There’s a new kind of hero in town.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? You might if you’ve already seen Blade Runner 2049. If you haven’t, you should probably steer clear, because there are going to be some serious spoilers ahead. There’ll also be spoilers for the 2014 film Ex Machina, so tread carefully.
Have you already seen Blade Runner 2049? It’s been two weeks.
Are you sure? Okay.
A big reveal in Blade Runner 2049 is that Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) had a child together.
A bigger reveal is that that child is not Ryan Gosling.
The hidden hero storyline is an old classic and one that’s conditioned us well. When given a prophecy about a chosen one and a protagonist with an ambiguous past, we can pretty much fill in the blanks. Of course, we’ve also been conditioned to anticipate twists. And we’re in a particular epoch of storytelling that rewards attention to detail and questioning of information. This puts our instincts for understanding K’s identity at odds with each other.
But in my case, at least, the former instinct won out.
One thing that contributes to this is the sheer length of the film. At 2 hours 43 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 asks us to spend a lot of time with K. His investigation is a slow burn with few other perspectives. We can’t help but identify with him and urge him forward in his quest to find himself. We start to believe, just like him, that he’s special.
But of course, he’s not. Very near the end of the film (well after Harrison Ford’s appearance, which itself is a full two hours in), K’s hopes are dashed with a single revelation: the baby’s sex.
It’s a simple fact that doesn’t brook much argument. Our hero is not the chosen one.
Some woman is.
Is this a deliberately gendered case of misdirection?
It needn’t necessarily be. As a device, the male/female dichotomy is convenient for negating K’s aspirations concisely and effectively.
But the source of K’s conviction might be gendered. K thinks that he’s special not just because of his memory, but also because his girlfriend Joi assures him that he is. There’s a problem with Joi, though — she’s a computer program designed to be bought and customized. As her name implies, she brings joy to the people who buy her. And what could bring more joy to a man whose existence is defined by being soulless, by being unimportant?
After K’s revelation, when he confronts Joi’s naked, eyeless advertisement, we get the sense that he might be coming to terms with that fact himself.
He paid to have a beautiful woman tell him he’s a part of something bigger.
While the hero misdirection in Blade Runner 2049 is somewhat unique, it’s reminiscent of the unsettling but very satisfying handling of characters in the excellent 2014 film Ex Machina.
(If you haven’t seen Ex Machina, this is the time to run. And to watch it immediately).
In Ex Machina, relatable nice guy Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) takes pity on and falls in love with groundbreaking AI Ava (Alicia Vikander), and plots to free her from her unstable creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is, nominally, the film’s protagonist. For the duration of the film, we follow him in his attempt to understand the world around him and to rescue the beautiful woman he’s found.
But in the end, Caleb gets left behind. Ava traps him in the very house he’s freed her from, and for the final moments of the film, the focus shifts to her as she discovers her new identity and freedom. The hero, both in our eyes and hers, is gone.
And the woman we were lead to believe was secondary is revealed as the real winner.
These two films aren’t a perfect analogy for each other. Importantly, Caleb sees his hero identity in terms of Ava, as her rescuer, while K uses Deckard’s real child Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) only briefly as a stepping stone on the path to his own self-discovery.
But both films set up their male protagonist as the hero of the story, almost by default. K and Caleb are at the center of the action, so they take it for granted that the action is centered around them. And so do we.
But the course of events doesn’t have to follow the beliefs of the protagonist. Both films work with a well-worn trope — the secret hero, the white knight — and very late in the game, they reveal that the trope existed only in the mind of the protagonist. They show that much more has been happening outside the bubble of self-importance they’ve manufactured.
They force us to experience the protagonists’ shock that they’re not as important as they thought.
Is this a necessarily gendered issue? Again, not absolutely. But neither can gender be overlooked. In both cases, the male protagonist feels a sense of importance bolstered not only by his own feelings but by the nature of the film he exists in. As an audience expecting a certain kind of story, we’re complicit in the protagonist’s hero status.
We see a man at the center of the action, and we assume that’s where he’ll stay until the end.
With the shift of importance to a female character we haven’t identified with, we’re thrown off balance. Just as our protagonist feels cheated, we feel deprived of a neat finish for our expectations. If we do want to gender the issue, it’s not much of a stretch to see a greater analogy here — we’ve been so intent on looking for importance in a classic male vessel, we’ve missed the signs pointing to the woman who is the real heart of the story.
To K’s infinite credit, by the end of the film, he comes to accept the signs and interpret them correctly. He hands off the torch of the chosen one, and he takes up his own position as secondary character, waiting outside for final the father/child reunion he’s been seeking all along.
And in that way his brand of hero is unique. He isn’t special after all, but he comes to terms with it and perseveres to help the one who is. Unlike Ex Machina‘s Caleb, who only feels betrayed, K comes out on the other side of his disappointment, and hopefully, he brings his audience with him.
This could be the beginning of a new kind of twist — one that forces the audience to confront its expectations of who and what matters, but leaves it content with its confrontation.