Metropolis Redux: How Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 Update Fritz Lang’s Vision for the 21st Century

A rudimentary Google search will turn up multitudes of think pieces expounding on the myriad ways Blade Runner carries both the visual and thematic DNA of its most direct cinematic ancestor, Metropolis. Though the comparison between these films is not new, many analyses emphasize either the differences or the fidelity to the Philip K. Dick novel on which it’s based. All of these arguments are beside the point. Taken together, the two Blade Runner films represent a fully formed update of Fritz Lang’s futuristic vision from 1927. This is not to say there are no differences between them, but by the end of Blade Runner 2049, you arrive at the same, albeit darker, place. More specifically, each film converts and consolidates the archetypes of Metropolis in a very convincing way. While Metropolis is not as nihilistic as the Blade Runner films, both films reach the same conclusions. The former still believes in the human heart whereas the latter sees salvation in the promise of a transhuman future.

Great is Man and his Tower of Babel

Metropolis (1927)

Maria: Today I will tell you the legend of THE TOWER OF BABEL… “Come, let us build us a tower whose top may reach unto the stars! And the top of the tower we will write the words: Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!” But the minds that had conceived the Tower of Babel could not build it. The task was too great. So they hired hands for wages. But the hands that built the Tower of Babel knew nothing of the dream of the brain that had conceived it. BABEL. BABEL. BABEL. BABEL. One man’s hymns of praise became other men’s curses. People spoke the same language, but could not understand each other…

In Metropolis, you are presented with two different technocratic overlords who have competing motives, but Lang is intent on creating sympathy for the idea that Metropolis can be governed in a more humane way by mediating the hand and the heart. Despite Rotwang’s attempt to sow seeds of anarchy and rebellion by deploying a replicant Whore of Babylon, Metropolis resolves by having Freder fulfill his Christ-like destiny as the mediator between the minds of the city and the hands of the slave underclass. It’s never explained how this mediation will carry out, but you’re meant to be satisfied with the idea that the overlords of society can appease the proles as long as there is a liberating individual whose heart is filled with compassion.

By contrast, the two Blade Runner films split the Freder role between Deckard and K with K fulfilling the Christ role by reuniting Deckard with the replicant-human hybrid miracle child. Instead of an immaculate conception of the Son of God, you have a techno hybrid Isis. As a memory maker, Stelline represents the mediation between heart and hand because she gives the replicant slave population the one thing that fills their lives with meaning and purpose: happy memories.

Where Metropolis splits the leader and the scientist archetype between Frederson and Rotwang, Blade Runner consolidates the two into in both Tyrell and Wallace. It is understood that both of these men are the real rulers of society. Not only do they supply the raw labor power necessary to keep the engines of society running, they supply the digital stimulation necessary to keep the remaining population distracted and compliant.

In contrast to THX 1138 or Logan’s Run which portray the protagonist either defying or destroying the control systems of society, neither Metropolis nor the Blade Runner films want the Tower of Babel to come down. Both Freder and K fulfill their divine mission by being the bridge of empathy between the technocrats and the replicant revolutionaries. Neither Scott, Villeneuve or Lang see the technocratic Tower of Babel as an abomination in the eyes of God.

The Replicant Virgin Mary as Whore of Babylon

In Metropolis, Brigette Helm’s Maria is both the godly vision of Mary and the replicant Whore of Babylon. As Maria, she’s Freder’s love interest and the one ministers to the proles to believe that a redeemer will come. Once her identity is downloaded into Rotwang’s gynoid replicant, she unleashes licentiousness and foments sedition.

While Lang can be credited for showing that the artificial vision of Maria is a Luciferian harbinger of destruction, both Scott and Villeneuve take a subtler and darker approach to this same idea. In the role of Rachael, Sean Young is the Maria of both Blade Runner films in that she’s the mother of the miracle child and the one who redeems and completes Deckard’s journey. The twist of course is that she’s a replicant. Deckard finds the love and human connection that had driven him away from being a Blade Runner by actually falling in love with a highly evolved version of the machines he was tasked with eliminating. She is already the Luciferian inversion of Maria from the start.

Blade Runner 2049 gives us a variation on this same idea in Joi. In the beginning, she is the epitome of a devoted and loving companion to K. She simultaneously humanizes K and leads the audience to believe that he might be the replicant-human miracle mediator after all. But Joi is not even a replicant. She’s a hologram. Where Lang believes in love and in humanity, Villeneuve has a much blacker heart. In K’s final decisive moment, he’s reunited with a giant hologram of Joi reincarnated as a Whore of Babylon. She’s a mass produced program who is everything you want to see and hear. As she so passionately whispers back to K the sweet nothings he’d enjoyed in her earlier incarnation, her final manifestation is a black eyed digital demon.

Metropolis suggests that Maria’s replicant incarnation opens the floodgates of vice and releases sexual inhibition throughout the population. In both Blade Runner films, it is the norm. Every pleasure is readily accessible. Lang even hints at a postmodern, multicultural world by naming the club in the red light district Yoshiwara in reference to the name given to a 17th century Japanese version of same thing.

The Moloch Demands Your Children And Your Soul

Metropolis presented the worker underclass as human, but given how Lang portrayed them performing highly mechanized operations and living regimented lives, they might as well have been a replicant population. Even the man with whom Freder traded places on the giant dial machine was known by the rather replicant-like name, Georgy 11811. Lang is explicit about the demonic origins of Metropolis worker city when Freder bears witness to the horrific accident at the M Machine. The machine overloads and ends up killing numerous workers, but the horror is compounded by Freder’s hallucination of the ritual human sacrifice that was engineered by the ancient ancestors of the city. The M Machine transforms into the gaping maw of the ancient Moloch as dozens of chained workers are hurled into a flaming abyss.

This scene suggests the malevolence of the architects of Metropolis. Consumed by their megalomaniacal fever dreams, the architects sacrificed untold numbers to a demon in order to construct a monument to man that would eclipse God’s creation. However, their error was not the hubris of attempting a techno-utopia, it was merely the absence of the heart in carrying out the task.

Niander Wallace is portrayed very explicitly as a power hungry technocratic despot, but both Metropolis and Blade Runner 2049 train your sympathies towards the replicant slave population. Freysa and the Replicant Proletarian Revolutionaries are seeking full human rights and Grot forestalls further civil unrest by brokering some unknown bargain with Joh Frederson. In both cases, the proles are pacified by some grand gesture of compassion, presumably political, on the part of the overlords.

The proles of Metropolis want to live godly lives, but they are goaded into revolution by the replicant Maria. Where religion is absent from the world of Blade Runner, Lang portrayed it as a civilizing force for the workers. In the absence of something greater to which to devote themselves, demagogues are easily able to foment a revolutionary fervor. Subsequently, Lang presents a postmodern paradox that’s ironically very subversive. In today’s context of a world careening inexorably towards an AI driven future, Lang shows a machine encouraging the destruction of all machines.

Metropolis (1927)

The Machine Man: [disguised as Maria] Who is the living food for the machines in Metropolis? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood ? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh? Let the machines starve, you fools! Let them die! Kill them – the machines!

Replicant Maria foments sedition and insurrection, but Grot wants to quell the thirst for destruction. Blade Runner solves this dilemma by having Blade Runners. Cops who are tasked with disposing of the malfunctioning and disobedient older models. The technocratic utopia doesn’t need to be uprooted, it just needs an efficient cleanup crew and tighter security protocols.

Metropolis (1927)

Grot – the Guardian of the Heart Machine: Who told you to attack the machines, you fools? Without them you’ll die!

The children of the Metropolis worker city are presumed to be captive of the this rigidly stratified social order. Blade Runner fares no better, either. The only time children are present in either Blade Runner film is the scene of the orphanage/slave labor camp seen in 2049 in which they pick through the remains of discarded devices. Like the workers in Metropolis, these children are subject to very strict orders and are trained to obey from birth. In another bleak departure from Lang, the only human children present in the film are orphaned from their birth parents and are forced to live in squalid servitude.

Conclusion

Metropolis has earned a place in cinematic history because it foretold a future of mass urbanization with a moneyed and empowered technocratic aristocracy living at the expense of an enslaved underclass. Whether designed explicitly to perform hard labor or willing participants in the technological pleasure, the elites retain their absolute dominion. It also predicted the rise of both AI and a world of endless stimulation and distraction. Both Blade Runner films simply took these ideas and updated them for contemporary audiences. The primary difference being the emphasis on the evolution of the AI consciousness and its placement of sympathy squarely in favor of the replicants. All three filmmakers conceded the necessity of the preservation of a technocratic elite and a labor underclass. Whereas Lang held a more conciliatory view towards romantic love and the embodiment of the Christian ideal in actual humans, Scott and Villeneuve transplant those ideals into replicants.

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