Bladerunner 2049, Baseline Test. The Dick/Nabokov interlink
While not giving away the end of the film this article does contain significant spoilers.
The sheer philosophical complexity and visual sweep of Bladerunner 2049 have been widely critically attested. The film’s concerns regarding the nature of self and the manner in which an individual perceives their own existence elevates the original Bladerunner’s ‘sci-fi- film-noir with intellectual depth’ to previously unattained height. Cinematically it extends what was already one of the most innovative of film designs (inventing cyber-punk, in its wake) into the more sophisticated visual territories of both Kubrick and Tarkovsky, particularly the latter’s remarkable opus Stalker. It also happens to be a cracking good movie.
To say that the film works on multiple levels would be an understatement and can only be properly appreciated by returning to the film itself. Yet, perhaps the most profoundly erudite and singular intellectual pirouette occurring within BR2049 is located within its ‘Baseline Test’ sequence.
In a film not short of edge, tension and downright weirdness this section of the film is undoubtedly the strangest and most stressful. Perhaps well illustrated by the people sitting near me during my second viewing of the film who, completely entranced by the action, gasped an incredulous “what was that!?” at the culmination of the scene.
To explain the context; BR2049’s protagonist, K (aka ‘Joe’), is a new model replicant, of obedient design, designed to replace the old maverick Nexus-6 models. As a Bladerunner, it is his job to ‘retire’ fellow replicants. The baseline test, which approximates to the Voight-Kampff empathy test that Deckard submits the character of Rachel to in the original Bladerunner, is utilised to gauge if K is functioning within correct parameters after each ‘retirement’ that he has performed. Basically, it’s a replicant’s post-traumatic, diagnostic stress-test.
In the most disquieting psychological computer interrogation sequence since Eddie Constantine faced the dictatorial, tape slowed slur-voiced Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Goddard’s seminal dystopian Alphaville, Ryan Gosling’s K sits, blank-faced, in a bare white room, facing an unblinking lens. One hundred and one lines of question and reply dialogue are machine-gunned at breakneck speed with a hectoring intensity conducted to the background of a nerve wincing continuous high pitched whine. And yet, the lines sound like poetry. For a good reason.
…blood-black nothingness began to spin.
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark. A tall white fountain played.
The ‘tell’ takes place earlier in the film where K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi, flourishes a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire at him and asks if she’d like her to read to him. He, casually, remarks to her that she ‘hates that book’. Until the Baseline Test, this literary reference seems randomly placed. But the computer-interrogator is quoting verse; the 999 line meta-poem that lies at the heart of Pale Fire.
Written (within the novel) by a fictional poet, John Shade, with a commentary provided by a fictional academic colleague, Charles Kimbote, Pale Fire stands as one of Nabokov’s finest works and, like BR2049 itself, is a text open to multiple interpretations. On a fundamental level, it links into BR2049 via a poetic call to the consideration of the control of cellular and biological systems and what the experience of existing within such a system is like. But a more nuanced borrowing is also taking place. The tension within Pale Fire lies between the author of the poem and the commentator, whose intention and function is ostensibly to throw light upon the poetic text but serves as much to obscure it by inevitably attempting to shift the narrative into one of his own. Likewise, in BR2049, the tension and resolution in the film are centred on the question of whether this is a story about the continuation of Deckard and Rachel’s lives or about the predicament that K finds himself in. On one level it is both but, ultimately, a resolution can only occur when one part of the text is side lined and much of the dramatic structure of the film is acquired through this very conceit. The emotional punch of the film’s ending is almost entirely dependent upon it.
The particular intensity that Gosling brings to the Baseline Test sections of the film, especially in its second occurrence where he devastatingly fails the Test, lies in the fact that the actor himself generated most of the dialogue, riffing upon Nabokov’s poem in order to allow himself to understand his character, K’s, psyche. This is a window onto how it feels to be a functioning replicant, and then a non-functioning one.
Let’s move on to the system. System.
Feel that in your body? The system.
What does it feel like to be part of the system? System.
Is there anything in your body that wants to resist the system? System.
Do you get pleasure out of being a part of the system? System.
Have they created you to be a part of the system? System.
Is there security in being a part of the system? System.
Is there a sound that comes with the system? System.
We’re going to go on! Cells.
They were all put together at a time! Cells.
Millions and billions of them! Cells.
Were you ever arrested? Cells.
Did you spend much time in the cell? Cells.
Have you ever been in an institution? Cells.
Do they keep you in a cell? Cells.
When you’re not performing your duties do they keep you in a little box? Cells.
Arguably the major shift from Bladerunner to BR2049 is that the earlier film concerns itself with what it is to be human. The latter film moves on to the more sophisticated query of what it is to have importance, both within the context of a society but, more specifically, to oneself.
At its heart BR2049 is concerned with the search for and aspiration to identity. The holographic Joi, technologically the least ‘human’ of the characters, paradoxically displays the most humane tendencies. As she has the most ‘slight’ of existences she has the most to aspire to and the most to hope for. In this world, those who ‘have’ have the most fear of losing and it’s little wonder that the coldest characters are, largely, the human ones, concerned with shoring up a crumbling status quo via the control of servile replicants. The older model replicants aspire to the right to existence, self-determination and, implicitly, to step into the shoes of the humans and inherit what is left of a ruined world. K’s position is the most problematic. The plot propels him into a duel conundrum. Firstly, questioning the nature of his existence and its meaning and secondly, what his precise role is in the events that unfold in the film. As he comes to believe that he himself occupies a central role in the narrative so his valuation of himself alters, he is both broken yet raised up by it. Heartbreakingly he ultimately discovers that he is not at the centre of things and the narrative is not his, again shifting his self-perspective. Like all of us, K learns that he, not nothing yet neither is he special. But in aspiring to be more, in the act of wanting to be more, he becomes more. He learns the capacity to change himself.
Expect sales of Nabokov’s Pale Fire to be rising daily.
Keiron Phelan writer and musician 2017
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About the Author
Keiron Phelan is a musician and writer.