‘Blade Runner 2049’: The Future is Weird, But Nowhere Near Queer Enough
I read a number of reviews before going in to see Denis Villeneuve’s addition to the world originally envisioned by Ridley Scott’s genre-bending and brain-mushing 1982 film, and none of them prepared me for what I was about to see. I’m no reviewer, but there were some elements of the film that I think ought to be discussed more frequently than they are.
First off, there’s the blats.
On an auditory level, this film is both a masterpiece and a goddamn trainwreck. If you thought Hans Zimmer fell asleep on a church organ while recording the score to Interstellar, or if you agree with Adrian Daub that Inception’s viral BRAAAAAMM changed the way we watch movies forever (without being too pissed about the fact that you’re just enjoying Edith Piaf at half speed) … well, you might just enjoy Zimmer’s score to Blade Runner 2049, which did some serious damage to my (admittedly fragile) auditory processing abilities. It’s the kind of score that isn’t always there, but when it is, it’s laced with crystal meth, determined to rip your face off and feed it to a frenzied mob of young orphans. Who are enslaved by an extremely nervous Mister Cotton in a fashion that would do justice both to Oliver! and those cities in developing nations which are waist-deep in America’s e-waste.
(Not that we’re really asked to empathize with those kids. They’re scenery. Texture to this universe. They scream “oh no! we’ve done this to our kids” in one scene and “jeez, kids can be such monsters” in the next. They are all, fortunately, also androgynous. If they weren’t, one of the film’s central plot points wouldn’t work. And this is a plot that has to work.)
But ah, yes, the blats! If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself wrapped in a two-inch-thick blanket of hungry mosquitoes and tied face-down to a woofer at the Superbowl, you should definitely go see this movie. But don’t worry, you only need to fear the blat when you’re outdoors, or in a flying car. For the most part.
To be frank, I was not adequately prepared for the soundscape of Blade Runner 2049 by last week’s rewatch of Ridley Scott’s original film. Sure, Vangelis did more than his fair share of the heavy lifting when it came to the crafting of the Runnerverse, but watching Blade Runner on dvd with the sound down low so as not to disturb the kids sleeping downstairs is a profoundly different experience from watching Blade Runner 2049 on the big screen, with, well, woofers and the like. Whatever Scott’s original intent was, the vast majority of Blade Runner fans were introduced to the film after its debut on VHS. It was, in point of fact, one of the central narratives in favor of home media. So perhaps the score is an homage, but it’s not one fans under the age of 35 (or, one hopes, a little older — 2049 didn’t invent nudity) will recognize easily. Especially without earplugs.
Secondly, there’s the super distracting office spaces.
What, is the ability to focus an oh-so-21st-Century concept all of a sudden? I’m not epileptic, luckily, but I’m afraid that some of the visuals were a real assault on the eyes. I’m all for useless monoliths and giant floating trash compactors a la WALL-E, but there’s no way I want to live in a future where I have to be literally blind to get through my afternoon Build-a-Slave consultation.
In all seriousness, I get that this film is all about being an assault on the senses, but there’s a point when the assault starts to hurt, and for many of us with light or strobe-sensitivity, the big-screen experience of Jared Leto’s office space may prove a bit much. Come prepared.
Thirdly, there’s the patriarchy.
Like, wanton exploitative nudity. I think Villeneuve gives just enough context that this exposure is commentary and not just titillation, but it’s … a lot. Luckily, I went in prepared; a friend had sent me Jill Gutowitz’s excellent article for Glamour the week prior, which more or less touches on the majority of the film’s flaws, from my perspective. This is not a future that is friendly to women, much less to people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and other minority groups. Some of its failures would have been so easy to avoid (seriously? cast the horrible orphan workhouse supervisor as one of the few African-American roles in the film?) that it’s a shame and downright disappointing Villeneuve didn’t. Avoid them, I mean.
Despite one claim that is patently untrue (the “every female protagonist in the movie is met with a violent death” one — at my count, three significant female protagonists survive the movie, which is about par for the course) I really do think Gutowitz is on to something. There’s a fine line between displaying a toxic patriarchy to provide commentary thereon, and displaying a toxic patriarchy because it sells. And if you’re trying to do the first but leave the door open to the audience receiving it as “ exhaustingly chauvinistic” — as Gutowitz and I both did — then, well. Nobody needs to internalize more uncommented-upon toxic patriarchy in 2017. It has our skin crawling from the moment we open Twitter first thing in the morning to the moment we turn off Big Bang Theory in the evening.
Here’s a good rule: if your non-male characters don’t need to be naked in a scene to make the scene happen, don’t make them naked. And possibly don’t make the scene happen if they do. That’s an option no male director seems to have considered, ever.
Here’s another good rule: how long does it take character A to die in a horribly gruesome fashion onscreen? How long does it take character B? If character A is a cisgendered heterosexual male and character B is not and character B takes twice as long to die and/or is shown dying in a more gruesome fashion, reconsider. You’re in serious Hollywood trope territory, and folks who aren’t cisgendered heterosexual men are goddamn sick of it.
Fourthly, this film is fucking long.
Depending which (of many) versions of Blade Runner you watched, you’ve probably enjoyed about two hours of the Runnerverse. So kick back, put your feet up, and prepare for three goddamn hours of Villeneuve’s fever-dream sequel, complete with at least half an hour spent walking through devastated casinos and beehives, because, you know, life is hard and we need you to know just exactly how hard it is to survive out here. How many empires have fallen, and so on. Oh, and there’s at least half an hour spent watching non-expressions remain … non-expressive. I’m sure Villeneuve meant this to be telling me something, but.
If I were Harrison Ford, I’d punch my co-star too, just to, you know, liven up the place a bit.
Fifthly, there’s not a hint — even a whiff! — of queerness.
I’ve spent some time on Tumblr. I know how it is. Never underestimate the LGBTQIA+ community’s ability to find a queer subtext in the straightest piece of art — if it can be found, we will find it. Still, I think even Tumblr will be hard-pressed to find a queer ship to float in this particular future, which is a real downer. I mean, Luv. Talk about my asexual aesthetic:
I mean, this femme!replicant calls down an airstrike using Google Glass while getting a goddamn laser manicure in the film’s best homage to the original film (and its endless “enhance, enhance” sequences). Not only is Luv perfect shipfodder, but she is also one of many excellent and textured depictions of femininity in this film. You have Luv, programmed to kill but capable of intense emotion and selfhood:
You have Joi, who has many selves, all of which are programmed to serve and please their owners, but who finds ways to live beyond the margins of her design. And yes, I get that she’s a much more prototypical “housemeet” female trope, but I honestly think this is clearly commentary. I hope it is. Damnit, Villeneuve!
You have Mariette, who honestly doesn’t give a shit what you think of her; she’s got her own ideas, and quite possibly a replicant army lurking in the sewers somewhere to back her up. Here’s hoping her role as a femme!replicant enslaved to the sex drives of others (following hard on the heels of her role in Halt and Catch Fire, where she plays a woman coerced into serving the interests of her male colleagues) gets some much-needed wings in the pretty-much-mandated-by-that-ending sequel.
You have Hiam Abbass’s Freysa, who hasn’t gotten much love from the gifmakers yet, but whose presence is commanding and also, refreshingly, condescending as she schools another character about his feelings. I look forward to seeing more from this one-eyed resistance fighter in the future.
You have Ana Stelline, played softly and sweetly by Carla Juri. Here is the softness to all of Freysa and Mariette and Luv’s sharp edges. Here is the innocence to Joi’s cloying worldliness, thinly masked by subservience. She doesn’t get much screen time, but she is the beating heart of this film in so many ways. Carla Juri plays Ana perfectly on point as a woman who lives behind glass, sealed off from the world since childhood and therefore the best possible person to weave together the fears and hopes so necessary to replicants’ memory implants, which are designed to keep them subservient. But oh, there’s so much more to her than manipulation.
You have Madam, serious boss-lady, human, and yet a great illustration of the film’s question over what makes a human human, and a replicant Other. She’s cold, but also a wonderfully conflicted character with great queertential. I mean, we’ve all seen Wonder Woman and House of Cards by now. Robin Wright’s ability to project a powerful sexuality is uncontested, but here she projects something closer to, well, asexuality. All you had to do was name it, Villeneuve. You got so close.
But then again, maybe there’s a ship in here somewhere?
Ugh, the movie this could have been! If Villeneuve can give us so many and such beautifully diverse straightforwardly female-presenting characters, what glories might he given us if he’d been willing to represent the LGBTQIA+ community as well? It feels like a failure of the imagination not to explore the intersection of queerness when dealing with a deeply textured future populated by an Other like the replicants offer here. It’s not that Villeneuve is alone in failing to represent a future as diverse as the present day; science fiction has long struggled to come to terms with its role and responsibilities when it comes to representation and advocacy.
Luckily for us, authors like Ian McDonald and Ursula K. Le Guin have been nibbling away at this bone for years. I just hope that someday there will be an #OwnVoices hashtag that pops up in my feed replete with films and television shows created by diverse authors just as there is for literature. Give me a queer future! Give me a future with disabilities dealt with in respectful ways! Give me a neurodivergent future! Give me a future where people of color aren’t just part of the scenery!
Give me a future that is, as replicants are wont to say, “more human than human.” Until then, you can find me re-reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.