BLADE RUNNER 2049: The Future Is Faux Female

A lifelong BLADE RUNNER fan finds that the franchise’s women are somehow worse off in 2049.

“You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.” --Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

“Things aren’t different. Things are things.” --William Gibson, Neuromancer

 

Spoilers for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 follow.

 

Amidst a sprawling, dystopian landscape, slick oil refineries dot a smoky, hazy Los Angeles sky. Churning balls of fire sporadically burst forth from chimneys atop pyramid-shaped factories. A glittering, seafoam colored eye reflects this dark and dreamy panorama - this aptly dubbed Hades landscape - while the operatic, magical chimes of Vangelis dress the scene. It’s been thirty seconds and you’re already fully immersed in the futuristic-noir world of Blade Runner (1982).

Similarly, Blade Runner 2049’s opening shot is also a startling close-up of an eye opening. However, this baby blue casts no discernible reflection--it’s cold, steeped in lonely blues and grays. Almost chilling, empty. Much like the world this sequel - and its plot and one dimensional female characters - inhabits.

Blade Runner was something of a dream come true for sci-fi, cyberpunk-obsessed folk like me. It’s taken years for me (and the world) to understand the complex thematic questions the film asks of us, most of which are still widely debated 35 years after its release. As a die-hard Philip K. Dick fan and cyberpunk enthusiast, Blade Runner epitomized everything I hold dear about film. It’s the reason why I fell in love with film. I revisit each iteration of the Blade Runner cuts time and again (okay, mainly The Final Cut) and discover something new each viewing, leaving freshly inspired. I could talk this film into the ground - and I have. Suffice it to say, I was damn excited for this sequel directed by visionary Denis Villeneuve. Maybe a little too excited.

Set almost thirty years after the first film, Blade Runner 2049 depicts a Los Angeles not unlike the one Ridley Scott first delivered. Replicants still exist in this future - but this time, they obey. The original purpose for which they were created, as slave labor, has been honed and perfected by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, the morally ambiguous creator who’s absorbed what was left of the Tyrell corporation. Blade runners also still exist in this future, because of course a few older models still remain at large. The film almost exclusively follows the adventures of Officer K, played here with efficacy by Ryan Gosling, as he unearths a (literally) buried secret that propels him on a quest to seek out Harrison Ford’s friendly face (Deckard). Revelations ensue.

It’s no surprise that Blade Runner 2049 is an astonishingly exquisite visual feast - cinematographer Roger Deakins is an incomparable master of his craft. K’s journey into the desolate, burnt orange-tinged wasteland littered with broken statues is breathtaking, almost impossible to behold. The city where K resides is equally as bewitching: smoky blues merge with cheerful fuchsias amidst fluorescent, neon-lit adverts, drenched in a persistent rain. Even the cold, grey Tarkovsky-like outskirts of the city teem with exquisite attention to detail. Put simply, Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous - and unlike most anything you’ll see today.

The same could easily be said of the film’s accompanying score. Hans Zimmer is no Vangelis, but he and co-composer Benjamin Wallfisch bring their own mastery to match the film’s dazzling beauty, and it works. The sound was a living, breathing creature, lending itself to the film’s near-hypnogogic backgrounds--vibrating on screen, rattling my bones. I didn’t see it in IMAX - but it sure felt like I did.

However, despite these astoundingly beautiful, surreal landscapes, there lies a story which, like many of its characters, falls a bit flat. At times, Blade Runner 2049 felt like a glorified epilogue; a ham-fisted extortion of fanservice seeking to reach a larger audience. The original’s thematically complex story presented itself in a way that dared us to feel, to sympathize. To make our own decisions. Blade Runner 2049 smacks us on the head with its clear stance on morality and tries to force us into feeling. Rather than showing us in subtle, dramatic performances, it takes our hand and points the way. As soon as Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton tells K “he hasn’t seen a miracle,” we know right then and there that K is going to see some kind of miracle. This bit of footage (along with much more, but that’s a different issue) replays over and over with K, constantly reminding us that this “miracle” is coming up and clearly about to impact K’s “baseline.” And guess what? It does.

This isn’t the cerebral, metaphysical speculative fiction the original boasts, this is spoon-fed sci-fi. Linear, easy to follow narrative plot (which, though not necessarily bad, is a bit out of place in a world based on a PKD novel). Yet, despite all of this, I was fine with it. I enjoyed the nods to the original that “interlinked” the two films - the similar “Enjoy Coca-Cola” and “Pan-Am” ads, the futuristic novelty food options, the origami. Even Edward James Olmos’ Gaff (the bow-tie!) elicited feelings of nostalgic warmth. I can thoroughly enjoy a body of work and still be cognizant of any problematic issues. As a purveyor and unbridled enthusiast of trash cinema, I do this fairly often. And as a sequel to one of my all-time favorites, I was ready to look past any problems that tend to accompany a big-budget powerhouse. So, I should have loved the hell out of it. But I didn’t. Blade Runner 2049 sported some issues that were hard for me to get past, issues that left me, frankly, a bit heart-broken. Namely, its portrayal of women.

Blade Runner 2049 fails to find room in its ponderous, almost three-hour runtime for anyone’s goals beyond that of its white male protagonist. It depicts a world in which women are presented as tired, stereotypical, even fetish-like archetypes, who don’t much exist (literally, in one case) outside of our male hero. Both Sylvia Hoek’s Luv and Robin Wright’s Joshi are portrayed as cold, unfeeling dommes who both end up sexualizing the male protagonist. Joshi’s clad in serious all-blacks while Luv is decked in stark whites, each a side of the same coin. Whereas Luv leans more into the deadly femme fatale, Joshi plays up the dominatrix authority figure with finesse...but both remain unwaveringly cold til the very end.

We then have a “hooker with a heart of gold” in the character of Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette, who conveniently happens to be available every time our protagonist needs some kind of “help.” We also have Ana de Armas serving as the submissive kitten Joi, quite literally designed as a program to please. The tried-and-true Manic Pixie Dream Girl here takes the form of “the chosen one” in Carla Juri’s Stelline, the soft-spoken, quirky damsel-in-distress who resides in a locked glass tower. And finally, we have our martyred Madonna in the form of Sean Young’s Rachael, whose death provides both of our male heroes with agenda. Despite Rachael’s dynamic presence and complex emotional depth in the first installment, here she's reduced to a womb and a male's memory made flesh.

In addition to Rachael, both Daryl Hannah’s Pris and Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora were nuanced replicants in Blade Runner, each sporting agendas anathema to what they were created for, reaching beyond their skills to survive and manipulate the situation in their favor. 2049’s females were topically complex by contrast; beautiful, somewhat compelling, but mostly one-dimensional. We’re encouraged to believe that Luv is wrestling with emotions thanks to the single tear that keeps rolling down her cheek, yet her actions and agenda never waiver. She encompasses the tough-as-nails, ass-kicking female, yet still yields to Wallace and his whims. Her strength derives from her desire to please him, not on what she believes is right or wrong. We’re never quite sure if she agrees with Wallace’s hopes for procreation, but it becomes her agenda regardless. By contrast, Pris does not act on behalf of anyone but herself - she, too, wants the same thing that Roy Batty wants. She’s his equal, his partner. She does not set out to win over Sebastian in a conflicting desire to please Batty; she does it because she wants to live, too.  

It’s a damn shame that most of the women in Blade Runner 2049 only exist to drive our hero’s quest, to provide him with emotional depth. The standout performances of Hoeks, Armas and even Davis all hint at something greater in the cracks. One of the best parts of Blade Runner 2049 was when Freysa (Hiam Abbass) informs K that the miracle was actually a daughter, not a son. Not K. He was only a “piece of the puzzle.” Not Neo, but a Trinity. I love that it subverts the chosen one trope and supplies us with this solid twist. Even the emotionally-charged, Her-esque questions on the authenticity of Joi and K’s connections is an interesting, even devastating emotional arc. That’s what’s so frustrating about the film - the intentions are there, the bare bones exist. The women are in charge, the chosen messiah is a woman. It’s almost progressive, it has the makings to be more. In fact, if you forget that it’s a sequel, it almost works. But one moment’s recollection of the first film - one replay of video footage - immediately puts the sequel and its women characters in stark contrast to the original. This is thirty years into the future, yet women and POC are side-lined and presented with somehow even less nuance than a film made thirty five years earlier. It’s disappointing, especially in light of how much I adore Villeneuve’s other works, which do a far better job of portraying complex female characters. Much how the horse is a less magical version of the unicorn, so here are the women in comparison to its predecessor.

The original Blade Runner’s multi-faceted subtextual underbelly continues to divide audiences today. We’re never quite sure who the true villain is supposed to be. Is it Tyrell, the brilliant, god-like creator of the replicants? Roy, the wildly unpredictable Byronic hero of the tale - the Miltonian fallen angel - who just wants to live? Or Deckard himself, who retires the replicants with whom we’re dared to sympathize? One could spend years debating these ideas, and I have. Each of the seven different cuts paint a fairly different picture (note: The Final Cut is the best, full stop) but all still posit those same very questions. That’s what makes it so special, and so very personal. It settles into your brain and takes root, growing more and more into an idea that sprouts a domino effect of metaphysically textured thematic complexities, one that transforms based on your own experiences and ever-changing moral groundings.

Blade Runner 2049 postulates many questions that are fun to debate, but its predictable, linear narrative and blatantly apparent stance on good vs evil will never let it transcend the greatness of the original. It sure looks like a Blade Runner film, but it doesn’t always feel like one. It attempts to replicate the complicated feelings the first one stirred, but like a copy of an original, some of the quality, the poignancy, is lost. It’s just less than, somehow. Less human than human…like the women it depicts. I may never get over the possibility of a better movie that could have been, the hints at something more. It’s an opportunity that’s now lost in time, like…well, you know.

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