Does Blade Runner 2049 want to have its woke cake and eat it too?

Contributed by
Jan 22, 2018

With Blade Runner 2049 now on DVD, I've been thinking about the film—a film that stuck with me long after I left the theater.

I remember stepping out of a showing not really sure how I felt about it. The easy answer was to say that I hated it flat out, but that discounts the level at which it has stayed with me since. Among my group were a few men who knew exactly how they felt about it. “I can’t believe we just got to watch a true modern sci-fi classic,” of them said as soon as our feet hit the sidewalk, dodging bodies flowing out of the theater, and it seemed like this was the group consensus. I cracked a joke about the sound editing but mostly just politely smiled and nodded, not wanting to get into a fight about it there. It felt immediately as if we’d seen two different movies.

I understand the movie they saw. A philosophical meditation on identity and humanity. A visually stunning achievement with sweeping artistic shots over a dust-covered seemingly white male-centric dystopian future, the future of specifically the city in which we both saw our movies. But also, yes, it's an often extremely loud film, in which someone decided to take the distortion pedal blaring that have conquered modern film trailers and scored an entire film with it, and yet, somehow, that worked?

There are so many things about Blade Runner 2049 that do work, such as the dynamics between Ryan Gosling's K and his police captain, played by Robin Wright. A standout aspect of the movie for me was the internalized persecution of one’s own kind via Sylvia Hoeks’ replicant antagonist Luv. Luv’s destructive sadism is crafted by her proximity to the subjugation of her maker, Jared Leto’s Wallace, which molds her into one of the scariest female villains I’ve seen in years.

But I’m not sure if any of the men in the group I was with saw the movie I did involving Joi (Ana de Armas), the virtual girlfriend installed into K's apartment, a new model replicant designed to be less rebellious than the Nexus 8 models like (maybe?) Deckard and (definitely) Rachel of the first Blade Runner film. We first meet Joi as a disembodied voice, calling out to K from the walls of his apartment like a sexy Siri, before she’s revealed to us in the form of a hologram, flickering quickly through outfits and looks, from 40s vintage to laidback contemporary "cool girl."

As we see light flicker through her, and bits of her code rewrite themselves to appear to adapt to her surroundings, she’s the very definition of a female character without any depth. A Manic Pixel Dream Girl whose role in this world is to make K feel he’s special. That’s not an overstatement; she actually tells him how much she knows he’s special multiple times in the movie.

There’s a love scene about halfway through the film that landed for me in such a way that the rest of the movie became harder and harder to sit through. Scenes changed and there I still sat, feeling held captured by the sinking feeling of my stomach and wanting very much to leave but also thinking I’d come too far to walk out now. In the scene, highly reminiscent of a similar one in 2013’s Her, Joi has decided she wants K to feel her, and so she’s called in Mariette, an apparent sex worker played by Mackenzie Davis, who K previously interacted with in an earlier scene. Saying she knew he liked her, Joi has hired Mariette to be her body. Using the same holographic technology that had previously allowed K to imagine his dinner as a delicious steak and fries combo, Joi syncs her body’s movements over Mariette’s and what follows is a long seduction scene wherein we see Joi and Mariette slowly morph into and out of being each other’s faces, never fully nailing the sync but moving forward with sexual steam as they try.

It is a scene clearly intended to be erotic, and there are moments where great deal of care is made in making the syncing errors themselves carry this tone. What was one pair of eyes slides into two and back, the sensation of a fingers slowly moving across the skin represented by two hands becoming one and back again. A similar scene involving a single person who was shifting in and out of sync may in fact have been aesthetically beautiful, and yet I found myself completely disassociated from it for the entirety, completely unable to connect to what I was watching, pushing through it only through the occasional shots of Mackenzie Davis’ eyes that allowed me to escape into the version of "San Junipero" in my brain. No matter how rhythmic the music or aesthetically pleasing the lighting, tempo of movement, or visuals of two very attractive actresses in the scene may have been, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a literal presentation of Male Gaze.

In fact, the gaze was so strong with this one, it’s so incredibly blatant that in 2018 I have to go ahead and hope to god that this was actually the intention to begin with. I need to believe that a scene consisting of two women being treated as half a woman each and being put together into one whole object to make a robot man feel like a real boy for just one night was done because Denis Villeneuve wanted to make audiences uncomfortable with it.

The one saving grace that allows me to hold on to this desired belief occurs a moment later in the movie, when K is confronted by a gigantic version of Joi, an advertisement, completely naked in her brightly lit holographic glory. This different Joi gives him her product’s sales pitch, explaining how all of his fantasies can come true. It seems that this is the moment K realizes that his "girlfriend" was nothing more than an empty receptacle for him to pour his wishes into.

The question that comes up with such a revelation is: how much can we really take away from these self-aware reflections on misogyny when they seem to have to come packaged in the same materials that they seem to be criticizing? Blade Runner 2049’s own marketing team used this massive naked Joi as a promotional image for the movie. Men around me in the theater seemed fully invested in the exact surface-level enticement that the above-mentioned love scene was hinting at.

What I keep asking in the wake of seeing Blade Runner 2049 is how exactly can a filmmaker make a commentary on the male gaze, on the two-dimensional nature of overwhelming numbers of female characters in pop culture and genre, without falling into the traps of these very crimes themselves? It’s the same question that comes up time and time again with Game of Thrones, which has repeatedly run afoul of its female viewers with rape narratives, and people of color with white savior motifs while trying to denounce concepts like slavery. Can a narrative represent something without becoming that very insidious thing itself?

The obvious answer, and the one we seem to come back to more and more, is to bring more marginalized voices forward in the telling of these tales, voices that might more instinctively know different viewpoints that might give a story more self-awareness. But I don’t want to believe that the empathy required to confront these issues is forever locked away from traditionally privileged filmmakers either. I want to believe that there is a future where I can keep going to sci-fi movies and see these kinds of things be challenged. Perhaps this is why my friends were right and Blade Runner 2049 is in fact a modern sci-fi classic, because it made me so deeply uncomfortable that it's making me ask these questions more than I have with most recent genre films. 

I believed when I started exploring these ideas and how this movie made me feel that I would write my way to an answer, but I haven’t. But in the same vein, I also can’t stop thinking about Blade Runner 2049.