I recently undertook a campaign to study more canon science fiction classics, such as Philip K. Dick’s story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, inspiration for the iconic movie “Blade Runner”. Although I enjoyed some of the concepts, the dated portrayals of women in both versions rankled me. Thus the early trailers for Blade Runner 2049 caught my interest: wouldn’t it be fascinating to explore the replicant future through more egalitarian, modern eyes?
It would, but this movie caters exclusively to the male gaze. The garishly sexist 2049 comes across, at best, as a culturally tone-deaf spinoff, and at worst as reactionary conservative propaganda disguised as science fiction. K, a replicant “blade runner” hunting rogue machines for the LAPD, discovers evidence of something believed impossible: a replicant child who was born, not made. His quest for the truth wends through almost three hours of increasingly disturbing misogyny played out on a shiny-but-shallow noir stage.
All the film’s women are caged. The mystery kicks off with the discovery of a female skeleton, found in a box, buried in the earth. An immunocompromised woman who specialized in fabricating memories for replicants lives in a glass enclosure. Joi the holographic housewife can’t exceed the radius of her projector until K buys her a special emitter device that makes her portable; later, she begs him to transfer her into that device so she can accompany him, even though it risks her existence.
Enterprising women’s studies majors could probably write entire theses just on the topic of Joi. Ego-boosting algorithms! (“I always told you you were special!”) Grateful for your attention, but never needy, Joi even pauses automatically for incoming messages! No pesky autonomy in this little lady, just shove her in your emitter and take her out when you’re ready to play. “I want to be real for you,” Joi coos to K before syncing her image on a prostitute she hired as her proxy. In this sexist sci-fi, women can’t be real for themselves: their sole function is as objects for male use, and as such they serve only two purposes.
First, catering to men. Luv serves Wallace; Joi serves K; replicant prostitutes and holographic dancing girls abound to titillate male viewers on both sides of the screen. The only woman in a seeming position of power, K’s police chief, drinks on the job and doesn’t question her subordinate’s obvious omissions. None display complexity or agency, making them little more than humanoid props rather than fully realized female characters.
Second, acting as reproductive vessels. Replicant procreation is a major theme, and inventor Wallace spews claptrap about “barren” models that would not sound out of place in the most stuffy scripture. Ham-fisted biblical motifs (and at least one straight quotation) weigh down the cliché-riddled dialogue. Lines about souls, angels, and miracles induce groans. “We can storm Eden!” Wallace crows as he examines a new replicant model, which he promptly discards for sterility, implying that a woman’s only value lies in a functional uterus. “Who keeps dead trees?” the hookerbot snickers at K’s crime scene photo. This narrative would have us believe that all women who don’t reproduce are dead trees, fruitless and worthless.
Wallace’s obsessive quest to create fertile replicants presents a perverse allegory of males attempting to control female reproductive capabilities. That could have made for a good, Atwood-esque dystopia if the film had included female characters with any agency or personality, rather than just servile appendages to the male protagonists. But 2049 is not a deliberate gender dystopia like The Handmaid’s Tale, which consciously explores themes of sex and power. It’s just shallow exploitation, the neon-steeped love child of “Terminator” and 80s “Playboy” magazines. Dick’s original story from 1968 was less flagrantly sexist than this 2017 film. After fifty years, I’d hoped for more progress. Instead 2049 is the movie equivalent of Joi: an anachronistic patriarchal fantasy that, beneath a sleek technological aesthetic, ultimately proves two-dimensional.