previously: rewatching Blade Runner

Yesterday, I saw Blade Runner 2049 in the cinema with my family. To preface this, it’s definitely a film that benefits from being seen in the theatre: it was intense, well-paced, made excellent use of cinematography and imagery and especially sound.

The trailer makes it look like an action movie, but it really isn’t; there are scenes of violence but it’s usually abrupt and unpleasant and it never struck me as being a film about ‘our hero’ fighting the baddies or whatever.

It is a bit faster-paced than the original, and has a much greater diversity of places: there are scenes that reproduce the chiarascuro ‘classic cyberpunk’ Los Angeles that the original established, but also a number of scenes that use different colour palettes. It does an impressing job of updating Blade Runner’s now quite retro-futuristic aesthetic but without copying modern technology aesthetics too much.

But that’s not really the interesting part. Of course what actually matters is how it deals with the Themes - disposability, police violence, biopolitics, sex work, etc.; what it’s saying, how the narrative changes, all that kind of thing. That takes us into you know, Heavy Spoiler Land.

The gender aspect is especially important, and while I agree with some of the points, I am not really satisfied with some of the feminist reviews, which seem to place things like ‘condemning the film for portraying full service sex workers’ above more incisive criticisms of what the film’s themes say about gender, disposability, patriarchal control over womens’ bodies etc.

Contains: discussions of gender, sexual violence, sex work, other kinds of violence, slavery…

(apologies for the lack of good images to break up this long post. until the film comes out on dvd/bluray, I can’t really take stills except from trailers and other reviews).

on what it does with the original

The scope of the film is, in many ways, much broader. While the original Blade Runner was tightly focused on Deckard, Tyrell, Rachel and the five escaped Replicants (with occasional appearances from Gaff), and the story didn’t seem to necessarily have more significance than them, this film outright states that much broader things are at stake. Of course, the original film does have Roy Batty murdering CEO Tyrell, but this film has much more of the idea of a Replicant rebellion; while it still makes the story of ‘Officer K’ and the legacy of Deckard and Rachel central, and (correctly) doesn’t really show us some grand rebellion beginning, it makes a lot more of the events of the original film than they seemed back then.

I’m in kind of two minds about this. The original film suggested more of a slice through this huge, oppressive biopolitical-capitalist system; Rachel is ‘special’ to some extent in that she’s a more advanced model kept by Tyrell himself, but you don’t get the impression that she’s somehow the promise of overarching change. When Deckard and Rachel flee at the end, they’re fleeing a system they could not possibly defeat. “Too bad she won’t live - but then again who does?” Gaff says to Deckard, repeated in voiceover at the end of the film, and we have no reason (outside of the original voiceover cut) to imagine that he’s wrong.

In this film, that’s retconned a fair bit. Rachel is now special in that she’s a Replicant capable of becoming pregnant; her giving birth has tremendous significance, as she is the only Replicant who has been capable of doing so. Agent K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (I don’t remember her name being mentioned in the film, but maybe I didn’t catch it) believes that this would incite a civil war if it gets out; the evil CEO Wallace (who is, alas, Jared Leto again) sees the baby as the key to making his own Replicant line capable of reproduction. A Replicant resistance sees the baby as a symbol of hope for the future of Replicants, around which they can rally in rebellion.

So it moves from being a personal story about repressive violence to a story about the seeds of rebellion, and in the process recontextualises the original film. I appreciated the original film’s small scale in retrospect; I’m not sure cyberpunk works so well with heroes of great significance.

The first time I saw Blade Runner, I was a child and hardly understood it. I was waiting for Deckard to turn against the oppressive system and start a rebellion or whatever. Now I prefer that he doesn’t, and that the film ends on such a forlorn and dark note.

I do feel very uncomfortable with the way that Deckard’s relationship with Rachel was one of rape and absolute power is not at all acknowledged at in this film. While Deckard doesn’t come across as a heroic figure, just a dirty grumpy old man who’s cut himself off from everyone including his child, even so we seem to be expected to believe that Deckard and Rachel’s relationship was Real Love (even if, as Wallace suggests, it was somehow engineered to happen). Deckard’s treatment of Rachel in the original film was fucking horrific, and it’s terrible to put their relationship so central to the plot without even touching on that.

The old question of “is Deckard a Replicant” is pointedly not answered: when Deckard is brought before Wallace, Wallace raises the possibility that Deckard could be a Replicant engineered to fall in love with Rachel at that time in order to create the Very Special Baby. While it amuses me that they’re yanking the chain of fans who wanted a definitive answer, that’s a really contrived concept: there are ways that they could have arranged for a Replicant to give birth which did not involve somehow manipulating the plot of Blade Runner into existence.


on labour and disposability

The film is vastly more on the nose about the Replicants being a slave labour force than the original was. Wallace refers to them precisely as such, telling his top Replicant underling Luv that ‘every great advance in civilisation has required a totally disposable labour force’. While in the original film, this violence and disposability lurked in the background, this film spells it out in all its open brutality.

For example:

This theme of disposable people and labour is very explicit throughout the film, especially in relation to the holographic woman Joi, but there’s a lot more to say about her in a bit. Agent K’s spinner (hovercar) is shot down by a group of people implied to be scavengers in a vast junkyard, and there is a really intensely violent scene where Luv directs a drone to blast them - dozens to hundreds of people - to pieces while she gets her nails done. Agent K visits an orphanage that’s more of a sweatshop where hundreds of children dismantle scrap, and nothing suggests this isn’t normal in 2049 America (as it already is today in some countries that global imperialism dumps its waste).

Ironically, for all that use of hundreds of extras to illustrate this disposability, this film seems to have little to say to actual marginalised, disposable populations. Agent K, the central character, is a white heterosexual man; there isn’t even the tedious cyberpunk trope of ‘gays as background colour’ from what I saw, let alone a central LGBT character. Racial violence is hardly addressed - in fact almost all the central characters are white, with people of colour appearing as a wacky shopkeeper or the cruel orphanage owner, so much like the original, it reinscribes racist roles. Sex workers at least do appear in the film, albeit in a fairly minor role; more on that shortly when I talk about Joi. Disability plays out in a few ways: on the one hand, the Perfect White Child that everyone’s looking for is made all the more ~precious~ for being isolated in a glass box to protect her immune system, the evil CEO Wallace is a blind man, and like, yeah.

And while there are many shocking images of Replicants being killed off when they are no longer useful, I’m not sure this adds up to a statement rather than just brutality for its own sake. idk. More later on in the gender bit.


on worldbuilding type shit (who cares lol)

The film does do some interesting things with sketching out a future history without fully stating it. A hologram dancing in the street is marked as being made in the Soviet Union; a place that is almost certainly Las Vegas has been hit by a nuclear weapon, and we weren’t told when or why. I quite enjoyed that we aren’t told heaps of worldbuilding, and yet it’s quite clearly an alternative history (rather necessary, given that the original Blade Runner is happening in the next couple of years lol).

The architecture is even more imposing and monolithic, at least in Los Angeles. There are long aerial shots of vastly built up city cut through by channels of streets; Wallace Corporation has built an even bigger pyramid than the original Tyrell pyramid which is kind of silly but whatever. The LA Police HQ could be right out of Judge Dredd. Las Vegas, in additional to being radioactive (and full of orange dust for some reason), is now full of enormous skyscrapers and gigantic figures of naked people. They made excellent use of their special effects and design budget.


on gender, sex work, portrayals of women, whether its themes are reactionary etc.

OK, so, on to Joi, Rachel, and also like, how the film portrays gender. Because that’s pretty fucking central to the whole thing.

I was looking at the critics’ comments on Wikipedia, and there was a mention of a review for Vice:

Reviewing the film for Vice.com, Charlotte Gush was critical of the film’s portrayal of women, who she said were “either prostitutes, holographic housewives” or victims dying brutal deaths. While acknowledging that “misogyny was part of the dystopia” in Scott’s 1982 original, she stated that the sequel was “flat, emotionless, nonsensical, and eye-gougingly sexist”.[100]

The review is here. There are aspects I both strongly agree with and strongly disagree with. In particular, I am pretty pissed off by the implication that merely portraying a full service sex worker is misogynist (though obviously a great many portrayals of fssw are misogynist). I also think it’s giving the original film far too much credit for the violence it shows against women. ‘Graphic death scenes for women and dignified noble deaths for men’ is absolutely something the original film does.

This comment, however:

Not to mention that the ultimate dividing line between human women and the hyper-human replicant women is that real women can give birth. Did you get that? If you don’t give birth, then sorry, you’re not a real woman.

is bang on the fucking money. It is deeply frustrating how the capacity to give birth is held as the thing that would somehow transform the Replicants’ condition, and while there is a sort of biopolitical bodily autonomy angle in the fact that Wallace wants to take that reproductive capacity and control it, I wish the film had been more willing to take a line that it doesn’t matter whether Replicants are reproductively viable, that Lt. Joshi’s fears that the baby would spark a rebellion are actually irrelevant because the rebellion is coming anyway.

Joi is the most interesting character in the movie to me - no shit, she’s a ‘fake’ woman, produced to fulfil a role of heterosexual domesticity and disposable should she fail that. I doubt she was intended as a trans metaphor but there’s something there.

Joi is a holographic woman from a line of holographic virtual girlfriends produced by Wallace, but it’s clear from the narrative that we’re to understand that she is a fully sapient person, that she supposedly has agency outside her ‘model wife’ programming, and that she ‘really’ does have romantic feelings for K even if that’s part of her design function. But her role in the story is heavily circumscribed and she does kind of act as a fantasy perfectly loyal girlfriend, and she is very unceremoniously killed off when Luv says a sarcastic line about her as a ‘product’ and stamps on the gadget in which her consciousness resides.

Although she has a lot of screen time, she is very much a secondary character to Agent K: about all of her characterisation relates to how she feels about K, the emotional support she provides to him, the things she does in order to try to be more ‘real’ for him.

Near the beginning of the film, K and Joi make out, or pretend to: they do some very nice camera tricks (most likely filming two versions of the scene) to put across that Joi is intangible. Joi’s status as a not-quite-human person is heavily underlined; their makeout session is interrupted when Joi’s animation is suspended so K can take a call, and she is frequently referred to as a product by representatives of Wallace.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Joi hires a full service sex worker, Mariette, to stand ‘inside’ her so that she and K can have physically tangible sex. (Mariette appeared in an earlier scene where she and some other sex workers tried to get information out of K, but he wasn’t interested). K, always stoic (because he’s been heavily conditioned and trained to be a mechanical killer, and just as significantly because he’s ~manly~ I guess), seems at best kind of nonplussed about the whole thing - rather, the significance is how this is ‘being real’ for Joi. The next morning, Joi basically Mariette to fuck off and Mariette responds with a corresponding barb about how there’s ‘not as much as you think’ inside Joi.

Joi is a tragic character, and I was very unsatisfied with how the film just dumps her to provide a bit of pathos for Agent K before the finale (that scene in the trailer where a giant naked hologram of Joi leans down to advertise to him is after she has died, and he is mourning her). I think, if Joi had been able to actually leave K, and K had either accepted that or not, that could have been a very powerful and interesting statement; as it is, she is something of a ‘perfect slave’. I do think the way they stamp on Joi kind of breaks whatever they were trying to say with her; at the same time, I identify strongly with Joi.

ALT TEXT NEEDED!

Mariette, it turns out, is a member of the building Replicant resistance, and after the above mentioned sex scene, bugs Deckard, which allows the resistance to find him and recruit him after he’s left for dead by Wallace corp. (It’s an odd hole in the narrative that Wallace corp, otherwise brutally efficient and more than willing to murder anyone up to and including a police lieutenant who get in their way, left him there as a loose end rather than shooting him, especially when Luv went out of her way to step on Joi.)

I really wish Mariette had had more of a role in the film; as it is she appears in all of three scenes, and I wasn’t able to catch her name until I looked at the cast list on Wikipedia. In terms of portrayals of sex work and sex workers, Mariette avoids some of the more obvious pitfalls (she’s not a tragic figure to be saved, nor a monstrous failed woman, and generally seems to take an attitude of ‘lets get on with it’, sex work is work), but I’d be very interested in what sex workers more widely familiar with sex work in media think of her.

In the above Vice review, Charlotte Gush writes:

It is the only real relationship in the entire film, and implies that through her sensitive subserviency and domesticated care, she is actually more human than the human women, who have become hardened ‘man-like’ warriors, or cynical, bedraggled whores.

While some of the observations are decent, this is not a reading of the film I think is well supported. I also find referring to a sex worker character as a ‘cynical, bedraggled whore’ to be an utterly reprehensible line in a supposedly feminist review. I did not get the sense that somehow Joi was to be read as ‘more human’ than the other women in the film. (Additionally, both the sex workers in the film and Luv are Replicants, not ‘real humans’.)

It is true that of the two women characters who possess serious power and agency, both are basically villains: Lt. Joshi, who commands Agent K and at times attempts to be friendly with him in ways that are betrayed by the absolute power (when K expresses discomfort with sharing a childhood story implanted into him, Joshi just orders him to tell her the story anyway; when he fails an emotional baseline test that marks him for termination, she chews him out before he lies about successfully killing the child, since he now believes it’s him), and Luv, who is a ruthless villain who is introduced selling Replicants (and offering some ‘pleasure models’ with the order), faithfully serves Wallace, and kills people without remorse as she tries to track down Deckard and Rachel’s child.

There is also the leader of the Replicant resistance, who appears only briefly, and instructs K to hunt down and kill Deckard so he can’t reveal their secrets to Wallace (an order K ultimately reinterprets, rescuing Deckard and taking him to see his daughter). Since we hardly see her, I don’t really know how the film is expecting us to feel about her. She survives, unlike the other two.

I do not, however, feel that the film is trying to say these women are ‘hardened ‘man-like’ warriors’. That’s not to say they are good feminist portrayals or some shit. Instead, Luv’s femininity is used to try and give her an Extra Evil edge, e.g. in the scene where she’s having her nails done while she flatly orders a drone to target different groups of scavengers. Joshi is portrayed as misguided but somewhat sympathetic, well-intentioned but unable to really relate to the slave Replicant she employs for the, uh, obvious reason; her goal to ‘keep order’ even when the order is so obviously evil is bad but she’s not portrayed as monstrous in the way Luv is.

Quoting again from the Vice review.

Women are either literally prostitutes (including Mackenzie Davis as Mariette), holographic housewives like Joi (Ana de Armas) – a product that is marketed with the lines “Experience Joi,” “Everything you want to hear. Everything you want to see.” – or some slightly meaner, more violent boss women (Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, also a 'companion’ but one who can kick ass) who nevertheless meet gruesome deaths that we watch in horrifying detail. Men also get killed, of course, but we don’t watch their eyes bulge for tens of gratuitous seconds – they are blunt, noble deaths, not desperate fetishistic ones.

Both these women certainly die. Of the two, as I remember, when Luv shoots Joi, the camera cuts to the outside of the building; it is abrupt but the camera does not dwell on her dying. Men and women are rarely given noble deaths in this film: many are abruptly shot in the head (perhaps after a short fight).

It is correct the fight between K and Luv towards the end of the film, a desperate scrabble at some kind of metal embankment in a heavy storm as the car containing Deckard floods with water, is one of the film’s longest and most intense fight scenes; both come close to drowning, but K is mortally wounded but ultimately he manages to force Luv to drown before he does. It is certainly not a dignified death, but I do think it’s the kind of death that’s usually granted to a male villain (compare when Roy Batty murders Tyrell by crushing his face in the original film). The camera does linger on Luv’s face as she dies, but it comes after several minutes of fighting.

In regards to lingering on womens’ brutal deaths, contra what the Vice review says, it has a lot in common with the original Blade Runner. When Deckard shoots Pris, we get a very long shot of her body twitching rapidly on the floor before ultimately settling in a bloody mess, and Roy Batty returning to ~creepily~ touch and kiss her bloodstained corpse. Earlier in that film, Deckard chases Zhora half-naked down the street before ultimately shooting her; we watch her body collapse in slow motion. By contrast, Roy Batty gets one of the most famous ‘noble death’ scenes in cinema, delivering a moving speech before symbolically letting a dove fly away. Leon gets a more abrupt death scene when Rachel shoots him, but still the camera doesn’t linger on his corpse.

The unnamed female Replicant who Wallace cuts early in the film is probably the most unpleasant, fetishistic death. She stands there mutely, naked while Wallace examines and pushes her in a clinical yet blatantly sexualised way, and then disembowels her just because he can. Luv, standing by, sheds a tear, but says and does nothing. This film certainly demonstrates Wallace as a truly vile person, and illustrates how utterly inhuman and disposable the Replicants are for him, but in many ways it does seem gratuitous.

So both these films portray a dystopia full of sexual violence and brutal deaths for women; both of them portray this violence very explicitly. I’m not exactly sure how to take this, and it puts me in mind of something @darmokontheocean was saying earlier. If we are going to talk about patriarchy, biopolitics etc. we have to honestly acknowledge the extreme violence and disposability marginalised women are subject to, but at the same time gratuitous violence of a kind many women in the audience have likely experienced is less a Profound Artistic Statement and more edginess porn.

I think the major problem is the viewpoint characters are never really these women who suffer violence. Work like @porpentine‘s, which often portrays very extreme violence, works well because it places us in the subjectivity of the disposable, traumatised women, whereas in this film the camera is a neutral observer or takes the view of Agent K, stoic white dude. In that regard, I do agree with the Vice reviewer that a lot of this violence feels more fetishistic than a necessary part of portraying a misogynist dystopia.


I think I’m running out of steam at last - it turns out I had a lot more about this film to say than I thought. I may think of more things later. e.g. there’s probably a lot to be said about how, in its status as a big name Hollywood production, the film is in fact in many ways an embodiment of what it critiques about capitalism, violence, etc.