Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Oct/170

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

After society nearly collapsed following the great blackout, an entrepreneur refines the previously outlawed process of creating human slaves known as replicants.  The older models are hunted down by newer replicants given the title "blade runner" and created to obey orders.  K, one of these new blade runners, stumbles onto a mystery that throws his existence into question and suggests the replicants are more than their masters envision.  Denis Villeneuve directs Blade Runner 2049, with the screenplay written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, and stars Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Sylvia Hoeks.

And how came Jesus into the world?
Through God who created him and the woman who bore him.
Man, where was your part?
-Sojourner Truth-

Sleep hasn't been easy after watching Blade Runner 2049.  My mental film reel keeps going back to the "birth" of a new replicant under the watchful eye of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto.)  That might seem a tasteless turn of phrase on my part as Wallace is blind.  But he leans his neck to his custom-made assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to attach a chip that allows him sight.  Nearly a dozen black phallic cylinders, previously haunting the corridor, begin circling the terrified woman whose introduction to this world was a five foot drop from a sac of fluid into a hostile environment.  Wallace tenderly caresses the replicant before slicing her abdomen open and leaving the remains for someone else to clean up.

Denis Villeneuve's latest turn as director has few scenes as directly menacing as the slaughter of that replicant, but barely a moment went by without my emotions playing chicken with my mind trying to process what I was seeing.  Blade Runner 2049 is the logical cinematic end-point for what feminist scholar bell hooks calls, "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy."  It is a whole, with no separation, as each part plays its role in the subjugation and destruction of the world.  We don't need to look further than Wallace's commodification of black penises, in our world where black sexuality is often weaponized, as the ultimate signifier for a system of oppression as he nakedly sizes up the flesh of a woman for slaughter using sexuality he has no claim to.

Jared Leto appears in only two scenes, but makes his mark on Wallace's predatory fatherhood with cannibalistic self-righteous calm.

How you feel about that moment will likely determine how you feel about the rest of Blade Runner 2049.  Villeneuve takes Ridley Scott's (who produced this film) original vision to what is likely its logical narrative and visual conclusion.  The imperialism of the United States never satiated, stretching onto nine new worlds thanks to Wallace's supreme control over the global economy because of his refined replicant production.  White supremacy is rampant, with all but two roles - both confined to bit parts - going to white performers and one of the sole women of color doing sex work in Los Angeles.  The patriarchy is overwhelming with artificial intelligence designed to placate men and the Madonna-whore complex given three dimensions in towering holograms of women as pristine white ballerinas or naked temptresses with colorful hair.

There's no avoiding the question whether Villeneuve's film is misogynistic given the way women are presented.  Blade Runner 2049 depicts a world not too far removed from our present-day, where celebrities can be brought back to life via hologram and robot sex dolls are destroyed by men granted the freedom to act out their worst impulses.  Then I think back at how pathetic these men are.  Villeneuve emphasizes the metaphorical impotence of this patriarchal system in many images of incomplete or false birth.

Men cannot bear children, but that does not stop Wallace from completing a new model to bring to life in a deranged ritual not too far removed from giraffes giving birth in the wild.  The same can be said of protagonist K (Ryan Gosling), whose own attempt at birth is giving his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) a present that lets her leave the apartment, and Villeneuve christens her newly freed digital frame with rain water.  This is another failed attempt at men bearing children as Joi's body flits in and out of solidity in the rain before her existence freezes entirely as K's voicemail takes priority over her consciousness.

Night and day are near-meaningless distinctions in this Los Angeles, separated only by the advertisements of women as Madonnas or whores.

Nevertheless, she persists, like all the women in Blade Runner 2049.  Joi is a digital slave, but in the margins of her program and the bit of freedom "gifted" to her by K she finds a way to make her own territory while the men relentlessly follow orders to prove their self-worth.  I remember Fiona Apple saying, "I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself" as Joi hires sex-worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to become a surrogate for sex with K.  What follows is brutally cold, digital fantasy hung over physical fantasy, as Joi's holographic hands distort over K's skin and Mariette dispassionately follows.  There is no pleasure here, no orgasm that frees the participants from their bondage, yet Joi finds a way to assert herself and ask the world - no matter how limited - "Ain't I a woman?"

For decades now, there have been few performers with as firm an answer to that question as Robin Wright.  Here she plays K's superior, Lt. Joshi, with the kind of gusto and assertiveness that stands in contrast to the artificial femininity of Los Angeles.  Wright is phenomenal, enacting a poise that owns every bit of the frame she occupies in an apartment discussion with K, delighting a bit at how her weight and presence puts the man (repilicant or no) convinced of his own grand purpose into a state of childish deference.  It's Wright's strength that provides the electricity to another encounter with a woman equally powerful within the confines of the system they have to work in, the same strength that reduces K to looking like a child waiting for his mom to finish her lecture so he can go back to his toys.

Gosling's childish self-centered performance underlines all the "cool" shots of him in that smashing coat.  He's at his best here because, like all his better performances, he has a symbol to keep up the fiction of his existence.  Unlike Keanu Reeves, whose serenity in performing allows the action to flow through him (all credit to Angelica Jade Bastién for the Keanu thoughts), Gosling puts up a wall of that his films have to penetrate to get to the center of his character.  Consider when Gosling's cool breaks as K and results in an unrestrained temper tantrum or when a resistance movement leader hiding in plain sight breaks his fiction with one fact.  Gosling's performance joins the pantheon of Villeneuve male villains wrapped up in their delusional fantasies in those moments.

Ryan Gosling's best performances involve a child playacting an adult whose favorite toy is taken away.

While a complicated and spectacular film, Blade Runner 2049 suggests Villeneuve might be reaching the line between critiquing imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and embodying it.  My mind drifted to bell hooks and Sojourner Truth watching this world - a world that has barely any women of color given an opportunity to speak.  There's a quiet subversiveness to this as the revolution is happening and is certainly not being televised.  But at what point do we ask how many more films it takes of white men realizing the impotence of our patriarchal system before demanding those directly affected take over?  What would Blade Runner 2049 look like with Ava DuVernay or Dee Rees in the director's chair?

The reality is that film likely would never have been made.  Blade Runner 2049 put me into a contemplative state like no other film this year but there are only so many times I can watch white men comment on the system that enshrines their power without yielding it to those they've brutalized in our history.  Villeneuve has made another one of the year's best films and, in the process, raised the question of whether he has the moral authority to make another.  I am not optimistic about the answer.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Screenplay written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Sylvia Hoeks.

Posted by Andrew

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