Blade Runner 2049: Are All Hobbesian Worlds Also Misogynistic Ones?
I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night, with my wife and son Danny, visiting from Dayton. As expected, a somewhat more spectacular dystopia than Ridley Scott’s film, owing (of course) to the intervening development of digital processing speeds and capacities. Blade Runner appeared the same year as Tron, in 1982. Unlike Tron, an early landmark in computer animation, Blade Runner used the old fashioned stuff of models and matte paintings to build its world.
Blade Runner is one of Lori’s favorite films. As a filmmaker and sci-fi fan, her appreciation is understandable. If I remember rolling my eyes at the grandiloquent monologue given to Rutger Hauer’s replicant at the end of the movie—I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, something about Orion’s Belt–I like it, too, for the world-building exercise at the heart of the film.
The new film, set 40 years later, features some of the same rainy, claustrophobic bleakness of the original, as well as the Asian language/culture mashup (with relatively few Asians). Danny, who speaks (and teaches) Mandarin observed that in both films there were mixtures of Chinese and Japanese characters in the same storefront signage. There are interesting, clunky mixed-time-period design choices in 2049, like a room bathed in orange-yellow light with a service counter consisting of two opposing triangles of keyboard matter; the shapes of the keys themselves are reminiscent of early 1980s industrial design, a la the first electric typewriters with sentences-long memories. I wondered if some of the flying police cars quoted 60s Pontiac Bonnevilles and Rivieras, particularly in front. I will probably see the movie again, at some point, to look more carefully at some of those production design choices.
The frequency, pace and force of the violent episodes in the film were noticeable, and can probably be attributed to the expectations of contemporary audiences about such things. More, faster, louder. I find many latter-day action films wearying for this reason, but whatever.
My objection to the movie (shared and independently voiced by Lori) has to do with its gender politics. Creepiest and most gratuitous of all is a moment when Jared Leto’s character (a blind “industrialist” with cataracts like frisbees and a glowing blue thing in his neck) delivers a sort of Bond villain speech while one of his latter-day replicants, a woman, is dropped from her birth-sac in a gelatinous mess.
Nude, shudderingly she begins to gather herself while he yammers megalomaniacally, caressing and cradling her head. His speech has to do with the central plot question of the movie: do replicants reproduce? Theoretically, can they? Have they ever?
Wallace (the name of Leto’s character) wants more replicants, presumably to make more cash on the manufactured slave market. But he can’t make them fast enough; he wants to breed them.
This is valuable plot information, but all the while we are being introduced to an extremely vulnerable character who has gradually pulled herself into a standing position. Wallace produces a knife as he rambles. Mystifyingly, suddenly he disembowels–dewombs–his new replicant, apparently as punishment for her categorical barrenness. She collapses and bleeds to death as he wraps up his little sermon.
What on earth is the reason for this? If its purpose is to establish the diabolical bona fides of Wallace’s character, I guess it works, if too well. This viewer became confused. Wallace is uncanny-looking. I began to wonder: is he a replicant? or does he have some other motive? His gratuitous extermination of his new model comes across as disturbed, not ruthless. Wallace’s killer minion muddied things for me, too. An elegant, drawn-looking replicant, she grows ever more sinister as the film advances. Her motivations likewise came to seem exaggerated. All told, I had trouble tracking the real interests of this faction among the others in the film.
Back to what is the reason for this cradle-killing of the (fully grown) replicant? Due to its wanton nature under the narrative circumstances, as a viewer I checked out of the narrative and went to Denis Villenueuve, the director. This seems like a moral choice to me: the brutal murder of a defenseless female character for being female (and non-reproducing!) was plainly not necessary. As staged, shot and edited it reads as misogyny.
As noted above, Wallace's female fixer (Sylvia Hoeks) in particular crushes and slashes her way through this film, unsympathetically so.
Is it feminist to enfranchise female characters to dole out violent death? This seemed to be the mock-laudable concept behind Furiosa, the Mad Max: Fury Road heroine who steals the supermodel breeding cows and drives off in her tanker truck, always giving better than she gets, to escape a paunchy death-head monster-man. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I am pessimistic. Narrowly, yes: call it a sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander insight. But more broadly, the diversification of brutality seems like a poor strategy for human advancement.
As a general matter, I think we may be over-invested in righteous violence as a problem-solving methodology.
Meanwhile, there is “sex.” 2049 features a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character, a replicant, briefly makes out with two women at once: a replicant “pleasure” model (Mackenzie Davis), and a holographic wifey sort of character named Joi (Ana de Armas)–standard issue, but somehow (we are to believe) sincere in her affections for her master. The latter woman has arranged for the former to assist. They “blend” into a semi-stable unit. This is a more technologically optimistic but emptier handling of a similar set up in Her, and less satisfying, in part because all participants are mechanistic. No doubt or true awkwardness seems possible–which is precisely what believably torpedos the encounter for Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her. (The actual sex is abridged and implied, which perhaps some of the violence might also have been.)
Meanwhile there are echoing (and troubling) effects from Harrison Ford’s Deckard’s encounter with Rachel in the first movie. His attempt to bridge the gap between guy and (replicant) doll consisted of something close to sexual assault, and implicitly after the fact, rape.
The final tell on the gender front is the proliferation of nipples: replicant, digital, sculptural, you name it. (No one is ever seen nursing a baby, and not only because there aren't any.)
Some part of me resists thinking too hard about this, but that’s probably the lazy part. I get that the film is a dystopia, and that it imagines a kind of neo-feudal existence involving humans and replicants, with the latter built to serve and sometimes distract/pacify the former, even though the point of 2049 is that the categories upon which the fictional world is built are unstable. It’s a dark district of pleasures taken where they can be gotten, I guess. But must all Hobbesian worlds be misogynistic ones? Discuss.