Blade Runner 2049: Nothing is safe from reboots

A film that is being lauded as “the best sci-fi film of the decade” (painfully ignoring the genius, original, unsettling Ex Machina), is a 2 hour and 40 minute return to the Blade Runner universe of 1982. I have fairly strong feelings about the original, so it was only fair that I expected to have fairly strong feelings about its sequel – but, spoiler alert, I don’t? This film made me feel dead inside.

Don’t get me wrong. This film is stunningly shot, with juxtapositions, minimalism, and wide shots that always get me going. The music was incredible, bringing back the futuristic sci-fi noir jazz that the first used so successfully. And, of course, all of the acting was flawless. Absolutely flawless.

But visual and musical success doth not a film masterpiece make in mine eyes.

Despite its unfortunate levels of sexism, the original film had very clear cut concerns and criticisms with society. Themes of anti-capitalism and body autonomy are obvious. It doesn’t try too hard to deal with too many themes at once, and that is very much to its benefit.

2049, however, doesn’t seem to know exactly what its angle is, and therefore dances around its themes. It could easily be anti-capitalist like the first. 30 years on and we are only deeper into the rabbit hole of capitalism and classism. And yet, the films Sony affiliations have forced the narrative to only flirt with the idea of capitalisms faults – but it never goes to second base.

It could also easily follow the narrative of body autonomy. And yes, it’s difficult to have a robot/AI narrative without touching on issues of autonomy and individuality, and yet somehow the film still seems to fall short, never seeming to come to a conclusion on the issue.

It could very easily have shown themes of racism. Replicants are born to be slaves to humans in order to create more wealth. We even see Ryan Gosling’s character, K, called “skinner” and “skinhead”, and experience similar interactions to what ethnic minorities often do (and I don’t think I have to explain what “skinner” rhymes with). And yet, K’s played by a white guy, and there feature even fewer people of colour than the original. So that theme falls short. Way, way, way short.

There was even a moment when I wondered if it was a feminist film. It almost – for a second – seemed as though it was attempting to discuss the ways in which society works to bolster male egos at all costs, often at the expense of females. But with the extreme views of skyscraper sized naked women in sexual poses constantly framing the film, the gruesome and drawn out deaths of all but one female (very reminiscently of the first film), and the extremely archetypal role each female played (lover, whore, monster, mother, virgin, mentor) it became clear this wasn’t the case. If you have to wonder if a film is feminist or sexist… Well, you shouldn’t have to wonder.

So what does it discuss? I found this very hard to figure out, and I’m still not entirely sure. Whilst the first film very strongly utilizes lighting to emphasise themes, the second film seems to ignore this concept completely. I could find almost no correlation between lighting themes or patterns – except for Wallace industries copying the Tyrell corps extreme yellow lighting.

Mis-en-scene didn’t work to hard to emphasise any further ideas on capitalism that the previous film hadn’t already done. Costume design seemed to do very little in the way of indicating theme. Hell, even the one motif throughout the film – a horse – didn’t give me much in the way of knowing what the fuck this film was trying to say. Like, really say.

So in the end, all it seemed to come down to was “what does it mean to be human?” “what does it mean to be living?”. And yes, these are important questions that sci-fi often grapples with, but often so much more successfully. Using AI as a device to discuss humanity, autonomy, and what it takes to become human is far from new. We’ve been seeing this since the dawn of sci-fi (literally, the first sci-fi media was Frankenstein and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out those themes). It’s also not uncommon, we have Humans, Westworld, Ex Machina, and Her to name a recent few.

So what the fuck guys? If we’re going to give a sequel to Blade Runner 30 years later, we better make it fucking worth it. We better give it a profoundly deep thematic narrative. We better lay it on thick. And we better have something to fucking say about it.

So why don’t we? Why did I not walk away from this long ass film feeling as though I could analyse it for days?

But maybe I’m too far gone from film school to recognise it. And I bet there’s a film teacher out there RIGHT NOW writing their whole syllabus around this film. But to me, if the theme isn’t at least strong and meaningful for me in the first go, then it’s not worth it. There’s no point trying to say something profound unless some people can hear you. And if I can’t hear you then it’s not fucking worth the disrespectful shit women and people of colour go through with this franchise.

So, Hollywood. Any other sexist sci-fi’s you want to reboot? You know, I think Dune has been untouched so far? Go right fucking ahead honestly I’m just exhausted anyway.

Blade Runner: First we discuss the original

If you’ve ever mentioned 80’s sci-fi to me – even in passing – there is a 100% possibility that I then brought up Blade Runner – and not in a good way. The original Blade Runner is the kind of film I hate to love, and love to hate.

It’s beautifully shot, it’s packed meaning into every interaction, every lighting detail, and the entirety of the mis-en-scene. That’s that shit I love in sci-fi. It’s anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and contemplative of body autonomy and what it means to be human.

But it also does that shit sci-fi so often does. You know the thing.

Sexism.

The original film is so deeply sexist, but like – totally accidentally. Which is almost the worst kind of sexist. A sub-conscious sexism that says “this is the way things are and it’s totally normal”.

The most basic, and unsurprising of its sexism, is the way it represents women. Firstly, there are no human women (bar the Asian lady who speaks to Deckard from her shop for like, 0.5 seconds). All women worthy of interaction and screentime are, in Blade Runners eyes, obviously Replicants. And this is problematic in and of itself.

The idea that women have less body autonomy and unique thought than men is not exactly new. It’s an idea that pervades the majority of our media. And yet a film that so very much wants to explore what it means to be autonomous, barely brushes on the fact that this is very much a minority and female experience.

But OK, whatever. This concept could simply be a lame attempt at discussing womens roles in society, and comparing the Replicants to the female experience. So we’ll brush past it.

But then there’s what role it gives its females within the narrative. There are but 3 women Pris, Zhora, and Rachel.

Pris and Zhora are part of the rebel group who have returned to Earth to extend their lifespans. Pris, is a “pleasure” model Replicant, therefore it is almost no surprise to us that she is barely dressed in a single scene.

Zhora however, is a military model Replicant – highly skilled and trained in combat – so tell me why the fuck when she returned to Earth, her first move was to join a strip club where she “takes the pleasure from the snake”? This is disturbing, disrespectful, and just honestly, fucking gross.

But, this is still just the tip of the iceberg. Death is where things get really sticky. You see, this film also dabbles in discussions of what it is to die, and what it is to live. So tell me why the male Replicants die quickly, with minimal blood, but Pris and Zhora both flail on the ground for about a minute each, covered in blood and almost ZERO clothing? We afford respectable, and almost noble deaths for men, but the women die in gruesome, drawn out, and sexualised ways. No bueno boyz.

And yet – these are still not the most sexist aspects of the film. The one scene which absolutely, one hundred percent is unforgivable in my eyes, is the rape scene.

Wait, what rape scene? There is no rape scene?

That’s what everyone tells me – at least until I get them to rewatch the Deckard and Rachel sex scene without their sexy jazz music rose tinted glasses on.

It doesn’t look like a sex scene to most, because I firmly believe Ridley Scott did not intend it to be one. Why else would he overlay it with the sexy jazz music?

And yet it is a rape scene.

Rachel, only a day into finding out she is not body autonomous, and is in fact a Replicant, is crying and trying to escape Deckard’s apartment. As she goes to the door to leave he slams it shut and she gets thrown back. She’s cowering and crying. He makes advances on her to kiss her and she very clearly pulls back.

And then Deckard feeds her lines.

“Say ‘kiss me’”

Rachel hesitates – “kiss me”

And so ensues our sexy jazz music.

Except – this isn’t sexy, this isn’t romantic, and this sure as heck isn’t consensual.

This is terrifying.

Rachel is very much displaying the distress of someone fighting for their individuality and freedom, and here is another man feeding her lines and emotions. What’s a robot gal to do?

The fact that this is rape is not the most disturbing thing to me. What is most disturbing is that this is intended NOT to read like rape. This is intended to be romantic.

Which is why Rachel and Deckard are supposedly such a beautiful couple.

I think not.

And yet, I can’t help enjoying this film – and I hate myself for it.

The film is shot stunningly, and it grapples with the Reagan era it was created in, as well as capitalism, multi-nationalism, and classism.

It does this in both obvious and subtle ways, but its strongest motif is very much lighting.

In Blade Runner’s world, light is a sign of wealth and a show of power. Unless you have money in this film, your apartment is completely devoid of light. The only time Deckard or his peers get light within their homes, is when surveillance spotlights are searching through their blinds, or when giant screen billboards flash a new purchase opportunity.

This is a stark difference to Tyrell’s quarters, which are bathed in artificial and warm light. A bright gold – like money.

Ridley might be absolutely tone deaf when it comes to women, but the man sure as hell understands that wealth and power often have a lot more benefits than just nice clothes or homes. Wealth and power is as undeniable as being able to turn on a switch.

So, how does the new film compare? That’s a loaded question – which is why I split this into two blogs! Soz if you thought I was done, BR pt2 coming soon…