ape leader Caesar—who’s spent his entire life living in labs and attics—visits the forest for the first time. It’s a transcendent moment for Caesar, who, through his first communion with nature, comes to grasp a vision of utopia for his species. When he subsequently encounters a barking dog on a leash, he begins to understand the difference between pet and master, asking his owner, “What is Caesar?” Thus, he comes to gain a profound understanding of the conditions for the possibility of his freedom, realizing that these are conditions that he can change.
At the beginning of War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s plan to realize a utopian society for his fellow apes is disrupted by a rogue army colonel (Woody Harrelson), who sneaks into their camp and kills most of Caesar’s family. Caesar’s designs on liberation are sidetracked by a classic—and classically human—dilemma: the question of whether to seek revenge or to move on. Consumed with rage, he decides to seek out the colonel, a decision that lands his clan in an internment camp. His inability to move beyond an antiquated notion of justice is an impediment to the freedom of his people, and it’s what makes him a tragic figure.
Similar to K’s fate in Blade Runner 2049, Caesar dies after carrying out a complicated plan to free his fellow apes from bondage. Passing away on a tree stump, watching his people finally cross into their new homeland, Caesar knows his sacrifice was worthwhile. His death exorcises the self-destructive impulses of primitive society—both man and ape—ensuring independence for his people.
Dunkirk may seem like the odd film out here, but in some ways it’s the most powerful example: We’re given a set of essentially blank-slate characters who make decisions using only cold, hard reason in the face of extreme circumstances. They aren’t given backstories, or even personalities—at least not in the typical sense—and some have criticized the film for its lack of compelling characters and character development.
But Dunkirk simply has a different conception of “characters” than most films do, as “identity” is limited to what the film’s characters do on-screen—no more and no less. This is exemplified in the film’s “sea” narrative, in which civilian captain Mr. Dawson and his crew—specifically, his son Peter and Peter’s friend George—save a soldier from a sinking ship. During a heated argument regarding whether to turn back to England or continue on to Dunkirk, the soldier accidentally knocks George down a flight of stairs.
The soldier is wrought with grief over this turn of events, and as the film’s tension reaches a boiling point, George is discovered to have died. When the soldier asks whether George is OK, Peter lies, saying that he’s going to survive—lying because there’s simply nothing to be gained from holding the soldier accountable. Peter’s decision represents pure character development, but it also brings to light that it isn’t the shell-shocked soldier’s fault that this is all happening—they’re all just trapped in this constellation of events that none of them want anything to do with but must decide how to deal with.
These three films are tied together in how they dehumanize their characters to show us what it could be to truly be human. We witness the graceful evolution of protagonists who discover for themselves what it means to be free—who begin to act in light of those notions, reaching towards the lives they wish to lead. Their decisiveness, sacrifice, and forgiveness are not simply banal tropes, but are envisioned anew as truly meaningful acts.
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