Blade Runner 2049
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Blade Runner 2049 is an uneasy feminist parable about controlling the means of reproduction

Its villain, Niander Wallace, is consumed by rage that women can do something he cannot.

Some films taste sweet and then go sour in the mouth as you walk away from the cinema. With others, the flavour develops like a single malt, and they reveal more of themselves to you with time. I'm still not sure which category describes Blade Runner 2049.

Undoubtedly, it looks incredible, expanding the original film's noirish vision of a rain-soaked future city by showing us the blasted countryside around it, too. We start with a vision of a dustbowl outside Los Angeles, where the earth is now barren. Later, a bodega owner marvels at an object made of real wood, and suggests it could be sold for a fortune. Another character wishes that she could see a tree. 

Those visions are important, because they help us understand one of the film's central anxieties: the "miracle" of pregnancy and birth. Why are we so anxious about fertility, in a world that's heading for eight billion people in the next decade? Children of Men looked to a future where a baby's cry felt like a spiritual experience; The Handmaid's Tale showed us the logical endpoint of religious extremists' desire to patrol our wombs. Blade Runner 2049 gives us an antagonist who wants to remove women from the reproductive equation altogether. Why expend energy on controlling women, if you can render them obsolete?

Niander Wallace is an avatar of a particularly male kind of rage. He is furious that he can do anything except create a lineage with him at his head. On the surface, the intensity of his anger that he cannot make his replicants procreate is mystifying: he's already father to thousands more children than even the most eager sperm donor can manage. Take away their time-limited lifespans and his machines could surely outlive him.

What truly troubles him, then, must be how female fecundity sharply highlights the limits of his power. If he can't do this, there is still some part of nature that he cannot control. And in a film full of female characters who can be controlled - from K's compliant home assistant Joi, to the "pleasure model" she pays to take her physical place for sex with him, not to mention the many supplicant nudes trying to flatter onlookers into buying something - that's a powerful type of impotence. We can build robots to serve us, in everything from off-world mining to sex to adjusting the thermostat, but there's still something that the most powerful man cannot do. 

Elsewhere, the film's sexual politics are muddier. There's a sympathetic reading of K's relationship with his home assistant, Joi - that she is the only one who shows him any kindness, and it's therefore inevitable that he falls in love with her, like a stray dog that finds an outstretched hand when it expected to be hit. And, after all, he's a slave too: just as Joi serves him, so he has a "Madam" who controls his entire destiny. The casting of Robin Wright softens this otherwise exploitative relationship, because she imbues Lt Joshi with a hidden warmth, far more than you would expect from the hangover of seeing her as House of Cards' Claire Underwood. And, frankly, from her wardrobe, which has the kind of sharp lines that are usually a cast-iron cinematic signifier of a Power-Hungry Bitch.

Joshi is not immune to the belief that robots are for personal, as well as professional, exploitation. In the scene where she solicits K to tell her about his implanted memories, there's a suggestion that she wants to sleep with him, as she wonders about having another drink. For once, we're getting a woman in a position of power trying to make a connection with a younger guy to smother her loneliness and insecurity. (Incidentally, imagine that scene with a young female replicant and an older, male police chief. The gender roles camouflage just how tragic Joshi's actions are; Denis Villeneuve does seem to let her off more easily because she's a woman.) 

I wish I could be as kind about the sex scene between Joi and K. In the original film, noted radical feminist Ridley Scott was unequivocal in depicting prostitution as exploitation. When humans built robots, they made them look human, and they also projected their own gender roles on to them. The men were killers, miners, manual labourers, soldiers. The women were for recreation: Daryl Hannah's Pris was a "basic pleasure model". With Joi, the range of female roles has expanded to encompass "secretary". 

There are echoes of Spike Jonze's Her in this relationship, although Scarlett Johansson at least gets to escape Joaquin Phoenix's MacOS for some higher plane, preferably one without Safari as the default browser. Joi is never anything other than made for his pleasure. In this, the film follows life: the vast majority of female personal assistants currently being developed by tech firms are given female voices. We're just happier having a woman do admin and domestic chores for us. (When a "lawyer AI" was created, though, the developers called it Ross.) 

Sex is an irresistible, and fraught, subject to directors who dream of a robot future. Very occasionally - such as Jude Law in Stephen Spielberg's AI - we meet a male sexbot, but otherwise they are mostly female, as are human sex workers. Films which show robot sex usually make a clear case that intercourse is both emotional and physical work for the seller, and tainted pleasure for the buyer. The most interesting also show us the delusions which daintily liberal sex buyers too often harbour (think of Oscar Isaac's Nathan in the excellent Ex Machina insisting that because his robot sex slaves are fitted with sensors, they can feel pleasure). Whether the person selling sex is a woman doing it to avoid poverty, or a robot who has been programmed to do so, there is a class of buyer for whom it's vital to persuade themselves that she's really, really into it. 

That background means we are invited to think - well, what exactly? - when Joi hires an AI with physical form to have sex with K on her behalf. The slippage of faces between Joi and Mariette, the robot prostitute, is alienating and ambiguous. I didn't feel that we were being invited to regard this as an unequivocal good - hurrah, they can finally get it on after months of longing! - because we kept seeing the exploited body underneath, the unseen labour on which their happiness depended. (Incidentally, I know that "sex worker" is more PC than "prostitute", but it's also a phrase that makes an explicit claim to agency, and here there clearly is none.)

It feels like a Madonna/Whore dichotomy, where K has his Good Woman, whom he loves, and a Bad Woman, with whom he can have sex. The scene's ambiguity is compounded by the brief, jealous dialogue between the two women after the sex is finished. After Joi tells Mariette it's time to leave, the robot replies something along the lines of: "I've been inside you, and there's not as much there as you like to think." Why so catty, lady? Particularly as we know that Mariette has an ulterior motive for being there: planting a tracker bug on K. Then again, an informal hierarchy of the oppressed is always present in exploitative situations, and always uncomfortable, whether it's the division between "field negro" and "house negro" or "Handmaid" and "Wife". 

As with the original film, we also learn that female bodies are still good for flogging stuff in the future. There's a strange attempt to create a touching moment of rememberance for Joi after her USB stick gets stomped on, by having K stare dreamily at her face, which is the default setting for a 90ft-high advertisement. It doesn't work, because a) it reminds you that K fell in love with the factory settings; he didn't even bother to customise his Google Home, what a basic; and b) it's quite hard to appreciate the swell of pathos when an avatar of his dead love is waving her giant peachy-smooth vulva in your face. The scene doesn't exactly make the case that K loved her for her personality.

As for Luv, I'm quite into her. Again, her tailoring is impeccable - those suits! And well played, jodhpurs are a sensible choice if you're planning to kick people repeatedly in the throat. A less stretchy trouser, or god forbid a skirt, would not have done at all. It's quite notable, though, that unlike Roy in the original film - who killed people, ultimately, because he wanted to live - she is a soulless droid. Roy and Pris were evil in the way that humans are - sadistic towards JF Sebastian, playing with him like cats with a mouse. Luv is no more complicated or culpable for her violence than a knife, a drone, a machine gun; she is a weapon in human form.

Still, before we congratulate Niander Wallace on his Equal Opps hiring policy, let's remember that if he did figure a way to make his female replicants breed, Luv would be retired from assassination and put to work banging out mini-replicants until the robo-menopause hit her. It's a timely reminder that, once again, gender roles didn't arise out of some spontaneous desire of half the population to do embroidery and earn less money. They are a result of the power disparity created by the physical work of pregnancy and childbearing. Yes, labour is labour - and of course any power-crazed capitalist would ultimately like to control the means of reproduction. If female humans with their inconvenient needs and wants and boundaries can be tidied out of the process, so much the better.

Fertility is the perfect theme for the dystopia of Blade Runner 2049, because of the western elite anxiety that over-educated, over-liberated women are having fewer children, or choosing to opt out of childbearing altogether. (One in five women is now childless by the age of 45; the rates are higher among women who have been to university.) Feminism is one potential solution to this problem: removing the barriers which make women feel that motherhood is a closing of doors. Another is to take flight, and find another exploitable class to replace human females.

Maybe androids don't dream of electric sheep, but some human men certainly dream of electric wombs. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

Marvel
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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia