Existentialism and sexism in Blade Runner's future

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Blade Runner 2049 (MA). Director: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas. 163 minutes

Ryan Gosling in Balde Runner 2049Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), about a veteran cop in 2019 LA tasked with hunting and executing rogue androids known as replicants, is legitimately hailed as a masterpiece. A visionary tour de force, it delivered high-concept science fiction with the tone and structure of a hardboiled noir detective story. It also tackled, with piquant Judeo-Christian religious overtones, such heady philosophical themes as what it means to be human and the nature of memory, skewering humankind's perception of itself as the pinnacle of sentient existence.

Viewed with a critical rather than merely adulatory eye however, the film has its problems. And I'm not referring only about its at-times muddled story, which was muddled further by Scott's penchant for periodically meddling with it (there have been no fewer than five official cuts of the film from 1982 to 2007). Blade Runner's sidelining of the experiences of women and non-white characters, in favour of the experiences of white men, has been widely noted — including, recently and pithily, by feminist pop culture commentator Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian noted in particular the forceful manner in which the film's replicant-hunting hero Deckard (Ford) 'seduces' Rachael (Sean Young), herself an evolved model of replicant. The moment undermines what commentary the film otherwise makes on the place of women in this dystopian patriarchal society, notably through the characters Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), both replicants who have been put to the service of male sexuality, with whom we are asked to sympathise and who die agonisingly at Deckard's hand. 

Fast-forward to 2017 and the latter-day sequel, Blade Runner 2049, replicates many of the achievements of its predecessor, but also its problems. Original screenwriter Hampton Francher returns, with directing duties filled by Quebecois filmmaker Villeneuve, whose 2016 film Arrival evidenced a nous for thoughtful science fiction. Here he brings to bear his skills at balancing detailed characterisation, heady ideas and compelling story with stunning visuals to create a rare sequel that expands upon the original in every conceivable way.

That includes the running time, which outdoes the original by some 45 minutes. But 2049 puts every one of those minutes to use, opening up new corners of this dilapidated and overcrowded Los Angeles in physical, technological and sociological terms. Visually it's as visionary today as Blade Runner was in 1982, not only in its sublime but story-serving special effects but also in the work of genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, who lights and frames to perfection both the vastness and claustrophobia of the world Villeneuve has built.

 

"The themes of class and power, of an advanced society that rests on fundaments of division and oppression, not to mention environmental degradation, were key concerns of Blade Runner and remain so here."

 

Preview screenings of 2049 were accompanied by corporate pleas to critics to not give away too much of the story. I'll adhere to that, not out of any particular concern for the studios' coffers, but because 2049 really is best enjoyed with its sense of mystery as much as possible in tact. Suffice it to say that it centres on an investigation by K (Gosling) — who, like Deckard is a 'blade runner' tasked with hunting down rogue replicants — that doubles as an existential pilgrimage.

The twist here is that K himself is a replicant; a newer model than those he hunts, upgraded for obedience. K's status as a blade runner who is also a replicant reflects the much-debated question — Was Deckard, too, a replicant? — that has constituted its own layer of mythology ever since the arrival of Scott's 1992 director's cut. That question is either the original's thematic coup de grâce or a red herring thrown in by an all-too-clever director, depending which version of the film you favour. 2049 capitalises on this mystery by maintaining it.

K's and Deckard's paths do cross (that's no spoiler, Ford's in the trailer) but not until deep into the film. Until that point, 2049 feels like the kind of elegiac extended epilogue that is the only sequel Blade Runner ever called for. K quietly accumulates clues about the aftermath of the previous film's events; which turns out to be vitally important for humans and replicants alike. Meanwhile 2049 explores his experiences as an 'other' (he is dubbed 'skin-job' by colleagues at the LAPD) who has been integrated into society but remains on its margins.

We see, for example, the test to which he is subjected each time he 'retires' a target, designed to detect any deviation from his compliant replicant programming — 2049 is as interested in the tension between free will and predetermination as its predecessor. His superior at the LAPD, Lieut Joshi (a wonderful but underused Wright), is fond of K but remains aloof; he is her inferior, both by rank and by species. He crosses paths too with replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Leto), in a macabre variation on the 'meeting your maker' motif of the original.

The themes of class and power, of an advanced society that rests on fundaments of division and oppression, not to mention environmental degradation, were key concerns of Blade Runner and remain so here; 2049 explores them in various ways, both visually (for example LA's climate has changed palpably since the time of the original) and in its story. These are real-world concerns that give the film plenty of contemporary currency. Yet at the same time, like its predecessor, its unreconstructured treatment of gender roles goes a long way to scupper this.

Primarily this is seen in K's relationship with Joi (de Armas), an artificially intelligent hologram manufactured by Wallace's company who exists as a companion for him, catering to his emotional needs. In truth this relationship is touchingly portrayed; it is all the more poignant due to the unspoken question of which of them is more 'real' (that evergreen preoccupation of the Blade Runner mythos); both are manufactured, yet the emotional content of their relationship scans as authentic, and both possess a genuine desire to exist, in their own way.

At the same time there is no escaping the fact that Joi is someone who has been constructed to serve the needs of her white male owner: a chaste variation of the 'pleasure model' Pris in the original, or a more ephemeral rendition of the oppressed and subservient Rachael. This is beyond unfortunate. So considerable are its strengths that Blade Runner 2049 is a future classic, to be discussed and dissected for decades. That it will become so while blithely reinforcing the primacy of the white male gaze in popular culture is to be regretted.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, Denis Villeneuve, Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright


 

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Existing comments

Yours are amongst the most intellectually jam packed social critique film reviews in Australia, Tim. They read more like French, German or better American newspaper reviews (NY or LA Times) than the simplistic dross served out by TV or the local newspapers here. Whether I agree with what you say or not they make me think!
Edward Fido | 12 October 2017


Tim, Thankyou once again for your enlightening(as usual) and much appreciated review. In the light of the scandals coming out of Hollywood at present, your insights give us much to ponder and be alerted to. It is amazing how those of us who have grown up as movie lovers have always had to choose wisely and reflect deeply on what we are "fed". Your reviews are the voice of wisdom and care. Thank you again. Yes Edward Tim is a certainly a great reviewer.
Celia | 12 October 2017


For me intelligent film criticism started with David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, Celia. Their approach was not so socio-critical as Tim's, but he is younger and of another generation. Movie making is indeed 'the Dream Factory' and some of the assumptions held by the dream makers and their actions, like Harvey Weinstein's, are eminently questionable and far, far worse. I think Tim questions the philosophy/ies or underlying assumptions behind the films. That is a good thing.
Edward Fido | 13 October 2017


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