A Unicorn Called Rachael: Biblical Allegory in Blade Runner 2049: Part I
In the heat shimmer of the deserts the silhouette of a weary traveler appears before you like a merging orbit of inkblots. This dusty wayfarer hails from far away, venturing this parched and desperate land to flee to his kindred. Behind in Canaan he leaves a dramatic tale that goaded him hither; a slighted brother, a stolen birthright, and a desperate flight as a pauper before the mercies of the frontier. Cue the sheer panoramas of deep desert, whipping wind, and all the B-reel our minds conjure. That’ll do.
The man’s name is a bit of an oddity in and of itself, probably one that his father bespoke and his mother detested. It resembles the Hebrew word meaning “heel,” a crooked organ emblematic of a crooked mind and life. Yes. This man is a Hebrew, and an underhanded one at that. Time and again the heel-holder would abuse trust, leverage, dissemble, lure, and switch in order to obtain. And at the end of each stratagem he would always come up short in clasping all of what he thought he wanted. Every challenge he met with legerdemains and end-runs to grasp and get, seldom on the up-and-up, and rarely head-on. Hook-and-crook was normally enough to win this stranger the largest wishbone of whatever he prized, tearing away just enough to claim the win. And his crooked heel would serve him reliably enough until he wrestled the Living G-d. For it was G-d who would teach him to trust.
The man’s name is Yaakov. Jacob.
Beauty is perhaps the cruelest element in both the dreamverse and that porously separated obligation we call life. It alights into the drear from some gilded beyond that eludes us, torturing and consuming all who can appreciate its rare, entrancing glow. Beauty turns heads. Beauty launches a thousand ships and sorrows alike. And like a chambered nautilus, you can never truly squeeze into the core of it, try as you may. It vanishes – or worse, it fades into the common. Yet often enough, this dark and bitter world outright slays it. Existence does not tolerate the pure and it certainly does not tolerate the beautiful.
Starcrossed beauty falls no more dramatically than in the dark Romanticism of Edgar Allan Poe, who played to the hand-and-hand communion between beauty and tragedy. Poe embodied beauty itself in doleful characters like Lenore, Ligeia, and Annabel Lee, all women of striking and otherworldly bloom, only to murder them with the jagged swoop of a pen and relegate them to the creepy-crawlies that await us all when we wink out.
Beauty is ever fragile. And beauty succumbs abruptly to tragedy with no promise of resurrection. Bleak. Gone. Never to return. And it is that bitter ache of its loss that embellishes its retrospect and exalts the time you clutched it. Beauty’s ghost, now arisen as a siren, is ever more haunting and transcendent.
After recently viewing Blade Runner 2049with my father, the rumors are true: the film is nothing short of a masterpiece. The story is compelling, the visuals are mesmerizing, and the scope is just phenomenal. And for all the vocal box office populists bewailing the intrusion into their lives of meaning and silence: pound sand. You’re why we can’t have good things, and why Montag’s wife needed a fourth TV. The movie was as stirring and existential as its 35-years forerunner, leaving my father and myself moonstruck and wistful as we exited the empty theater, aching in all the big thoughts we normally shelve to do the needful things. It’s clearly not fare for everyone, but for the happy few for whom it plucks a cord, sci-fi film hasn’t flexed such impressive élan in a very, very long time and damn did this feel good. The director, Denis Villeneuve, eschewed the family friendly appeal and cheap sugar rush that run the box office tables with safe and forgettable adaptations (I, Robot, Ender’s Game). Instead Villeneuve crafted a love letter to the connoisseurs and true fans and directed a film about what it’s supposed to be about. Fine spirits aren’t for everyone, and neither is profound reverie. If you’re not into either, stick with whatever Velveeta is currently outselling it. But don’t rain on our parade.
Now having dispensed with my general critique, I’m going to curtail the standard reviews of Blade Runner 2049for a more in-depth plunge into biblical allegory and its significance to both films; namely the life of an elusive unicorn, the biblical matriarch Rachel. This critique will come in two installments. Rachael or Rachel (however you spell it) is a name from the deep past limned with heady, mystical, and feminine power, and it seems no accident that Detective Rick Deckard’s songbird shares namesake with the Torah’s deepest symbol of lovelorn desire.
***SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT***
And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother's brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother's brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother's brother. And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept. – Genesis 29:10-11.
I’m going to assume my readers are already familiar with the scandalous domestic wars that rent the house of Jacob asunder in Genesis, but I will rehash the main points tucked away amid all the tedious begats.
Jacob bilks his brother Esau out of his birthright for stew and then wheedles the blessing of the firstborn from his father Isaac under false pretenses. Esau raises his voice and weeps. Fearing vengeance at the hands of Esau and at the advice of his mother Rebecca, Jacob turns tail for the East across the Jordan to the house of Abraham’s kinsman, Laban. Most notably, Jacob departs destitute (a risk Abraham and Isaac never took). With pockets full of lint and the promises of G-d and forefathers, Jacob arrives at the flocks of Laban. And it is here, at that portentous well, where Jacob spots Rachel for the first time. This time Jacob is the one who weeps. The rabbis offer an explanatory midrash for Jacob’s tears.
“Since he foresaw with the holy spirit that she (Rachel) would not enter the grave with him. Another explanation: Since he came empty-handed, he said, “Eliezer, my grandfather’s servant, had nose rings, and bracelets and sweet fruits in his possession, and I am coming with nothing in my hands.” - Bereishit Rabbathi by Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan
Jacob approaches his uncle Laban with no bargaining chips and is therefore strong-armed into moiling for seven grueling years for the hand of beloved Rachel. Yet on their wedding night, Jacob’s scheming uncle switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. The couple consummate in the dark and the next morning Jacob meets with crushing disappointment, to which Laban curtly explains that he simply marries off firstborn to firstborn. Had Jacob not stolen Esau’s birthright, none of this would have happened!
Jacob then works for Rachel for another seven long years. And even after he finally has her, he never truly has her, to paraphrase Rabbi David Fohrman. For as we shall see, Rachel is a beautiful ghost who would ever elude Jacob, slipping through his fingers both in life and in death. Rachel is initially barren while Leah yields Jacob a litter, and despite her unending tears of shame, Jacob persists in loving her all the more. Eventually G-d heeds Rachel and opens her womb, but only after years of bitter strife with Leah. Much later when Jacob finally took his wives, children, and flock and booked it back to Canaan, he inadvertently leveled a curse against his one and only Rachel. Upon arriving back in the Promised Land, Rachel perishes during childbirth. And for hasty reasons we don’t really understand, Rachel is buried distant from the family tomb. Then Egypt swallows up the only two fruits of Rachel’s womb, Joseph the mystical dreamer and Benjamin, threatening every trace that Jacob’s ideal even existed at all.
There’s always something in the way. Jacob thought he had her. Then he didn’t. Yet when he finally did, she was barren. Then after she finally bore fruit, Jacob accidentally cursed her into oblivion. Then she dies young. And when she dies, she’s buried apart. Egypt threatens to devour her two sons. And so it goes.
Cull, if you will, my opening meditations on the fragility of beauty, purity, and the ideal when it enters our intolerant world. Now you’re a grizzled Rick Deckard, and you find yourself sequestered in the chic and mesmerizing corporate lair of Niander Wallace, a billionaire tycoon with a god complex and a canny knack for allusion as droll as it is twisted. Undulations of aqueous light play vividly along the walls as Wallace in his morbid glory produces the skull of Deckard’s forlorn love, displayed like any other evidence exhibit as he reptiliously strokes her brainpan and recites Genesis 30:22:
“And G-d remembered Rachel, and G-d hearkened to her, and opened her womb.”
In light of Rachel’s tragic story arc in the Bible, the weight of this verse as uttered in passing during Wallace’s macabre interrogation lends a tragic esprit to the life of Rachael the replicant and uncovers what she really meant to Deckard and her “skinjob” race.
Deckard. In the first film we land on a hardboiled loner who deals in a fixer’s side of life to serve the paymasters of his era. Then amidst his seamy, drain-guttered world he embarks on a mission. Coming in from the surly backwash outside Tyrell Corp’s imposing ziggurat in the heavens, Deckard enters a pristine world of technomancy and lands an unexpected encounter with a fleeting angel.
The scene introducing Rachael treats the audience to a captivating skyline bathed in a rare, golden sun, a synthetic owl threshing before Rachael as a symbolic forerunner (the symbol for wisdom and for Lilith, Adam’s first wife). Then, her stilettos clopping out of the darkness and into the lobby, a ravishing woman glides into frontal view with stylistic poise, a one-of-a-kind modern coiffure, treating viewers with an iconic scene for not only the film itself but for cyberpunk at large. This timeless lobby scene is built entirely around Rachael, featuring her demure and vestal charm. In all, Ridley Scott crafted the scene for a potent sense of encounter. Now while Deckard is a stolid man by nature and probably holds his cards close, Gaff later betrays his interest with a priapic origami figurine cluing us in that the detective is hopelessly smitten.
It’s a veritable well scene. A visitor stands stricken by the sight of a lovely daughter while her scheming father figure looks on. The father promised a prototype yet switched it for Rachel, who doesn’t know she’s a replicant. Switched copies. So far, so good.
Everything that follows this encounter – from the first to the second Blade Runner - mirrors the plight of Jacob as he clawed desperately to have Rachel for his own. Deckard becomes a marked man, a fugitive on the lam in a nomadic clamber to cleave to his star-crossed love for as long as he can. Like biblical Rachel, replicant Rachael learns that she is cursed and living on counted days. Like the lachrymose bride of yore Rachael is barren, as are all replicants. And then a miracle birth opens up not only a family but an entire race; in one case Israel, in the other case legitimizing synthetic Man. Rachael dies in labor while giving birth to their daughter Ana who was a professional dreamweaver like biblical Joseph, the lad who seeded his kindred with his visions and became the seething envy of all his estranged siblings. Like Joseph, Ana was sadly exiled from her wandering father, her identity was concealed from visitors, and she was immured in a prison to dream her life away.
Blade Runner 2049 deftly splices national mythos within its plot, but it does not cease with the death of Rachael. But is the Rachael’s death where the allegory halts? After all, in the Torah Rachel’s woes do not perish silently with her, but instead fractal into the next generation in a whole new peepshow of repercussions. Along this vein I have discovered that Blade Runner 2049 also drags matriarchal motifs even further into the life of Agent K himself long after Rachael’s passing. But we won’t be able to unpack his protagonism without first setting the stage. In the next and final installment we’ll ditch the Jacob narrative for a trice and switch gears to ask what it means to be special.
I hope you enjoy it.