Science-fiction is tricky. It’s often seen as the silly, fantastical side of cinema that’s for selling toys to children and selling overpriced collector’s items to bigger children. That’s one facet, yes, but the genre is so much more. It’s one of the oldest genres in cinema and evolves with the cultures under which it is created. Science-fiction is the gateway to another perspective. The ultimate ‘what if?‘ envisioned in beautiful, cinematic glory.
However, that’s coming from a fan. As someone who has studied it, it’s a problematic genre peppered with racist, sexist, and prejudices up the proverbial wazoo. That ‘what if?‘ for sci-fi is often seen as inherently positive, but when writers sit down to write the next mind-bending flick, they are often prone to reverting to tribal stereotyping and underlining prejudices of the characters they create. Star Trek may have shown the first interracial kiss on American television, but it did literally alienate cultures. Star Wars, for all its worth, had a grand total of two female characters in A New Hope.
So, when we look at movies like Blade Runner 2049, which has come to the end of its disappointing box-office run, fans of the genre should ask what these films are beyond the incredible visuals, sound design, and direction. To be clear, Denis Villeneuve’s new Blade Runner is not just a pretty film. The story is incredibly intriguing and layered, with incredible design, world-building and performances. It adds just enough to the canon of the original film without giving too much away, or making the world so big it lacks any mystery. In fact, we’re left with more questions than answers after the credits roll. How are Replicants made? So, Deckard is a Replicant, right? Will we ever find out more about Niander Wallace? Every frame is poster-on-your-wall-worthy; it’s a cinematic beauty that blends noir cinema, science-fiction and 21st Century film-making.
But, where Blade Runner 2049 fails in its portrayal of female characters. In most respects, it downright fails in showing women as anything other than sexualised set pieces in place to help the plot progress, or provide a backdrop to a male character’s life (mostly Officer K, played by Ryan Gosling). The primary female perspective we get from 2049 is from Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic wife for K, who exists solely for his emotional well-being. Programmed to be perfect for him in every situation, Joi even enlists the help of a sex worker during the movie to provide him with physical intimacy – something she cannot do alone. Their relationship is not to be outright dismissed, however. To what extent one can love a piece of technology, programmed primarily for your own satisfaction is a great talking point for a film like Blade Runner to delve into. Joi is programmed to be perfect for K, so it’s hardly a real relationship. Yet K, being a lonely Replicant who can do nothing much more than work at his job, seems to see Joi as a taster of what he thinks real life is like. He comes home to her preparing food in classic 1950s attire, for example. She provides him with all the right words of encouragement, inspiration and affection. When Joi is inevitably taken from K, we see a genuine look of despair on his face; a reminder that, although not real, he does love her.
However, what constantly hums in the back of your mind while you watch is the reminder that Joi is made for him. Literally. All these words of encouragement, the lengths she goes to in order to provide him with sexual intimacy, even her dying words, are all what K wants to hear, see, or experience. She’s an algorithm designed to wrap K in a comfort blanket, similar to your Netflix account only showing you the films you’d want to watch.
It’s disappointing that the life of a woman in 2049 doesn’t extend much beyond there. We do see other female characters, but they exist solely to carry out the wishes of another (man), or help move the narrative further. For the sake of the genre to remain at the forefront of what we as a culture introspectively look at, it’s unacceptable for female characters to remain so sidelined, so easily dispensable. Blade Runner 2049 successfully manages to keep the story of the original going, so it’s hardly a fair argument to say it’s following on from the worldviews of the 1980s. Present a dystopian future in which a group are discriminated, downtrodden or abused , by all means; it would be prevalent just as much today as it would have been thirty years ago. However, it’s up to the filmmakers to show this world from the perspective of those that struggle with the injustice. It only results in more diverse, richer storytelling, and that’s what the genre can thrive on.