Blade Runner 2049
“Women are aggressively objectified for the male gaze, while people of color are simply erased.”
Title: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Director: Denis Villeneuve 👨🏼🇨🇦
Writers: Original novel by Philip K. Dick 👨🏼🇺🇸, screenplay and story by Hampton Fancher 👨🏼🇺🇸, and screenplay by Michael Green 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
No one can deny that Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful film. Reviews unearth recurring phrases like “visual grandeur,” “hauntingly beautiful,” or “dazzling,” and with good cause. Yet within those same reviews, writers admit to the film’s flaws. It’s needlessly long at nearly three hours and fails to reach the same level of substance as its 1982 predecessor.
For me, the cons vastly outweighed the pros. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ stark, Tarkovsky-inspired visuals were nice—especially captured as stills—but they didn’t feel nearly as original or gripping as Jordan Cronenweth’s surreal, dreamlike sequences which still feel unique 35 years later. And while I adored the sound engineering and weighty, Hans Zimmer score, the film’s studied veneer simply couldn’t make up for entire afternoon lost on Villeneuve and team trying to tell us replicants are human, but never actually showing it. Oddly enough, Villeneuve’s 2016 Arrival succeeded in infusing its seven-limbed, faceless aliens with intelligence and empathy. Yet no amount of silent tears streaming down stoic faces make his humanoid replicants worth rooting for.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES (barely—just one exchange between Lt. Joshi and Luv which begins about K but segues into a few philosophical lines.)
To watch this film is to suffer through a parade of hypersexualized female bodies that are purchased as digital toys, deployed as prostitutes, or gutted through the uterus to demonstrate man’s control over the world he created. The gratuitous violence against women is never challenged by the filmmakers; on the contrary, the camera seems to delight in rendering shock value as if it will make the film harder, or edgier. Devon Maloney pens a great piece on the misogyny of Blade Runner 2049 for Wired:
“Three men manage to take up 95 percent of the emotional frame on screen, leaving little room for the women around them to have their own narratives. There’s manic pixie dream girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), whom K (Ryan Gosling) has literally purchased. K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), berates him at work and then invites herself over, drinks his alcohol, and comes on to him. Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), the sex worker with a heart of gold, repeatedly comes to K’s aid (in every way you can imagine). Wallace (Jared Leto)’s servant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) has the most tangible personality, yet she’s obsessed with pleasing Wallace. Even Rachael makes a cameo as a plot device for Deckard, embodying the final archetype—the martyred Madonna—of this Ultimate Sexist Megazord. Not one of these female characters voice an ambition or desire that does not pertain to their male counterparts.”
Additionally, the character of Joi, K’s digital girlfriend, employs the damaging trope of ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ as described by Beth Elderkin:
“’Born Sexy Yesterday’ is the crafting of female characters who have the minds of children but the bodies of mature women...the idea that a sexy yet virginal woman needs a man to explain the basic fundamentals of being a person, making her dependent on him. It doesn't matter how unremarkable he is, she'll always find him fascinating, because she's never known anyone else.”
Overall, Blade Runner 2049 is a trainwreck for gender equality. But credit where credit’s due, the creators do a couple things right which absolve it from a rock-bottom score:
- Casting - By the numbers, there are several female characters. And while none of them are imbued with any sense of agency or complexity, the actors are at the table, adding to their resumes, and getting paid for their work. That’s better than being shut out of Hollywood altogether, as we see for people of color in the following section.
- This Spoilery Reason - Having Decker’s child be Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) rather than K is a welcome twist. In fact, Dr. Stelline’s character is the only female that is free of retro stereotyping, and her presence feels like a small balm in a roiling sea of female dehumanization.
Blade Runner 2049 flatlines in this category for two main reasons:
Blade Runner 2049 is set in Los Angeles, one of the country’s most diverse counties where less than a third of the population is white, at just 27%. By the time the film is set, in 2049, the population will be about 56% Hispanic, 21% white, 11% Asian, 8% black, and 4% other, according to Census estimates. Yet somehow, every single main character in Blade Runner 2049 is white, alongside the vast majority of background characters.
The only people of color: two black men who get a few lines apiece, both dressed in tatty rags. While one is a neutral or even positive portrayal as the gangly analyst of a wood sample, the other is the corrupt owner of a child labor factory who is nervously deferential to K. The only background Asian characters are one adult male in a split-second background shot and longer pans across child laborers in aforementioned factory.
One rebuttal I often hear is that we shouldn’t be holding fictional works up to the standards of real-life. And sure, in a case-by-case scenario that’s true. But when whitewashing is so deeply ingrained into entertainment culture so as to be the norm, then we need to examine the collective—and negative—effects it has on those who never get to see themselves portrayed in a positive light. Maloney explains for Wired why being a work of fiction is no excuse for whitewashing:
“Mainstream dystopian sci-fi has always been obsessed with oppression narratives. While it returns over and over again to the downtrodden-rises-up-against-the-subjugator model, the genre has always had a remarkable ability to overlook the persecuted groups—people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities—whose experiences it mines for drama.”
Mining vibrant cultures or painful histories to inform white-centric stories—while barring from entry the non-white originators—is the definition of cultural appropriation. It’s unpaid theft, to put it simply. And it runs rampant in Blade Runner 2049.
The Cultural Appropriation
It’s 2017 and we’re still using Asian visuals to communicate themes of alienation and foreignness. Not only is this a decades-old, rehashed look—especially tiresome for Asian Americans who are sick of being painted as unknowable, accented foreigners—Blade Runner 2049 leans into the franchise’s history of Orientalism and somehow manages to be more problematic than its predecessor. After all, despite its use of Asian culture as decoration, at least the original featured Asians onscreen. (And no, Jared Leto in a yukata, Joi in a chipao, and Luv in a samurai-like topknot in Blade Runner 2049 do not count as "featuring Asians".)
By casting extras of Asian descent in the original Blade Runner, Scott’s team gave a group of marginalized actors paychecks, work experience, and exposure to the industry while simultaneously acknowledging its source material of Japanese culture. This reduces their culpability in the admittedly porous boundaries of what constitutes “cultural appropriation,” which can be difficult to parse from its lookalike of cross-cultural fertilization, a positive and welcome occurrence. Sarah Emerson does a fantastic overview of the Asian influences found in both Blade Runner films for Motherboard, saying:
“Cyberpunk gained popularity, in part, thanks to Blade Runner and William Gibson's Neuromancer, which was heavily inspired by Japan. This was during the 1980s, amid Japan's technological revolution...Some Asian cities did look futuristic, even then. Tokyo, for example, with its urban mosaic of fluorescent laneways. The impossibly new juxtaposed with the old. There's a reason why holographic geisha are a common motif in cyberpunk films.”
However, Blade Runner 2049 mixes Korean, Chinese, and Japanese written languages willy-nilly, as if interchangeable. And there are barely any Asians visible in crowd shots, which begs the question—why are advertisements being shown in a jumble of languages in a city that is overwhelmingly white? This jarring lack of understanding is palpable, causing the 2017 rendition to come off as lazy, cultural pastiche.
Emerson draws a similar conclusion in her Motherboard piece. “Today, there's no excuse for imagining a world that's so regressively homogenous,” she says.
No depiction but too short a program to ding them for it.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.00/5
Blade Runner 2049 is a painstakingly crafted shell that makes sweeping statements about humanity and enslavement while failing to grasp its own thesis. The characters feel empty and the women are aggressively objectified for the male gaze. Meanwhile, people of color are absent, save for the vestigial smoke signals of their cultures painted over a fantasy of an all-white Los Angeles dystopia (utopia?).
Indeed, the only thing that saves this film from utter irrelevance is its veneer, nimbly delivered by Deakins’ cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. But even with their technical prowess, Blade Runner 2049 is a slog. By midway through, I longed for a rewatch of its predecessor, a 1980s icon that remains unparalleled in its world building and whose storytelling vehemently convinced me that, yes, electric sheep do dream. I just wish I could believe that the newer models dream too.