This post discusses plot points from “Incendies” (2010), “Prisoners” (2013), “Sicario” (2015), “Arrival” (2016), and “Blade Runner 2049” (last weekend).
Despite the care and craft that went into creating “Blade Runner 2049’s” environmentally ruined landscapes — a desolate dystopia of the first order, one that seems to be rotting away from the inside out — the most interesting element of the film has to do not with death but life.
Not hoary philosophical concepts about the meaning of life or the meaning of self or the meaning of meaning but, simply, life. New life, fresh life. “A miracle,” as Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) puts it in the film’s opening moments, hinting at the truth K (Ryan Gosling) will come to learn as the movie unfolds: that a replicant — synthetic humans designed to perform slave labor in humanity’s offworld colonies and previously thought to be sterile — gave birth, upending our, and their, understanding of the replicants’ place in the universe.
The miracle of birth stands at the center of Villeneuve’s latest and is the axis around which much of his oeuvre spins. He seems fascinated by the concept of creating life and set on exploring what we owe to those we make.
“Blade Runner 2049” asks us to consider the difference between being created and being given the power of creation: “I’ve never retired something that was born before,” K, a later-model, highly obedient replicant who hunts earlier, less compliant models, tells his boss when she demands he kill the child born to a replicant woman. The difference between being born and being made in a factory gives him pause. Whereas brilliant industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) sees replicant births as nothing more than a more efficient manner of producing slaves to aid the preservation and spread of humanity, the synthetic lifeforms bound to serve on Earth and beyond see it as something more: a future. Those who cannot reproduce are doomed to leave nothing behind — their memories and experiences disappearing upon their expiration.
Those who can propagate, however, have a future. They have meaning. And they have a reason to fight for freedom.
“Blade Runner 2049’s” lackluster box office suggests we’ll never get to see the replicant uprising teased at in Villeneuve’s final act. But we do see the sacrifices fathers must make for their offspring in the way Deckard (Harrison Ford) has hidden both his progeny and also himself: He’s a recluse, one who has given up the chance to be with the only person he loves. What does he owe her? Nothing more than a shot at life.
This is the central tension in “Arrival,” a shattering film about love and loss seen through the short life of a child. If you could see the future as Louise Banks (Amy Adams) can and that future showed you a life well-lived and well-loved cruelly cut short by disease, would you still make the choice to experience it? Do you owe it to your prospective child to give her the few years of existence she has been meted out by the string-cutting fates? Or do you negate her life, wipe it from existence, spare yourself the pain of watching her grow and learn and die?
In “Incendies,” Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated film about a pair of twins searching for their brother (whom they did not know existed) and their father (whom they thought was dead) following their mother’s passing, there isn’t much of a choice at all. Her twins are a product of rape and incest, and she gives birth shackled to a gurney in a Lebanese prison. Their birth is part of her punishment, but their lives are all that remains to tell her amazing story of struggle and survival — a pair of miracles born from a moment of ugliness and agony.
“Prisoners,” meanwhile, asks how far a father will go to protect his family, what responsibility he has to flout the community’s law to keep his progeny secure. “You made us feel so safe, you told us you could protect us from anything,” Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) wife screams at him following the disappearance of their daughter. In order to re-create that sense of security, Keller brutalizes the kidnapping suspect, beating his face into a puffy mush, scalding him with hot water in a jury-rigged enhanced-interrogation chamber.
As a rather on-the-nose allegory for the war on terrorism, Jackman’s character in “Prisoners” becomes a stand-in for George W. Bush — the father figure expected to keep us safe after 9/11, one willing to do anything to protect the nation from harm — while his neighbors, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, explicitly turn a blind eye to what they know is wrong. “We’re not going to help Keller,” Davis’s character, whose daughter is also missing, says. “But we won’t stop him, either. Let him do what he needs to do.”
Parenthood and procreation mean making choices to protect the future. This is why “Sicario” closes not on Benicio del Toro’s wily hitman or Emily Blunt’s naïf of an FBI agent but on a fatherless little boy playing soccer as gunfire echoes through the streets of Juarez. The boy’s father is dead on the side of a road because he chose to work for the cartels in an effort to provide for his family.
What future is in store for such a child? What hope does he possibly have? These are the questions Villeneuve forces us to confront. And, as we’ve seen in his movies, there are no easy answers.