The Rejection of Entitlement
How "Blade Runner 2049" and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" subvert viewers' expectations.
Warning: Major Spoilers ahead.
2017 was a year that begged for rejection, for cleansing fires. But everything that was awful about last year serves also as a reminder of our human need for love, connection, and for understanding how we view our world and our place within it. These themes are approached in many movies, but it’s rare that big budget, genre-heavy blockbusters dare to touch them. Last year it happened that two, Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, not only approached these heady ideas, but made them central to their stories.
Star Wars is a film franchise built on the legends of its characters – and not just through how those characters have become iconic to us, the moviegoer, but through how, since the events of Return of the Jedi, the “ordinary” people in that galaxy far, far away have become enamored with Luke, Leia, Han and the Jedi. Because of this self-referential reverence, The Force Awakens felt nostalgic for—and, to some, like a retread of —the past. And Until The Last Jedi, each of the films preceding it embraced the idea that these characters were special: singular, chosen outliers in a galaxy made up of an incalculable number of citizens.
In part because of how much ground each Star Wars film has been tasked to cover and in part because of the tradition of the text crawl that precedes those films, there are monumental gaps in the lives and stories of the characters on screen. These gaps, when paired with the legendary legacies of the films’ heroes and villains, leave fans wondering over the origins of those characters. Who is Snoke? What is Rey’s parentage? How is she connected to the Skywalkers? And more so, how will these secret origins be revealed and what effect will it have on the story? These are all questions asked and obsessed over in the year between the releases of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
And now we know the answer: Rey is nobody. Her only connection with the Skywalkers is the relationship she forges onscreen with Luke. And as for Snoke? Just another in a line of Sith who was easily dispatched in order for other, more important characters to assert themselves.
It’s significant that Rey is a nobody from nowhere. Her origin is a rejection of the old tropes, and not just the tropes of how a Star Wars story is told, but of how the Jedi have seen themselves as more important, more gifted, and more responsible for saving the galaxy from the Empire. It was this same perspective that doomed the Jedi, and, arguably, the same one that gave rise to figures like Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, and Kylo Ren.
This rejection is echoed boldly throughout the film. You can find it in each daring Solo-esque plan that, in every movie before this, would have succeeded, but that in The Last Jedi, fails—often spectacularly, and with nearly dooming consequences. This rejection is in Yoda’s cavalier burning of the tree of knowledge, in Kylo furiously crushing his wannabe Vader helmet, and in the final shot of the film, when one of the children that Rose and Finn encountered on planet Canto Bight uses the force to guide a broom into his hand, before spinning it like a lightsaber and looking up at the stars. This child is effectively in the same place that Rey was in before The Force Awakens: one of the countless peoples with potential to affect a great many others. This child is the same as us, because we all have that potential. The point is that no one is chosen and that the myth of the chosen one is as damaging and inauthentic as it is inspiring.
Which brings us to Blade Runner 2049. In the world of the film, human characters see Agent K (played by Ryan Gosling) as inauthentic. He’s a replicant who has been created and programmed to act as a Blade Runner: an agent who’s mission it is to hunt down rogue replicants and eliminate them. And K, for his part, follows this programming unquestionably. As the film opens, K is literally asleep at the wheel of his hover car. But when he begins to suspect that he might be the product of a real “miracle” birth, the first child born from replicant parents, K begins to feel like he might be special after all. Not only might he have a soul, a thing denied replicants in the stories told to them by humans, but maybe he is “real” after all.
K’s equally “unreal” girlfriend Joi, a computer A.I. created by the Wallace Corporation, reinforces his belief. She tells him that he deserves a name, “Joe,” and that she “Always knew he was special.” But where K’s story gets interesting is where Blade Runner 2049’s writers, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, depart from the idea of entitlement. K learns that he is not special, that he is not the chosen offspring of Deckard and Rachel. He’s just another replicant who has been embedded with someone else’s memories.
This revelation could make for a pretty defeating ending. But what K discovers is that by believing in his own “realness,” in his own humanity, he achieves it. It turns out that the only thing separating a human from a replicant is perspective. After all, as the film points out, whether it’s ones and zeroes or the alphabet of a person’s genetic code, it’s all programming.
As tourists in the future world of Blade Runner 2049, moviegoers are provided a bird’s eye view of the cramped, squalid Los Angeles of the future, and it’s easy to imagine that with so many nameless replicants inhabiting the bare cubes of that city, there are at least a few more who share a part of K’s experience. That every day, a few more wake up and feel that human connection to others, and by doing so break down the walls between replicant and “real.”
Like Rey in The Last Jedi, K is nobody from nowhere. And he is also a rejection: Of the society he exists in, of the competing factions vying for control, and of the idea of specialness. But because he believes he is special, even if that belief is fleeting, he can’t help but become so. Just like that nameless child, looking up at the stars, broom handle gripped like the hilt of a light saber at the end of The Last Jedi, he believes, just for a moment that he is more than he is. And so he is. And so are we. Because none of us are Skywalkers… but maybe, we’re something (or someone) more.