Blade Runner 2049’s Woman Problem

Chris Osmond
Oct 18, 2017 · 6 min read

(The following will discuss the plot of Blade Runner 2049 in detail.)

Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful film. It respectfully expands upon Ridley Scott’s original vision while still having its own say. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to know whether it’s an in-joke homage or a jacked-up extrapolation of what the original’s world might spin into. It feels a bit like The Force Awakens occasionally: exhausting the imaginative potential of the original, coloring in the lines a bit, yet still deeply satisfying to those who want nothing else than to spend a few more hours in that specifically grimy, dazzling, horrifying world. It’s mostly terrific, worthy of the visions its creator has shown us he can spin.

But I can’t countenance the movie’s approach to violence against women. Neither its depictions, nor the deep messages those depictions leave me with. I don’t find them defensible aesthetically or narratively, and I find them harmful to the project that is bigger than film: the making of a humane and civil culture here, not off-world.

Let’s see what I’m talking about. Here’s the partial body count:

- Anonymous female replicant, whose incept date we witness as a vernix-slippery unsheathing that resembles opening a cheese stick more than anything. Disemboweled with a scalpel suddenly and graphically, while standing nude, within minutes of “birth,” by her creator.
- Lieutenant Joshi, murdered by Luv in much the same way in her office. Though clothed and through a window, silent, and worse somehow for it. The no-nonsense depiction of a woman first stabbed, then slashed through the lower abdomen is more graphic for its distance. The way her killer throws her corpse around to access her retinas for the security scan is a kicker coda.
- The reincarnation of Rachael, executed at close range by a handgun in silhouette, suddenly and brutually.
- The protracted hand-to-hand death dealt to Luv, who is drowned by K in an agonizing, fifteen-second (felt like) lingering camera on her face as the life is choked from her.
- And it must be noted, the end of Joi, or at least the specific instance of her who has become K’s closest intimate partner. By smashing her mobile-device “Emanator” under a heel, a bloodless but still violent dispatching.

I understand how the movie is dancing with its predecessor. I get that Luv is the Roy Batty analogue, with whom the protagonist agonizes in a parallel to the larger story’s struggle with the nature of human-ness. I get that Priss’s “basic pleasure model” from 2019 has been updated in the precise detail and intimacy that the mix of the advertising and pornography industries will make inevitable. I saw those beats coming as surely as I knew that Sapper was a dead replicant the moment I saw him; he even looks a little like Leon in his hugeness.

I get that the Blade Runner world is an extraordinarily, casually violent one, and that the line between murder and slaughter — exploring whose life counts as life — is its whole perplex. And I get how the inexorable arc of its meditation on the nature of life sort of must end with pregnancy and birth. How the two disembowelings echo the caesarean section we learn was performed on Rachael. I even see the archetypical overtones: a miracle child emerging amidst abject exploitation to redeem a fallen world — which murders thousands in its quest to find and end it. (The movie does not lack ambition.)

Maybe Villenueve felt the ultimate way to explore the BR universe’s hardest questions was to go all-in on the female body as its vehicle. To update Batty to Luv so the frisson of watching the uber-Replicant’s death struggle has more intense, gendered overtones of outrage and fear. To take the geisha off the side of the building, as it were, and make her lethal.

Or maybe it’s just an easy — exploitative — way to double-down on the intensity of the audience experience. When the same movie that shows a nude woman being sliced open also walks us through a gargantuan statuary garden of women’s bodies as playthings, we can’t not get it. Replicants are commodity, as are women; the inevitable coming-together of objectification and commodification means that womens’ bodies will be everywhere, bought and sold in incarnate and virtual models, infinitely customizable and always disposable. Means they already are.

That’s an interesting story. It raises urgent questions, both in future world and present world. It’s maybe some of the best work SF can do, those questions.

But it doesn’t change the fact that Villenueve’s telling of it found it both necessary and aesthetically rewarding to show me the close-quarter murder of four women. After all the breathtakingly new imagery — the sweep of the vistas, the detail of the simulations, even the beat-up-used-ness of its lived-in, exquisitely-crafted world — the most indelible images I carry from the film are those murders.

And I am the worse for it. I’ve got to think about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here, especially Rick Kelley’s brilliant analysis of the activist stance he imputes to Tobe Hooper and creates as “vegan horror.” That movie is similarly brutal with mostly women’s bodies. Its indelible images kicked out a whole wall in a tired genre and gave horror a new vocabulary, and ambition. I understand it’s a masterpiece.

But BR isn’t horror. Conventions matter, and not just for academic reasons. I can hear the argument that we embark upon watching a horror film understanding where the lines might be drawn, and that we filter or brace or otherwise interpret what we’ll see through that understanding. When those images come into our SF we are somehow differently traumatized by them, hurt by them. What’s play-acting in one film becomes exploitation in another.

Or maybe this is all throat-clearing. What I really think is that it’s wrong for a movie to depict such violence against women, so casually and serially.

Even in the service of the message that the future culture is (and our present culture has become) inured to such images. At the end of the day, four actually-human women murdered, graphically, during what was supposed to be a deep dive into next-level world-building and eye candy. My personal dial of what I might see at the movies and be OK with got turned a little farther toward the unacceptable.

I am not saying SF can’t be about serious stuff. It almost always is. I am saying that this film needed to be more serious about what it was saying, or maybe not have tried to say it at all.

There’s been critical silence on the point I am trying to make here, that I can find. Nothing like the Boxing Helena outrage from twenty-five years ago. Other than an apologia feminist analysis on Mashable and quite a bit of protest-too-much, glancing acknowledgment that this movie is saying something about women all right, hoo boy. Which sometimes swipes at saying the whole thing is ultimately empowering actually. Here’s Anthony Lane:

It is no coincidence that Villeneuve’s best films, “Sicario” (2015) and “Arrival” (2016), feature a woman at their center, and, whenever Joi appears, the movie’s imaginative heart begins to race. Upon request, she manifests herself in K’s apartment, switching outfits in a shimmer — a vision that smacks of servility, except that it’s he who seems beholden to her.

Well, no. K. isn’t beholden to anyone. Joi is not a “one.” She’s a projection created for his pleasure and utility — as are almost all women in the picture. Come on now. (And enough with the “racing heart” already.)

I haven’t watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre since I first saw it in my twenties. I don’t want to go on that trip again; its graphic cruelty still wounds me. Even though I love horror and the permissions genre gives to bend the rules and see where they break; even though I can see the smarts behind why it shows what it shows (maybe). At the end of the day, it’s just not good for me as a human to watch that. It hurts the bigger project of a livable world. What it gets me isn’t worth what it takes from me.

And while this concern isn’t occasioned by the Weinstein news, it sure makes it timely. It’s not lost on me that most of the female actors in this film are early-career; it makes me wonder who’s willing to participate in such depictions, and why. Though that might be a bridge too far because actors might choose to follow Villenueve’s vision, be part of this, take chances with him. I don’t want to take agency from actors who make artistic decisions, of course. But I wonder at the dynamics that go into making such a film. How can I not.

There’s a brilliant and well-reasoned thing to be written about this issue, and I doubt this is it. But not for lack of trying. We need to talk about it. And I am trying to.

Chris Osmond

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Somewhere down there, there’s a sliver of green just taking its time. This is how everything works. You wait, you lay low, and then you come to life.

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