SPOILER WARNING FOR BLADE RUNNER 2049, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
I’d recently looked into an article written by Parsec’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, reviewing the new Blade Runner movie, a film that I regarded highly with my 5* appraisal. While she similarly celebrates its visual grandeur and strong performances, Baker-Whitelaw makes one well-argued claim on what she considers to be an undertone of sexism running throughout the movie, particularly in its objectification and stereotyping of its female characters, such as Joi (Ana de Armas).
While I respect any criticism as worthwhile – especially if it encourages public discussion on the cinematic art form – I’d like to throw my own gauntlet to the floor in defence of a film that I consider to be entirely the opposite of sexist. So here goes, a little analysis of my own.
Within its opening crawl, we are introduced to a key character: Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). What information are we provided relating to Wallace? Well, we are told that he was responsible for the provision of synthetic crops and produce that halted a near fatal famine: a devastating instability, resolved. Following this, Wallace proceeded to renegotiate the manufacture of replicants: animatronic humans that were prohibited due to an open rebellion against their captors. Wallace succeeds in his quest, and subsequently constructs a new line of replicant models that are as realistic as the last, yet entirely subservient to the humans they are allocated to: without the possibility of revolt, a devastating instability is again resolved.
What these two narrative elements amount to is an assertion of Wallace’s unwaveringly conservative values. Firstly, Wallace is a capitalist, a wealthy mogul who applies his riches to projects that he sees as bettering mankind. Secondly, these projects affirm what Wallace believes to be the human race’s claim to superiority, by having the artificial/replicant race serve them, fulfilling the undesirable jobs that humans no longer have to: Wallace sees himself as some kind of God, referring to the replicants as his ‘angels’ and serving mankind to his will. Thirdly, these replicants and their respective professions are all based upon a rule of stereotyping: in order to preserve what Wallace understands as societal stability, the conservative existence that came before must be maintained, this reality being enforced by patriarchal ideology and its ensuing categorisation.
And so the film begins, and we are introduced to our primary, artificial characters: K (Ryan Gosling) and Joi. Already, these characters’ foundational scenes fall in line with a stereotypical gender binary: the active male, and the passive female. K is an updated replicant, serving as a Blade Runner, hunting down old replicant models for ‘retirement’, presumably due to their lack of ideological control which is a primary attribute of Niander Wallace’s technical redesign. Within his opening scene, we see K find and execute one of these replicants, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). Therefore, he is represented as active in his profession, displaying those generic male characteristics of aggression and tenacity, against those who would threaten the patriarchal status quo. On the opposite side of the spectrum, with Joi, we are introduced to her in the home: she is a hologram, installed within K’s house. She is first shown to us serving K his dinner, appearing in an outfit similar to that of a conservative housemaid. She then proceeds to alter her appearance, seeking approval and satisfaction from K. She is passive therefore, domesticated, submissive to the male.
These are sexist stereotypes for sure, but a vital detail is also included in these introductions: we are notified that both are products of Wallace. K unconsciously relays this information to us, through a conversation with Morton in the opening scene of the film. Joi, when turned on or off, is either preceded or proceeded by the Wallace logo. These serve as reminders that the film itself does not support these stereotypes as real or authentic: they are constructions of a conservative, patriarchal leader, desperate to assert a phallocentric ideology.
The significance of this claim is revealed as the film progresses, it being the main crux of the plot: the elimination of the stereotype, the transcendence of convention, the realisation of a reality outside of patriarchy.
Firstly, there is Joi. At first, we see her domesticated, a pristine image of a dying category from the era of Eisenhower and the nuclear family. However, as every appearance of hers passes, she develops a freer personality, escaping the shackles of her inactivity. Firstly, K grants her an upgrade, whereby she can move without the confines of the scanner attached to K’s ceiling: freedom granted by the male.
However, there is a sexual encounter later on where Joi, the hologram, projects her form over the body of a prostitute, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). This is initiated by Joi, whose desire for K goes beyond the form of the body, thus denying the necessity for that supposedly essential human element: she has agency, in spite of her not possessing a human form. Furthermore, Joi is the one to gift K with a new identity, outside of the replicant designation he has functioned under: she christens him Joe, a name he initially rejects but later adopts when he faces Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) for the first time, indicating his acceptance of her active participation in forming his persona, away from Wallace’s suppression of the replicants’ individuality.
The most significant moment, however, comes in Joi’s near-terminal decision to delete her software from K’s apartment in order to live solely in the transfer device he’d procured for her earlier on. This detaches Joi entirely from the domestic environment: she wants to leave, to be an active participant alongside K, and he accepts this, his replicant consciousness refusing the dominant human ideology of patriarchy. Wallace’s programming has failed and both Joi and K are able to co-exist as equals.
Thus we arrive at K. With K, the key to his narrative thread is the revelation that Deckard had a child with Rachael (Sean Young), Deckard’s replicant partner from the first film. The impossibility of a replicant producing a child has come to fruition, and this prodigal creation could be K. Throughout the film, his implanted memories become increasingly more real, as he discovers evidence in areas from his flashbacks that suggest he was actually there, that these aren’t manufactured memories at all. The film has us believe it alongside him: we are convinced that K is this chosen child, this ‘miracle’ as Bautista’s Morton refers to it.
However, this presumption is proven false in the film’s grand twist. Following Deckard’s abduction at the hands of Niander Wallace’s synthetic servant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), we find K under the supervision of an outlawed band of replicants. What he discovers is that everything he thought was true is quite the opposite. See, alongside Rachael and Deckard’s child, there was an identical genetic match created to divert any attention away from the true replicant infant, in case they were discovered. Now, one can already begin to understand the patriarchal conservatism that is embedded within the replicants’ programming: my analysis thus far has proven as much. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that K naturally believes that he must be the child: an assumption merely influenced by that which he knows. However, reality sets in when he discovers that it is the female match that is the miracle, and that he is the decoy.
This is an ingenious inversion of gender stereotypes that cements Blade Runner 2049 as a film that could never be accused of sexism. According to the laws of dominant narrative tropes, K would be the chosen child: he is the male, of course, why wouldn’t he be. But to have him realise that this simply isn’t the case, that he has effectively sacrificed everything, for nothing, is powerful and unconventional. Yet it isn’t met with an empathy that confronts this antithetic statement on gender assumptions. Instead, what K begins to understand is that this is the right path for this world, that change is necessary.
It is in a final scene, involving an oversized advertisement hologram of Joi, that K finally understands this fact. The figure of Joi is heavily sexualised within this scene: completely naked, she coaxes K to join her, do things with her, a proposition that he’d have perhaps taken at the beginning of the film. But with what Joi became, the changes she took in becoming a free agent, these turn him against that possibility. He stares emotionless at the hologram, bloodied, grasping the full weight of his decision. And he understands that the Joi he once had, the Joi free of the patriarchal grasp of Wallace and his fascist programming, was the one worth fighting for. He walks away from the hologram, with the intention of saving Deckard and returning him to his daughter.
K makes an important decision, and so does the film. Rather than question the gravity of this uncovering, K simply accepts it for the better: due to the evolution of his connection to Joi, he discovers something about himself, about the truth of their being, as compared to Wallace’s patriarchal preconceptions. The conservative illusion they lived in is one devoid of love and emotion: he begins to love Joi the more she becomes independent of her feminine stereotype. Similarly, he himself becomes the hero by embracing the female prodigy, by walking away from the objectified female and siding with those who would seek to tear down this conservative view of women and its leader, Wallace, with it.
It is with this epiphany that K commits to the cause and gives his own life to save Deckard’s, supporting the rebellion that would destroy the patriarchal superstructure. It is this radical, yet beautifully realised moment that defines Blade Runner 2049 as something much more than a gorgeously shot science-fiction film: it is an ontological masterpiece, challenging the very ideology that is so prominent within our everyday lives. The iconography of the woman is put front and centre, yet uncomfortably so, to the point where we relate to K’s decision to support the revolt. It is in this final decision that the knot is tied on a film that is so clearly tied to an optimistic ideal of the human spirit: the belief that we can all inspire each other, and ourselves, to stand up for what’s right, this being the freedom of all, irrespective of gender or race.
To conclude this analysis, I’d like to present you with a contrast that speaks to the ultimate message of the film. There are two identical shots recording one singular action: K holding out his hand and capturing a snowflake. The first time he catches it, roughly midway through the film, he believes himself to be the prodigal son: he’s the symbol of patriarchy, but staring at his hand as the snowflake falls onto it, he looks confused, unsure of his status, even angry. However, the second time he catches the snowflake, it has followed the sequence of him saving Deckard, choosing to side with the replicants, rallying with them against injustice. In the shot that follows, we see K smile at his hand, content and ready to die. It’s no wonder that Roy Batty’s theme plays over it from the first movie, as Batty died for a selfless cause: saving Deckard, despite Deckard’s attempts to kill him. In that moment, K realises that he has also made the right decision with his selfless act: the affirmation of an equal society, led by a woman and her father, side by side. All because he saw in Joi that there’s a chance for women to be free from objectification and oppression. I think this speaks volumes to my overall argument: rather than attesting to sexist ideals, Blade Runner 2049 subverts them, attacks them and provides a beautiful vision of a future where a decision can be made that could rid the world of them forever.