by Ann Foster
This article contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 2049 is an aesthetically breathtaking, thought-provoking film that happens to also be filled with disembodied nude female body parts. As replicant cop K (Ryan Gosling) trudges through the filthy rain-strewed streets of futuristic Los Angeles and the nuclear orange wasteland of Las Vegas, he continually passes by disembodied female legs, feet, gaping mouths, bare breasts, and bare buttocks. K, our point of view avatar, pays these distractions little attention; he never stops to gawk or leer, suggesting to audiences how we, too, should not be aroused. Director Denis Villeneuve presents this nudity in a matter-of-fact, arthouse sort of way; the characters, for the most part, do not seem aroused or especially interested in the overabundance of nubile flesh; these body parts are not displayed as in the Fast and Furious franchise for our entertainment, but seemingly to flesh out the patriarchal society our characters inhabit. Unlike the similarly themed Orphan Black, concepts of female bodily autonomy, procreation, and the rights of artificially created bodies are explored through the point of view of K, a replicant who happens to present as an able-bodied young white man.
K’s journey follows him from unquestioning cog to reluctant rebel, his understanding about his own place in society shifting when he begins to believe he may possibly be an amnesiac human in disguise. He doesn’t think of himself as more than a machine, but once that possibility presents itself, he becomes obsessed with it. He has spent his life to date believing that he — like the other low-level cops, sex workers, and presumably service industry staff — were created as slaves by multi-millionaire Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). All of the film’s replicants and holograms are based on the designs of Wallace, who either has a personal predilection for slim, white, heteronormative women or who is filling a need he sees in society at large. Perhaps off-world, both the humans and replicants may represent more of an intersection of sexual orientation and cultural background, but we are in K’s world and it is populated almost entirely by pretty young women with a variety of European accents.
For most of the film, K presents as disinterested in sex entirely — listlessly rebuffing come-ons from both sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) and his commanding officer (Robin Wright). His understanding of how this society works is our avatar to this world; imagine the mood of a similar film in which K leers or gawks at the frequent transactional sexual situations. When he encounters a skyscraper-sized avatar of Joi (Ana de Arnas) near the end of the film, he gazes upon her with sadness and empathy, not attraction or arousal. The world, Villeneuve states with every framing shot, may be patriarchal and demeaning for woman, but this film — or at least its hero — is not.
It follows that a film driven by men desperate to control reproduction would need to include visual reminders of the female form. So too does it make sense to include images of submissive women in a film about the dangers of subjugation. Combining the two, without including a sizeable female character as counterpoint, leaves the film presenting the only two ways for women to matter — for them to be people — is either as “pleasure models” or as mothers. The dystopian genre generally necessitates the removal of all but one societal issues in order to twist one as a statement about our current world. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Blade Runner 2049 focuses on issues of replicant slavery to the exclusion of racial and/or queer overtones; Wallace’s replicants are seemingly mostly white or light-skinned, the sex on offer seemingly heteronormative. Wallace wants the replicants to reproduce to increase his profit margins; K and Toshi understand that to do so would be to break the fabric of their world, possibly only from humans’ understanding that the replicants aren’t people. The act of reproducing is elevated her to be the Turing Test for humanity; once the replicants are known to have passed it, society would be forever altered.
Where the first film developed the human/replicant dichotomy, this film adds a third element to the table with Joi (Ana de Arnas), a holographic personal assistant with whom K falls into a chaste romance, the pair play-acting a supportive relationship. As K’s understanding of his own free will develops, so too does his relationship with Joi — and so does Joi’s understanding of her own independence. Unlike the feminist finales of Ex Machina, Her, or the first season of Westworld, Joi does not wind up developing her own consciousness and breaking free of her programming — rather, as we learn of Rachael (Sean Young) from the first film, she gives up her life to further motivate the actions of the male heroes. Joi is introduced with no doubt about her artificiality — she glitches in and out of frame, outfit rapidly changing as she gleans what would be most helpful for K. We see her freeze when her programming is interrupted by an incoming call; when K is in a car accident, her lack of corporeal form leaves her powerless to help him. Yet her sunny spirit is arguably the most human of the film’s array of female characters. If we, and K, can see her as a real person, why can’t he — and we — think the same of his holographic support system?
The K/Joi relationship is darkly mirrored by that of Wallace with his hired assassin/personal assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoecks). With her severe dark bangs and form-fitting suits, Luv aesthetically recalls the initially cold femme fatale played by Young in the first film. Rachael’s childbirth experience simultaneously proved her womanhood and killed her; when Luv dies, her lack of reproductive ability means that — to both her and to Wallace — she is just one more dead replicant. Her chilly affect is a direct contrast to Joi’s warmth; even on the two occasions we see her cry, her facial expression does not change. And in the instant she dies, her face goes blank in a different way — placid and serene, her death providing yet another disembodied female face. Her role is one of the least explored and more fascinating and necessary; in a film about motherhood and womanhood, she looks like a woman but is without the stereotypical warmth of nurturing shown even by the mostly-icy Toshi.
The most original and least explored female character in the film is that of Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), a sweet-natured scientist who is revealed to be the long-lost child of Deckard and Rachael. Removed from society entirely, she is the only female character we’ve met whose presentation has not been in some way designed by Wallace. Despite being confined to a hermetically sealed laboratory for health reasons, she alone is permitted to be wholly herself. She dresses plainly, in light colours and draped fabrics, the sort of thing one may wear nowadays to sit around after work with a glass of wine. Though unable to leave, she is permitted a luxury no other woman in the film gets to experience; that of choosing how to present herself, on display for an audience of no one.