Blade Runner 2049 Searches for Authentic Memories in the Digital Age

Blade Runner 2049 Las Vegas

While it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of 1982’s Blade Runner, its science fiction film noir mashup vision of the future, or the meaning behind the story’s ambiguous ending (depending on the version you see), what I find most compelling about the film are its ideas about memory. 

The story is set in Los Angeles 2019 where androids, called replicants, are nearly indistinguishable from humans. What separates both groups are authentic memories. Replicants are programmed with real childhood memories, though they are not their own. The memories are borrowed from the experience of human children. Implanting these memories in replicants gives them a foundational identity, improving their ability to act human. However, having false memories also keeps replicants from being seen as sentient life worthy of empathy

Looking back, Blade Runner foreshadowed many of the issues psychology struggled with during the 1990's recovered versus false memories debate. Can our memories be tampered with? Can we verify that an event really occurred? How should we respond to memories we believe are false? Both psychological science and Blade Runner conclude that we do not experience binary truths or falsehoods. Our experiences exist on a spectrum of authenticity. 

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Blade Runner 2049 expands on the original in every way, including its ideas about memories. In the sequel, everything is meticulously digitally documented, replicants know they are programmed with false memories, and the accuracy of memories doesn't matter. What makes a memory real in 2049 is whether or not it makes you feel something. 

Once again, Blade Runner 2049 references issues impacting our world. The internet, social media, and smartphones have allowed for the digital documentation of nearly all world events and every aspect of our personal lives. Psychologists question how our always-on, socially connected technology is changing the way memory works. Does access to a search engine limit what we learn? How does digitally capturing an event change the way we remember it? Do social networks impact the type of information we believe to be true? How can we have authentic experiences as we travel through social networks that feel increasingly inauthentic? Psychology does not have satisfying answers to these questions, at least not yet. 

Most women in  Blade Runner 2049  lack agency and only serve the interests of men.

Most women in Blade Runner 2049 lack agency and only serve the interests of men.

Though it is a cinematically stunning film that tackles contemporary issues, Blade Runner 2049 has problems. Like the original, character development is limited. This is particularly problematic with 2049’s female characters, who (with one exception) lack any agency of their own. The film also feels less like a masterpiece and more like a blockbuster in its finale. 

But if you are a fan of the original, or of the science fiction cyberpunk genre, Blade Runner 2049 is a must-see. If you're interested in these ideas but don't care for the original Blade Runner, watch the rebooted Battlestar Galactica television series for a similar (more egalitarian) exploration of artificial intelligence.


Star Trek Beyond Is a Search for Meaning

Star Trek Beyond poster

The years leading up to Star Trek Beyond’s release were not kind to the rebooted Star Trek Universe (now known officially as the Kelvin Timeline).

Despite critical acclaim and box office success, many fans regarded Star Trek Into Darkness as the worst Star Trek film ever. I still like it because it works as a large summer blockbuster. But like other modern Hollywood tent-poles, Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t hold up well to repeated viewings. JJ Abrams admitted, “I found myself frustrated by my choices, and unable to hang my hat on an undeniable thread of the main story…so then I found myself on that movie basically tap-dancing as well as I could to try and make the sequences as entertaining as possible.”

Speaking of JJ, there was a vacuum of leadership on Star Trek Beyond when he left for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Roberto Orci was hired to direct…and then was let go. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung were hired as writers while Fast and Furious veteran Justin Lin was brought in to direct.

Despite this exciting writing/directing team, Star Trek Beyond's first trailer was horrible. Paramount’s marketing went on to spoil the film’s big twist. Then there was all that disgusting gatekeeping around Rihanna’s Star Trek Beyond “Sledgehammer” music video. Things weren’t looking good for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary film.

Does Star Trek Beyond work? Yes, as well as the other Kelvin Timeline films have, but not for the reasons you might think. Spoilers ahead.

A Beautiful Celebration of Star Trek’s Optimistic Future

Star Trek Beyond - Starbase Yorktown

There’s a lot to like about the film. Star Trek is an optimistic story about humanity overcoming prejudice, poverty, disease, and uniting in the peaceful exploration of space. Star Trek Beyond feels like it’s built on top of this foundation. Starbase Yorktown is a stunning example of that – a giant optimistic bubble of future technology filled with many alien species working together on the edge of Federation space. It also honors The Original Series and Star Trek: Enterprise with subtle references scattered throughout the film that fans will enjoy but won’t distract mainstream audiences.

The cast continues to be charismatic, entertaining, and validating of the original characters. Zachary Quinto’s Spock brought me to tears when he sees Leonard Nimoy’s Spock's photo of The Original Series cast. It was beautiful to see a gay character in the final frontier and wonderful to have it be Sulu. Both Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Commodore Paris are welcomed additions to the crew and I hope we see them again in future films.    

The film also looks and sounds amazing! I LOOOOOOOVE the interstellar-esque warp effect as well as the GoPro Justin Lin installed on the Enterprise. Michael Giacchino created a score that nicely extends upon the previous two films. While the destruction of the Enterprise was tough to watch, it looked fantastic (thanks to Lin’s childhood dreams).

A Simple Message for Complex Times

Star Trek Beyond bridge crew.

The underlying message of Star Trek Beyond is simple – it’s better to work together than to be divided. Krall literally divides the crew by destroying their ship and scattering survivors across the planet. By uniting under a shared goal, this very diverse group overcomes their challenges.

This is a very Star Trek message, but it isn’t done in a Star Trek way. The franchise has always started dialogue about the complex issues of the day. It uses political allegory to bypass your brain’s political defenses and make you reevaluate your position on polarizing political issues (like The Original Series’ Vietnam War episode, “A Private Little War”).

Sure, Krall could represent the authoritarianism of Donald Trump or the xenophobia behind Brexit, but it doesn’t say much about these things besides “they’re bad”. Krall could have started a real discussion about why the world is becoming so politically polarized and how we can overcome our differences through shared values. Or, he could have become a more compelling story about homegrown terrorism. Instead we get another amazing actor (Idris Elba) buried under layers of makeup playing an underdeveloped villain with simple motivations (like most Marvel Cinematic Universe films).

Finding Meaning in Each Other

Star Trek Beyond Bones and Spock.

While the unity versus division theme isn’t well developed, I love how Star Trek Beyond explores psychological meaning and purpose.

The film begins with Kirk feeling as though life has become “a little episodic”. Both he and Spock are struggling with their decision to enlist in Starfleet and are debating if this path still makes sense for them. As the Enterprise is destroyed, and the characters lose the thing that kept them together, each character has to find themselves, each other, and rediscover what they really care about in life.

Something we’ve discovered from positive psychology is how important meaning is to our long-term happiness. Meaning is about contributing to something that is greater than yourself. Some develop meaning through family, a career, service to a community, belief in a religion, or by advancing a cause. Being connected to a purpose doesn’t always make you feel better, but it does help you endure hardships. Viktor Frankl said it best in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” This is the reason finding renewed purpose in your work is a great way to cope with a job you don't like.

Like Kirk in Star Trek Beyond, at some point we all feel like life has become a constant rerun of the same events. That’s because of habituation/hedonic adaptation – we get used to things that remain the same. Your new job is exciting for a while, but eventually it’ll feel like a boring routine. We also don’t form many new memories when we do the same thing every day, which is why time flies as we get older. Connecting with something that gives our lives purpose, something that will continue when we're gone, that’s what helps us overcome these ruts.

That’s exactly what Kirk and crew do in Star Trek Beyond – each discovers that it’s not the exploration of the final frontier that give their lives purpose, at least not anymore. It’s the journey they're taking together, their friendship, their love for one another, the family they have formed that really matters now.

That's a far better tribute to Star Trek than a simple message about unity versus division.

An Uncertain Future

Star Trek Beyond Enterprise

While Star Trek Beyond was well reviewed, this time by critics and fans, it bombed at the box office. Maybe a big budget Star Trek film can't work against the new Star Wars films. Star Trek has never been good at blowing stuff up, it’s much better at asking big questions about tough issues. If Star Trek 4 goes into production, I hope it returns to making us think about big questions rather than awe at big spectacle. There’s always room for both in science fiction (e.g. Children of Men, Inception, Moon, Looper, Interstellar), but this isn’t something the Kelvin Timeline films have been able to achieve, yet.


For more on Star Trek Beyond, check out my conversation with Josué Cardona at Geek Therapy.

How a Walkman Makes Guardians of the Galaxy an Awesome Psychological Experience

Guardians of the Galaxy poster

Unlike Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, I had no idea who the Guardians of the Galaxy were when Marvel Studios announced the film at Comic Con 2012. When details started to leak, I got pretty excited. Fresh characters set in a wild science fiction universe from a studio known for making consistently fun movies? Count me in!

Now that it's out, people are calling Guardians of the Galaxy the spiritual successor to Star Wars. I wouldn't go that far, but watching the film is an awesome experience. I love its message, nostalgia explosion, and mood-altering music. What's the psychology of Guardians of the Galaxy? It’s all represented by Star-Lord's Walkman.

No spoilers ahead, just analysis. 

More Marvel Fun, Same Marvel Problems

Groot and Rocket

Groot and Rocket

Most of Guardians of the Galaxy works extremely well. The cinematography and special effects are beautiful, particularly all the cosmic IMAX scenes. The ships, worlds, and space stations have that “lived in” feeling of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s not just the environment that feels real – the film’s wacky cast of characters does as well. From Rocket, the genetically engineered raccoon, to Groot, a walking tree with the same speech problem as Hodor, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief too much to enjoy this film. That’s one of the biggest achievements of Guardians of the Galaxy – it takes some weird science fiction premises and makes them relatable. Seriously, this is a big deal! Lots of other science fiction epics have tried to do this (Dune, Green Lantern) and completely failed. Credits go to science nerd Nicole Pearlman for writing an approachable script and James Gunn for directing a perfectly cast film.  

This is what Marvel Studios does best. Their whole Cinematic Universe is based on making their comic book heroes easy to understand and a lot of fun to watch. However, Marvel can’t seem to create any interesting villains beyond Loki. Every Marvel Studios villain is motivated to destroy a realm/planet/galaxy using whatever magical object happens to be in the film. This keeps Guardians of the Galaxy from succeeding Star Wars. Darth Vader is a memorable villain. Ronan the Accuser is not. Sure, there’s that other guy in this film, but you have to be a big comics nerd to appreciate who that person is and what he could become in future films.

Shared Goals Unite the Guardians of the Galaxy

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Even though the film’s villain bored me, I loved watching Peter "Star-Lord" Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot become the Guardians. Underneath all the humor and action are some great messages about teamwork. The Guardians start out as adversaries who realize they have much more to gain if they work together as a team.

It isn't just sentimental – it’s scientifically accurate. In a classic social psychology experiment, Muzafer Sharif put teams of boys in a summer camp and made them compete. The two groups were pretty nasty to each other (think Gryffindor and Slytherin). But when Sharif introduced an obstacle that could only be overcome if both groups worked together (fix the camp’s water supply), the boys overcame their differences, fixed the problem, and eventually became friends.

Similarly, Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot all have different goals they want to achieve, but the only way any of them has a chance of succeeding is by teaming up. It’s just like the “superordinate goals” of Sharif’s study.

X-Men: Days of Future Past did a better job exploring the psychology of teamwork and collaboration, so I’m not going to belabor the point here. I’d much rather talk about that Walkman. 

Nostalgia and the Importance of Stuff

Star-Lord's nostalgia command center. Click to enlarge.

Successful science fiction takes ideas that exist in popular culture and presents them in a stunning new way. Guardians of the Galaxy does this with our nostalgia for 1980s culture. There’re a lot of visual references that evoke Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flight of the Navigator, and The Last Starfighter. But what really impacted me was how much Quill treasures his memories of the 80s. He loves his Walkman and mix tape, named his ship after Alyssa Milano, speaks of John Stamos the legendary outlaw and the great heroism of Footloose. Each of these moments gets a good chuckle from the audience and brings back fond memories of Full House (at least for those of us over the age of 30). But for Quill, these things are “the umbilical cord that connects him to earth and the home and family he lost.”

This is what I love most about Guardians of the Galaxy – it perfectly explains the psychology of nostalgia and why we hold on to stuff. All of our emotions exist to quickly communicate information. Sadness tells us a loss has occurred. Anger notifies us that we’ve been wronged. Anxiety warns of danger. What does nostalgia do? Think about a fond memory from your childhood – those scratch and sniff stickers, watching ALF, making a mix tape, any of them is fine. Take a break from this article and let your memories wander back to the 80s.

When you get nostalgic, what happens? You probably feel good for a little bit and then you start thinking about the people in those memories – friends, siblings, or your parents. Maybe you get an urge to reach out to one of those individuals. Or perhaps you want to share your story with someone nearby. That’s why nostalgia is built into our software – it reminds us that social relationships are important and encourages us to connect with the people we love. Objects from our past, and things that remind us of our past, preserve our memories and connect us with our loved ones. By holding tightly to his Walkman, Quill keeps the memory of his family alive. It’s probably Quill’s nostalgia (and how much he wants to connect with others) that makes him so motivated to turn Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot into his friends.

Of course nostalgia is exploited all the time to sell products (like this film), but the way Guardians of the Galaxy tells this story validates a big trend in pop culture. Those of us who grew up in the 80s like to buy stuff that reminds us of our childhood. It’s not that we’re childish or have some kind of psychological problem. We’re just trying to keep the memories of those important experiences alive, just like Star-Lord. That's why I've got a collection of Street Fighter video games and toys at home. They bring back beloved childhood memories of hanging out with my brother before he passed away.  

The Mood-Altering Power of Music

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Speaking of nostalgia, I need to talk about Awesome Mix Vol. 1. I CAN’T STOP LISTENING TO IT! Yes, it’s that good. Full of killer music from the 70s, the soundtrack ties into Quill’s story in a meaningful way and has a powerful impact on your emotions while watching Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ve written before about music’s ability to sync us together, communicate like language, change our feelings, take us back in time, and express our identities. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 does all of those things, at the same time, with every song, in every scene of the film. Again, there might have been a strong commercial incentive here for Marvel Studios (the album is #1 on iTunes right now), but I love that they’ve created something that I can use anytime I need to lift my emotions and feel less like an a-hole. 

Guardians isn’t Star Wars, it’s Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Back to the Future

If you look at the role of nostalgia and music in Guardians of the Galaxy, you see the film has a lot more in common with Back to the Future than it does Star Wars. Like Back to the Future, Guardians of the Galaxy uses nostalgia about a past era to help different generations of audiences connect with each other. I’m sure most kids walk out of the movie asking their parents about Walkmans, mixtapes, and why Star-Lord wasn't using an iPod. Maybe some of those families went on to listen to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 together on the trip home. This is why it's so easy to to forgive Guardians of the Galaxy’s few weaknesses – the film is going to help a ton of people connect with each other and introduce a whole new generation to the wonderful world of 70s music and 80s culture. 

That is awesome.


To learn about the individual psychology of Guardians of the Galaxy, check out Dr. Andrea Letamendi's analysis at Comics Alliance. AV Club captures what's wrong with Marvel Studios 3rd acts in their review. I like Variety's description of Guardians of the Galaxy as the "underachieving freaks and geeks" of the Marvel universe. You can hear me discuss Guardians of the Galaxy on Episode #29 of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour.

Infinite Memories at the Edge of Tomorrow (Non-spoiler film review)

Edge of Tomorrow poster

Edge of Tomorrow is the worst marketed film of the summer. It dropped the source material's awesome name, All You Need Is Kill, and its trailer was super depressing. The only thing the film had going for it was the star power of Emily Blunt (she was great in Looper) and the vision of Doug Liman (loved his Bourne triology).

Then there's the Tom Cruise issue. I grew up on Cruise's films (Top Gun, Mission: Impossible, Minority Report) but it's hard for me to support a guy who outright denies the science of psychology and rejects the treatment of mental illness.

Why did I see Edge of Tomorrow? As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm a sucker for time travel paradoxes.

A Surprisingly Fun Film

Emily Blunt uses a scifi sword against an alien in  Edge of Tomorrow.

Emily Blunt uses a scifi sword against an alien in Edge of Tomorrow.

Despite all of that baggage, Edge of Tomorrow works. It’s got a fun déjà vu premise with the main character, Cage, reliving the same day over and over (like Groundhog Day, Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect", and Source Code). What's new is the way events are re-experienced. Things unfold much like a video game. Cage fights aliens, dies, restarts a level, and gets a little bit farther in the battle before dying and respawning again. The action is fun, Blunt’s character kicks a lot of butt, and it’s great to see Cruise play someone who isn't (at least at first) the traditional Cruise action hero. There's also lots of humor sprinkled throughout the film. My only complaints are the film’s boring final boss battle and forgettable score (they should have just used the Halo soundtrack).

How Memory Works

Tom Cruise's Cage begins the film without any knowledge of fighting a war.

Tom Cruise's Cage begins the film without any knowledge of fighting a war.

The psychology of Edge of Tomorrow is also a fun thought experiment. I'm not talking about the exosuits (check out Nerdist for more on that). I was more interested in the film’s depiction of memory. If you accept the premise that someone could re-experience the same events over and over again, how would that impact their memories?

The human memory system is a combination of limited and infinite capacities. When you see or hear something, the details last for a couple of seconds before they fade away. Some call this sensory memory. You can experience this yourself by looking at the words on this screen and then immediately closing your eyes. How long did the image of the screen stay in your mind? Probably less than 2 seconds.

Important information (like hearing your name in a crowded room) gets past sensory memory and enters working memory. We used to call this short-term memory. Working memory is like a desk where new information (like the text on this screen) gets combined with stuff you've learned from the past (things you remember from watching Edge of Tomorrow). Most people can hold 5 - 9 chunks of information in working memory. Stuff that gets practiced (repeating a phone number in your head) or thought about a lot ("I wonder how many times Tom Cruise relived the same day?") moves past working memory and enters long-term memory.

This is where things get interesting. Unlike sensory and working memory, long-term memory has an infinite capacity. It's pretty reliable, but works much better if you're in a situation that's a lot like the one where you originally created the memory. Try thinking of the lyrics to one of your favorite songs right now…it's kind of hard right? But if the accompanying music started playing, the lyrics would rush into your head. Context helps us remember long-term memories.

A great TED talk on how memory works:

Context Improves Memory

Context makes it easier to remember the stuff that's important for right now. We're a lot better at recognizing people, places, and things when we see them in their natural environment. You can easily identify neighbors when you notice them near your home but if you see the same people in another part of town it's much harder to know who they are.

We're also much better at context and recognition than we are at remembering specific events (episodic memories). Go to a dinner party and you'll immediately know if you met someone before but you might not be able to remember their name. Why are we built like this? Evolution decided long ago that it was more important for us to recognize a tiger as a threat than to remember specific details about the animal. Try it for yourself – can you remember what you had for dinner on your last birthday? Probably not. But if I gave you four different options, you'd recognize the correct answer.

Getting back to Edge of Tomorrow, the more Cage relives the same day, the more he begins to remember. New situations become familiar because context helps him remember what's about to happen next (like a secret card game, where an alien is about to strike, or suspicious guards with yellow armbands). The ability to recognize details in contexts becomes Cage’s superpower.

Cage remembers every conversation he has, which could happen after many respawns.

Cage remembers every conversation he has, which could happen after many respawns.

Remember though, both sensory memory and working memory have limited capacities. Even if we relive a day a second time, we wouldn't be able to remember everything because we don’t create memories for everything. A lot of data is lost and only the important stuff gets into long-term memories. From his first respawn, Cage is able to remember everything that was said around him. That's not how memory works! I could imagine him remembering a lot of details after many respawns though. If we do something a bunch of times, it becomes a procedural memory. Memories about riding a bike, playing Super Mario Bros., dialogue from your favorite movie, or commuting to work are all procedural memories. These memories are recalled without any effort and are rarely forgotten, even if you have Alzheimer’s. Most of what Cage does by the end of the film is based on procedural memories (e.g. awesome exoskeleton gymnastics).

Memories are Imperfect Recreations

Since this moment happened so many times, Cage's memories should have started to blend together.

Since this moment happened so many times, Cage's memories should have started to blend together.

There is a problem with a memory system that’s based on context, recognition, and procedures. When we do the same thing a bunch of times, we can start blending different memories together. You might remember Jamie, Adam, and Mariam all coming over to watch a hockey game with you even though Jamie wasn’t actually there. Why the false memory? Because Jamie is usually there. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage should have confused a bunch of events from his numerous respawns, but that never happens.

Contrary to most Hollywood films, our memories aren't perfect recordings of what happened. Each time we think of something, new information gets combined with old information in working memory. Think of memories like a live concert - the same song always sounds different depending on the venue, how the band is performing that day, and how we feel at the concert. There are infinite ways in which we experience the same memory, depending on the context where’re in and how we’re feeling.

Overall, Edge of Tomorrow tells an entertaining story that gets the psychology of memories mostly right. I probably enjoyed the film, despite my opposition to Cruise’s personal beliefs, because of the context. It’s easy for me to experience the work he does within action films. Outside that role though, it’s hard to recognize who he’s become.


For more on the video game feel of Edge of Tomorrow, check out /Filmcast's discussion of the film. AV Club also has a great review. You can hear me discuss Edge of Tomorrow on this week's Super Fantastic Nerd Hour podcast.