Because I’m dealing with a lot of the film’s deepest running themes and a few major plot points, a spoiler warning is in order.
I saw Blade Runner 2049 yesterday and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Which, I think, is a good thing. I’d been skeptical of the movie since I heard it was in production. The first Blade Runner was enough for me: two hours of moody neo-noir rain; technology demonstrated, but not explained; a true antihero as a central character in Deckard. (I am one of the people who considers Roy Batty to be the true protagonist of the movie, but the film’s plot revolves around Deckard’s actions more than it does Batty’s, so Deckard remains the grounding center of the film for me.) I liked thinking about the question of Deckard being a replicant, but prefer for that mystery to remain unsolved. Finding out that there would be an eventual sequel made me first apprehensive, then angry: there were sure to be more questions answered than mysteries presented, I thought. Deckard’s identity as a replicant was going to be confirmed. The prequel clips on YouTube (linked here, here, and here) were, like the clips advertising Alien: Covenant, going to provide more preliminary character development than the film itself, which was to have a taxing 2:45 runtime.
Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is a much better movie than I had expected. It was indeed long, but the length was justified; the film didn’t feel rushed, and it allowed me to feel the passage of time, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I appreciated that I felt like I was unraveling the central mystery alongside the protagonist; the answers felt fairly simple, but I didn’t feel like my hand was being held. There was a little more explanation than I would have liked, particularly in the form of Jared Leto’s character, but at least most of the technology was shown, but not demonstrated. The plot was step-by-step, methodical, a little too slow perhaps in places, but not outright patronizing like I’d expected. Deckard was allowed to remain somewhat of a mystery. It even gave us an interesting yet inexpressive protagonist in the form of the replicant Officer K (Ryan Gosling, inhumanly patient, and a true hero rather than the anti- variety).
It also didn’t hurt that the movie was beautiful. I whispered “wow” to myself multiple times in the theater. I love rainy streets lit with neon and perfectly symmetrical shots in motion and slightly off-center silhouettes against otherworldly colors. If you’re looking for a spectacle, Blade Runner 2049 delivers. It’s a little too sharp and a touch too bright, and, despite its posturing as a glitchy run-down world, not at all like the fuzzy analog tones of the original. The movie presents its symmetries against little calculated evidences of brokenness: a dead tree held up by ropes, a single piano key that won’t play, casino holograms that flicker on an off out of sync with their audio tracks. Everything is broken here.
Everything is about to be broken some more: there’s evidence that a replicant some time in the past had a baby. Society could be irrevocably changed by the revelation. Replicant makers could exploit the trait to make their work force self-producing. Humans in society might consider the products abomination. Replicants themselves see the promise of birth as a hope: they too could be considered their own species someday. Officer K is ordered to destroy the evidence he stumbled upon. The order that sustains the world is about to break based on a single possibility.
This too-perfect imperfection makes the movie’s internal brokenness all the more fascinating; it’s built on a single question flaw that’s impossible to ignore, and that I first perceived to be a flaw. For all its off-kilter perfections, the movie touches on the same question that the original was not aware of.
Aren’t women people too?
To be sure, the first Blade Runner has a dearth of female characters: only three named women appear on screen. One is gunned down as she runs away, one is killed as she fights for her life. The third is pressured into a sexual relationship—the film seems to think the scene turns romantic, but all I feel when I watch it is revulsion. The source text is wildly different in plot, but the themes and female characters are more of the same: plenty of android women, and one real one (Deckard’s wife, a manipulative, emotional nag). Philip K. Dick was many things, and we can count “misogynist” as one of them.
Blade Runner 2049 carries on much in the same vein. There are more characters coded as female than male here, but only one is truly human. The rest, for the most part, are holograms, AIs, and replicants. Most of the characters are female. All are considered by society to be inhuman in some way. A few of the more notable women are listed below.
Joi (Ana de Armas) is an AI owned by a replicant; she’s a hologram programmed to be anything the user wants her to be. Her first on-screen appearance is in literal pearls and skirt and heels, serving a virtual dinner and asking Officer K about his day at work. K gives her a “body” in the form of a small machine that allows her to project herself anywhere she wants to be, but even then, even after she’s given the chance to stand outside in the rain, she’s still just a hologram and a tool. A phone call routed through her system interrupts a romantic moment with K and Joi is left frozen, mouth open, eyes closed, a caricature of a woman in the throes of passion, but still just a tool to be used, and maybe talked to, and then shut off and placed in a pocket when the going gets dangerous.
Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is a replicant who works for Wallace (Jared Leto), who has taken over the Tyrell Corporation’s work as a manufacturer of replicants. Her production line, like K’s, is designed to live a human’s life span, but to be completely obedient to human orders. Blade runners like K hunt down older models—the kind that rebel. Luv is an assassin, and more frightening than Wallace is, but she’s still just a tool. She’s only following orders.
Also of note is a nameless replicant (Sallie Harmsen), whose “birth” Wallace attends. She’s spawned naked and covered in slime, and wakes up quivering and terrified on the floor as she takes her first breaths. Wallace examines her like a horse, expresses his displeasure that he can only make so many replicants at a time; he wants to unlock the secret of fertility in the slave class he’s created so that they can reproduce more quickly. Wallace slashes her through her abdomen and the blood runs down her legs. She’s left to bleed out twitching on the floor, dying the same way she was born, because her womb is barren and she is therefore useless.
Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), another replicant, works as a prostitute and who turns a few of the plot’s wheels. Her most memorable scene, however, is one that establishes characters rather than plot points. She’s called to K’s apartment by Joi, who, now free to use her holographic body as she sees fit, wants to give K the pleasure she’d been unable to before. Mariette and K have sex, with Joi’s holographic body encasing Mariette’s like a suit. Now that Joi has her own mobility, she’s still going to use another woman’s body as a tool. In a story where most women are reduced to their utility (Luv as a killer, Mariette as a sex worker, the nameless replicant as a useless womb), Joi’s character stands out as my biggest frustration. She’s a woman, reduced to a role based on her body, but as a hologram she’s denied even a body of her own, and must use the body of another. It’s telling that, in the casino with the holograms, the only woman (besides the nameless high-kicking showgirls) who appears is a larger-than-life Marilyn Monroe. Even she is silenced; the audio system is broken and plays occasional snatches of Elvis, Liberace, and Sinatra, but Monroe’s distinctive voice is left to the imagination as she smiles and laughs over the scene. She’s set dressing, like all the other women, even the ones who turn the plot, even the ones who are so minor I can’t list them.
The replicant Rachael (Sean Young), who died years before, is brought back by Wallace as a bargaining chip for Deckard. He’s shaken, but once he’s gotten a good look at her, he declares her “not Rachael”—the original’s eyes were green, not brown—and turns his back. She’s immediately shot in the head by her creators. Because her body is not a perfect match to the original, she’s of no use to Deckard, and is therefore of no use to Wallace or his company; she’s disposable, better dead than alive, not worth the resources to keep her going, despite the extraordinary cost it must have been to re-create her. She is merely another in a long line of cinematic dead wives and girlfriends, doubly so because she already died twenty years before in childbirth.
This childbirth is the point on which the rest of the film turns. Wallace is frustrated because his female replicants cannot reproduce themselves. Previous models had been thought to be unable to do so. Rachael was created special—special for the thing she can do that most human women can do naturally. On the surface, this is a convoluted whodunit story. Underneath, it’s about women and their power.
The grace note is a woman named Ana (Carla Juri). She’s a memory maker, kept behind glass due to a broken immune system. She can’t leave or she’ll die, but she’s allowed to work, and she makes beautiful memories to implant into replicant brains; although they know their implanted memories are false, they still cling to them like a lifeline; they’re an anchor point for their quiet existences. She’s isolated from the outside world, unable to have even the most basic human contact, but she can still affect it. A memory she gave K leads him to believe that he’s Rachael and Deckard’s child, that he was somehow special.
K himself, despite being a white straight male, is a stand-in for oppressed minorities, a member of what his makers consider to be a “disposable workforce,” a body to be used, but not cared for. He is tasked with hunting down older models of his kind. The other police officers despise him, and the tenants in his building scrawl slurs and hateful graffiti on his door. Still, because he’s programmed not to rebel, he takes his treatment as it comes, without complaint. K demonstrates a few traditionally feminine roles from film history: he’s quiet, he’s obedient, he doesn’t take the initiative in his romantic relationship. During the course of his investigation, K is led to believe that he is the child that was produced by Deckard and Rachael; all the signs point to it.
Then everything changes: he’s told that he is not the child, that the child was in fact female, and that the memory he carries that proves he was the child was implanted by the child itself: Ana, the memory maker. She thinks she’s human, has no idea of her actual parentage. A woman, trapped in a cage and providing a service for the bottom tier of society, is the very person who will eventually change the world.
Blade Runner 2049 is a dystopia: the worst parts of our own society are amplified, and the best parts are muted. It makes sense that women will have to endure sexism and abuse in that world, just as they have to in this one. It’s poetic that the protagonist stumbles onto a story bigger than he is; he progresses from an obedient, nameless cog in the machine, to thinking that he is a chosen one, to discovering that he is not in fact special or great, merely touched by greatness. It’s a testament to his character that he has the wind taken out of his sails, then recognizes that he is simply a part of a story that is bigger than himself, and continues to do his duty. It’s fitting that a society that chews up and spits out its women, replicant or not, is about to be overturned by one completely.
I’m not fully satisfied by Blade Runner 2049. The imperfections are a little too well pruned; they signal themselves as way signs more than the VHS scratchiness of the original Blade Runner. The character of Joi in particular frustrates me. She’s too contained, too defined by her appearance and the body she does not have the privilege to own. The film unfortunately does not acknowledge the problem of racism and in fact features very few people of color; this would be more excusable if we lived in a post-racial society, but we do not. Wallace’s callousness towards women is difficult to watch. But for all its flaws, purposeful and unintended, sexist or not, I think I’ll keep coming back to this dystopia in particular. The possibility of redemption is a heady one.