If you’re a secret sci-fi nerd like me, it would be easy to get seduced by Blade Runner: 2049, at least on the surface. Taking on a cult classic with such a committed fanbase was always going to be an ambitious undertaking for director Dennis Villeneuve, but the hype that surrounded the release of the sequel was not entirely unfounded. As a spectacle, the film is immense. Its production and set design immaculate, pushing and pulling between the aesthetics of the original and a new visual style for the story. The score, full of growling, ominous drones and rattling synths, was loud enough in parts to make the speakers ay my local Odeon rattle.
The cityscape of the future LA it envisions is truly frightening, forever shrouded in a bleak, dusty haze and almost unrecognisable as a human habitat. Ecological devastation is a standard trope in pretty much all dystopian sci-fi, to the extent that it would look strange to picture a future Earth not covered in smouldering rubble. What was was interesting about this film was the foregrounding of non-human characters who are navigating the decaying planet: it’s the film’s replicant characters who are asking what it means to be human in a world that looks decidedly inhuman.
Thematically, the film develops a lot of the core ideas of the original. In particular, the exploration of the inner world of replicants hinges on questions of desire, love and reproduction. Going beyond the question of whether androids dream, the film asks whether androids can love, and whether they can make babies. This is also the key fault line underpinning the social order the LAPD so perilously polices: if replicants are able to reproduce, do they threaten to supersede their human creators?
But it’s here that it becomes hard to overlook some of the movie’s central flaws, particularly its pretty dubious gender politics. Let’s take the film’s six main female characters. The first, Joi, is a virtual girlfriend, who can literally be switched on and off at will and whose primary function within the narrative is to provide reassurance and the simulation of physical intimacy, to Ryan Gosling’s character, K. The second, Mariette, is a prostitute who repeatedly comes to K’s aid. Ana Stelline, meanwhile, is a memory maker, potentially one of the film’s most interesting characters, though unfortunately she is barricaded inside a glass cage for the entirety of the film. The character of Rachel from the first movie, is briefly brought back to life only to be executed a point blank range a minute or so later.
The two more realised female characters are K’s chief Joshi, played by Robin Wright, who attempts to seduce her younger counterpart, and Luv, the badass replicant enforcer. Both of these characters are eventually violently dispatched, and there is a sense throughout the film that women, human women that is, might no longer be necessary in the future. And there’s never any doubt that it is men who are in control: a female replicant who comes spluttering to life in a traumatic ‘birth’ scene is promptly stabbed in the stomach by Jared Leto’s, prophet/inventor/father-figure character Niander Wallace, a brutal reminder not to get too many ideas about asserting her own autonomy.
There were moments when I thought this might be explored in depth, that the film might offer an interrogation of what a patriarchal society, built on slave labour, might look like when advanced virtual reality has become an affordable commodity and man’s destruction of the natural environment has reached its natural conclusion. But there is never any great exploration of these themes, despite the film stretching out to almost 3 hours in length. Objectification of women is taken as a given: one of the film’s most visually arresting images is of a giant naked holographic woman coming on to K.
And then there’s the fact that this supposedly futuristic LA (whose current population is around 10% African American, 10% Asian and almost 48% Latino) features only minimal speaking parts for people of colour. Edward James Olmos, who played Deckard’s partner Gaff in the first movie, makes a brief appearance, as does Lennie James, as a foreman of a scrap yard utilising child labour. Like the original movie, which was daubed in Japanese/East Asian aesthetics while simultaneously having no major Asian characters, Blade Runner: 2049 gestures at a polyglot future (Russian is heard frequently throughout the film, there are signs in Hindi, and K even seems to understand Somali, as he manages to converse with a market trader called Dr Badger, who, not in any way stereotyped, tries to sell K a goat) without giving any depth to characters that are not white males. Even back in 1999, the producers of The Matrix were able to countenance a future that was markedly multi-racial.
For a film made in 1982, the lack of attention paid to issues of representation might have been just about excusable. But for a film made in 2017, where debates about gender, race, social equality and reproduction are raging, the treatment of these issues feels negligent, and it’s pretty disappointing given the potential offered by the scope of the film.
It’s curious that the film has been released at a time when the work of Philip K Dick, who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book on which the original movie was based, has slowly been seeping into the mainstream: Channel 4 is currently showing a series based on his stories called Electric Dreams. In the fractured world that we live in, there’s clearly an appetite for storytelling that’s able to explore the weirdness of the future we’re very rapidly sliding towards. It’s a shame that the producers of Blade Runner: 2049 weren’t quite brave enough to part with some of the worn Hollywood tropes that meant a more nuanced human, or post-human future, could be explored in depth.