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Rarely is a movie as highly anticipated or as divisive as the just released Blade Runner 2049 (BR2049). People love it. People hate it. I decided to see it with an open mind, and I came out of the movie with a head full of thoughts, so I’m fine with the film. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario and Arrival) and produced by the 1982 Blade Runner director Ridley Scott, the film is a $180,000 contemplation on the corporate takeover of reproduction and the female body. It is also a stunning visual portrayal of a world gone environmentally and humanistically wrong. As in the original Blade Runner and the Philip K. Dick book on which it was based (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968), the movie questions what it means to be human in a world in which humanity has been erased and co-opted by capitalism. Of course, the movie itself would not exist in a world in which corporate sponsors could not support it, but I’m not going to enter that territory. The movie was made and distributed, and it is a film which can be tackled from as many points of view as it took dollars to make. I will stay focused on reproduction, the female body, and what it means to be human (or not) and, more importantly, female in this world toxified and commodified by corporate pollution.
Given Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve’s track record, it is not surprising that being female lies at the core of a film focused on a male protagonist (Ryan Gosling’s “K”). Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival, both excellent films, are movies that directly confront current social issues – drug cartels, border control, immigration, and the definition of acceptable languages in a xenophobic world where “alien” could mean anything not white and English speaking. Most importantly in relation to BR2049, Villeneuve’s films focus on women working in the male workplace, especially within the federal government or working for The System. Blade Runner 2049 covers that same territory, featuring a number of “working women” who perform powerful and significant jobs in the film. Couple Villeneuve’s interest in women in a man’s world with Scott’s continuing query, horror and outright confusion about female reproduction and the female body, and the film has come up with a match made in heaven, producing a film which turns on itself rapid cycle in relation to the female body and her role in films, jobs, production and reproduction. If the film had a menstrual cycle, it would be insanely rapidly occurring (but not allowed in the world portrayed).
Throughout his career, Scott has explored female reproduction as an area of mystery and horror. Starting with Alien in 1979, Scott showed the female reproductive system through the lens of a horror film in which the female body, maternity, and birthing are portrayed as an alien monstrosity. He topped off his female troubles with this year’s debacle Alien: Covenant (2017) in which Scott ponderously ponders what would happen if men could self-procreate rather than depending on that horrific and confusing female body. What happens in the case of Alien: Covenant is a man created a dreadful self-indulgent masturbatory film that showed by removing the female from the reproductive process, you end up with some really boring shit.
However, combining Scott and Villeneuve’s starkly opposing views of the female body, BR2049 presses the audience to try to answer questions the film resists and which reside at the center today’s tense body politic. The film flips on itself in such rapid cycle, that it destabilized my position and left me wondering if it is the most revolutionary or most reactionary film of the last decade. Though the plot centers on the discovery of a dead replicant who gave birth, the most beautiful thing actually birthed in the film is the movie itself — $180 million manmade creation. The film is seductive, beautiful and mysterious and serves as a replicant for the audiences who experience it. It is a product created to entertain and seduce us, and does its job. It won me over. The cinematography is uncompromisingly bleak and beautiful while the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer provides another layer of immersion, pulsing with an industrial robotic heartbeat, mirroring the characters in the film.
As gorgeously apocalyptic as the movie is, I must note that its visuals are largely redesigns of two very important though different films. First and foremost, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet sci-fi masterpiece Stalker (1979) set the stage for hallucinogenic travels through toxic wastelands. The ghosts of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece especially linger in every corner of the Las Vegas sequence of BR2049 – from the danger of passing into a contaminated zone to all the remnants of a lost civilization. Stalker’s narrative is also framed by maternity – with the image of a mother and daughter bookending the beginning and end.
The other film that certainly influenced the visuals of BR2049 is Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes (2006), an absolutely stunning documentary of Burtynsky’s work in which he documents human and ecological disasters using large format photography and turns horror into beauty. The BR2049 scenes in the orphanage could be lifted right from Burtynsky’s portrayal of Shipbreaking photos in Bangladesh and his documentation of children picking through E-waste in toxic rural China.
While there are many angles to dissect the apocalyptic terrain of Blade Runner 2049, I prefer to focus on the women and reproduction. The movie is full of women, yet, like the female replicants produced for men’s pleasure (e.g. Ana de Armas’s character Joi), the girls don’t seem to hold. They are either trapped in roles so tightly constructed that they look like their heads will explode at any moment, or they are illusionary apparitions, locked behind glass, or just dead. The men – Ryan Gosling’s Blade Runner “K” and Harrison Ford’s resurrected Deckard – are the characters who bear the weight of this film that centers on a newly discovered female anomaly— a replicant woman who actually gave birth. This fact should be unsurprising, but in this world, a replicant woman giving birth could overthrow the system of control, so it is a discovery which must be silenced at all costs.
In this world, replicants are substitute humans designed to be slaves. They are either slaves to the corporate system (in this case largely manning agri-production “Off World” and serving the role of classic field-working slaves); slaves who are charged with killing rogue slaves (blade runners who cannibalize their own kind for their job); or slaves designed to entertain men (cyber whores). The slaves in BR2049 are produced by Wallace Corporation. Wallace took over the remnant replicants from the Tyrell Corporation of the 1982 film and repurposed and redesigned the slaves so they won’t rebel. Interestingly, Wallace Corporation makes millions of slaves who farm the fields somewhere far off screen and off world, yet very few appear in the actual film. While slavery keeps Wallace and the elite few actual people with money and power alive and well, the slavery that keeps the system going is largely invisible and absent from the film. This could be savvy commentary about how American slavery has been scrubbed from the historical record in general, or cinematic negligence. I am going to give the benefit of the doub, and say that a film that is referencing how America (since the film is set in LA) likes to keep the crimes of its labor practices backstage. I learn from engaging with many aspects of labor when looking at the film – from the labor of birthing (natural labor) to the slave labor of replicants (unnatural labor). Sometimes things unseen and less obvious can have more impact because things we can’t see insist that we think about them harder, and thinking is good!
Invisible labor and the slave system of late capitalism does show its face in one key scene in BR2049 when K ends goes to an orphanage which doubles as a child labor factory. In this dark place filled with mountains of E-waste, children use their bare hands to strip valuable parts, such as copper, from discarded technology. While the aesthetics of this scene can be attributed to Edward Burtynsky as I already mentioned earlier, the content also is commentary on the invisible slavery that exists today. The movie is set in 2049, but the reality of this scene cannot be denied. Even as we sit eating our popcorn, somewhere in China a child is probably pulling apart one of our dead cell phones. There are places on the planet not far removed from this scene. America engages in the practice of exporting its E-waste on giant barges where it is deposited in toxic mountains in rural areas in impoverished countries where women and children pick the phones and hard drives apart, absorbing deadly levels of mercury and lead. This scene may play as dystopian science fiction, but this is a dystopia that exists now while also commenting on the side effects of the toxic waste of late capitalism which renders the environment and the humans that occupy it barren. One of the side effects of picking through this E-waste is corrupting the reproductive system. Women become barren in a barren landscape. Enter Blade Runner 2049, or the Barrens of the 21st Century. No wonder giving birth is so confusing!
Never has barren looked so beautiful. This is not the flashy color-saturated Neon Noir look of the 1981 film. In 2049, the world has been stripped of color and life. It is dark, dreary, lifeless, dirty. Some lights appear here and there to cut through the permanent polluted haze, say a giant SONY sign or an enticing larger than life talking Android showing you her tits and ass. Other than that, the world we see is as barren as the women who occupy it. But that’s okay because corporations have taken over reproduction, so barren is profitable. As long as men are in control of reproduction, profits soar. Barren is the world view and becomes a ripe field for understanding how central women are to this corporate-raped world.
Let’s talk about the women in BR2049 – the “real” and the artificial. While the movie really only has two male characters of consequence – Ryan Gosling’s Blade Runner “K’ and the resurrected Harrison Ford’s Deckard (I am erasing Jared Leto’s Wallace from my memory to avoid trauma because I loathe the actor), women are everywhere and manage to be everything and nothing. The film’s skeletal plot hinges on the discovery of a box of bones which reveal that a female replicant had given birth to an actual child. This is an egregious crime in an economic system that thrives on creating non-human humans that are supposedly incapable of procreating, feeling, or having real memories. Being in control of your own reproduction means that the Corporate State loses control of production. But K has found evidence that a replicant actually fucked and had a baby. God forbid! The Corporate State must step in, find the child, eliminate it, and eliminate any evidence of a woman having control of her body from the historical and public record. Backwards assholes!
In summary, the first woman in the film has all this power – the power to create another human –but she is not human, and she is dead. Talk about an enigma. Her import is everywhere. Her body and existence are nowhere.
That’s okay. There are other important women – namely one that represents The State and one that represents The Corporation. Both are mutations of the natural female. The State is represented by LAPD Lieutenant Joshi played with exceptional tightness by Robin Wright. This woman is wound so tight that her suit looks like an iron sheath and her face is ready to implode with her own sense of duty. She orders K to find the child and eliminate it. She throws her hands up in the air, disarmed by this horrific discovery – that a female (one of her own sex!) could actually give birth. She says that if the word gets out “We could have slaughter!” Ah, the irony, that natural birth in this money grubbing world leads to slaughter. (This reminds me that the farm where the breeding woman’s bones are discovered breeds grubs – the larvae that eat vegetable matter – for protein, being another mutation of the natural.) Only corrupt ideology could produce such nonsensical illogical logic. Many might argue that Lieutenant Joshi is an example of an empowered woman. I beg to differ. She is a woman who has had to forfeit her sex to hold her job. She is a woman who is entirely defined by her job, and every action and emotion she expresses is related to her work. She is another kind of bastardization of the female that we see in this Capocalyptic (Capitalism + Apocalypse) world – women who become only jobs, excluding the job of parenting or giving birth. They become stiff suits with rigid jaw lines, and they are drawn by the hard lines of men even as they dish out orders to their male inferiors (a.k.a. “’K” the replicant).
Let’s have a look at the Corporate Female and meet Mutant Replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Luv is known by an actual name and not a serial number. As K reflects, “You have a name. You must be special.” Luv is special. She is beautiful and bad. She is wedded to the corporation, and shows little mercy for those who threaten its health. Luv carries out the dirty work of the Wallace Corporation with what seems like icy efficiency. She is a corporate killing machine. In fact, she is anything but the word her name sounds like. In one scene, Luv sits in her posh office and precisely orchestrates the mass slaughter of impoverished slave adults and children via the equivalent of Drones. Sound familiar? Luv is a living oxymoron, depicting the corruption of the natural female giver of life turned into an abominable killer. But Luv understands that she is as trapped as those she kills, even if she wears fancier clothes and is not willing to concede. Every single scene that she sheds a tear (because she does occasionally shed them), she witnesses or is responsible for the killing of another woman. She silently cries when she is made viscerally aware of her situation, once when she watches Wallace gut a newly born Replicant woman and once when Luv herself guts Lieutenant Joshi. She sees her own tragic state through the murder of other females. Luv reveals an inner knowledge of the tragedy of her state, but she also uses that awareness to exploit her position and play into power.
Luv’s self-awareness necessitates that I temporarily turn to another recent depiction of replicant women – HBO’s series Westworld. I was absolutely obsessed with watching Westworld and watched the entire series at least four times. This is primarily because I was mesmerized by and identified so powerfully with the character Dolores, a replicant who was created to indulge the fantasies of men, who gets brutalized and raped repeatedly, only to keep coming back for more and always asking “Did I do something wrong?” Dolores eventually picks up a gun and puts on some pants, but she is exceptionally nuanced and complex, as is the prostitute replicant Maeve. Both understand their roles as facilitators of male fantasies while also being trapped in them, and because they understand, they are able to manipulate their knowledge and turn it into power. Dolores and Maeve actually know more than any of the male characters in Westworld. At first watch of BR2049, I questioned if any of the female replicants had the same agency via knowledge as Dolores and Maeve, and in retrospect I actually think they do. The difference between Westworld and BR2049 is how the women use this knowledge. In BR2049, they don’t manipulate their servitude and turn it into power; rather they accept their circumstances and largely concede to their roles. For the most part, they end up being tragically empty (or barren) instead of complexly full of contradictions. Which role is more real? I don’t think we’ve reached a place in history where that has been determined yet for women, replicant or not.
Let’s move onto K’s A.I. partner Joi (Ana de Armas), a product brought to you by the Wallace Corporation to bring the consumer, well, joy as her name suggests. The movie is not too subtle in its symbolism. The Wallace Corporation has done a terrific job with Joi. She simulates affection, empathy, and sexuality. K is quite fondly attached to her. In fact, Joi even gives K a real name – Joe. Joi cares so much about K that she actually hires a prostitute (yes another female character whose role is to please men or the System) whose body Joi temporarily possesses so she and K can have sex. (Uh oh! I think I just wrote my way into the content of the sequel.) Joi shimmers and shifts. She glitches in and out of reality. Her image is as unstable as the flickering images of women adorning the billboards of post-Apocalypse Los Angeles. In the end, Joi flips off as easily as a lightbulb, only to reappear later in larger than life duplication on a billboard. Joi is the most unreal of all the females, but she is also the most real. It is Joi who stares at us from the Internet and YouTube videos. Joi who is on the cover of magazines at the checkout stand. Joi who sells perfume and tight jeans. Joi, however, is not full of joy. She is saddened by her inability to be real. Her joy is constricted by the boundaries of her prescribed limitations. Ironically (because this film is never short on irony), perhaps because Joi understands her limits and boundaries as a replicant, she may be the most real and human character. This movie just keeps turning on itself.
Or perhaps the most important “real” woman (or replicant or mutant) is the mysterious child who is now a grown woman – Dr. Ana Stelline. Her sole purpose in life is to manufacture memories which get inserted into replicants to make them feel more real. Memories give them a sense of depth and destiny. Ana is the child who was illegally and “unnaturally” born, and now her charge in life is in to give birth to replicants in the form of memories. She performs acts of reproduction by reproducing memories to instill life. Not surprisingly, she has an immune deficiency that causes her to live in a glass cage. She says she is free, yet she is beholden to Wallace Corporation. She plays god as much as the not-to-be-mentioned Jared Leto’s Wallace, except he has more money and power. In the end (literally), Ana is stuck in a cement block and glass prison producing memories she will never live. Is this the new kind of female reproduction? I’ll pass.
It’s also important to observe the female bodies that aren’t literal. First Las Vegas appears as a gloriously bleak landscape littered with giant fallen statues of hyper sexualized women. Las Vegas through the lens of BR2049 looks like Chernobyl meets The Shining meets torn and faded Hustler magazines. In the film, it is described as the most toxic and dirty place, and it certainly looks it, though in a beautifully Tarkovsky way. Like Tarkovky’s Stalker, Las Vegas is strewn with the detritus of past human greed and consumption. A holographic Elvis plays for Deckard who lives in isolation in the ruins of the Bellagio Hotel. Many have critiqued the appearance of Elvis as inconsistent with the film and Deckard’s personality. They forget that Deckard is a replicant so therefore really has no authentic personality. Besides, I think Elvis is perfect in this scene. While Elvis may not seem accurate according to previous histories of Deckard, the song Elvis is singing echoes the reason why Deckard and Rachel (Deckard’s ex-Replicant) were engineered by the Tyrell Corporation in the first place. Elvis sings, “I can’t help falling in love with you,” which is absolutely true for Deckard. We learn in this film that Deckard was designed specifically to fall in love with Rachel as a test model to see what happens when replicants are programmed with desire. Are Deckard’s feelings true love or corporate design? Perhaps they’re a mixture, just like Elvis. Elvis in his Vegas years is the perfect emblem of a tragic figure trapped in an artificial identity, just like all the replicants. Perhaps Elvis was the original replicant.
For the grand Femme Finale, the final battle scene takes place inside a roiling female body – the ocean. The ocean has always been mythically and powerfully female. In the scene with K/Joe, Deckard, and Luv battling in the raging storming waves of the ocean, they are fighting inside the vengeful female body. These surging waves, this violent ocean, this outraged body of water – this is the plundered and outraged female body demanding to be heard. This film is both ludicrously complex and simple. That’s why I like it.
What about the men? Again, I am going to disregard Jared Leto and grateful his screen time only totals about five minutes. Let’s just kill him off. There, he’s dead. Gosling’s K is the central male character and the character after whom the film is titled. Gosling’s tendency towards one-dimensionality lends itself to this film because K is supposed to be the new breed of replicant, one with no chance for feelings and rebellion. Gosling as an actor is like a throwback to the kind of actor who seems soft, placid, and almost girly on the surface but can suddenly emerge with incredible violence which is the only way he expresses emotion in this film – bursts of rage. Gosling reminds me of Gary Cooper – quiet and girlish while also being masculine and menacing. Then we have Harrison Ford’s Deckard who appears like a replicant of his past self, resurrected from the dead to deliver this sequel. In retrospect, the women are like T-Bone steaks compared to the one-dimensional chicken bones of the male characters.
The screenplay is skeletal at best, based on a simple premise and carried through with beautiful quiet symbolism and sublime cinematography. That means that the men aren’t given a lot of material to run with. Women are much more adept with metaphor. The point of the film in general is that any depth we perceive in the characters is illusive. The deeper we try to dig, the more we come up confused and/or empty. A world built on slaves and dominated by a few (at most) big corporations is a one-dimensional world that produces one-dimensional beings, like Ryan Goslings “K.” So he fits the bill.
The true living being in this film is the product itself and the cinematography that created it. The visuals carry the weight with their breathtaking beauty. They feel like we are traveling through (perhaps being born by) a toxic organic being. The film itself may be the true product of birth, the creation of men from the Movie Corporation. I certainly was lulled by its look and feel, seduced by its body, so I would gauge it as a successful enterprise. When I add up all its parts, I have to ask if this movie is an extended male cinematic masturbatory reflection on their own origins from the female body, or if it is actually saying something real and important about the corruption and takeover of the female body by corporate interests. Is the movie progressive reflection on the corporate control of reproduction, or is it a reactionary male outpouring of ego in the guise of Sci-Fi cinema? I guess that depends on how you choose to look at it. In the end it’s your choice, so maybe in the end, BR2049 is pro-choice by showing a world with no choice.