It’s such a simple question Rachael (Sean Young) asks Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner: “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” They’ve just met in Eldon Tyrell’s opulent offices, and Deckard, a replicant bounty hunter, has come to interview Rachael as a means of testing the LAPD’s replicant-detecting Voight-Kampff device. Deckard’s equally simple response— “no”—comes without hesitation; he nonchalantly shrugs it off as though he’s never bothered questioning the supposed difference between humans and the androids he’s contracted to kill. The entire exchange takes about five seconds, yet it encapsulates everything that has fueled the public’s decades-long love affair with Blade Runner’s existential dread: What are humans? What myths do they take for granted? What have they been missing?
Over the past 35 years, Blade Runner has (rightly) been lauded for its artistic legacy and chillingly prescient vision. In that time it has also often (rightly) been critiqued for its flaws when it comes to its representations of gender and race. Scott’s film is full of female characters who are all replicants, yet their literal objectification is barely explored; East Asian aesthetics pervade its vision of dystopian LA, yet Asian characters are largely background players; its cyborgs are meant to be stand-ins for oppressed minority groups, but few, if any, minorities are actually present on screen. These shortcomings have become so apparent in the decades since the film’s release that Blade Runner has become a shorthand for exploring those topics, even if only to show how sci-fi stories like it can succeed or fail at addressing them. So when word of a sequel arose, the question immediately became whether or not it would update its view of humanity along with its view of the future. The answer to that question, unfortunately, is: not so much.
(Spoiler alert: Minor spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 follow.)
Director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is certainly as obsessed with the eroding distinction between human and artificial life as Scott’s film was. Its production design—in 2049, Los Angeles is so overpopulated it looks more like a server farm than an actual human habitat—is just as breathtaking as the original’s. And its technological advances, like the tiny hover-pods that allow Tyrell’s successor Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to see or the new biologically engineered replicants grown in Matrix-like cocoons, are executed in a way that propels the franchise 30 years into the future. Yet for all the attention paid to updating the sequel’s physical details, its three-hour plot does little to concern itself with anything beyond the depths of its white male protagonists, reducing white women to tired archetypes and utterly sidelining nonwhite characters.
When word of a Blade Runner sequel arose, the question immediately became whether or not it would update its view of humanity along with its view of the future. The answer to that question, unfortunately, is: not so much.
Ford’s reprised Deckard and Ryan Gosling’s blade runner K both have complex inner lives behind their macho reticence. K, like Deckard, doesn’t think critically about his job or the replicants he executes. His demeanor remains a mask for the audience to endlessly consider in long, uncut close-up—until a revelation forces him to question his identity, and his world falls apart repeatedly across his face. Deckard describes the heart-wrenching motivations for his self-exile and the agony that has accompanied it; Leto’s Wallace monologues at length about his megalomaniacal ambitions to play god to a species that can overrun humankind. Each man gets a story, and each story gets an airing.
Despite their unrelentingly pedestrian Psych 101 woes, these three men still manage to take up 95 percent of the emotional frame on screen, leaving little room for the women around them to have their own narratives. There’s manic pixie dream girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), whom K has literally purchased, à la Her. K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), berates him at work and then invites herself over, drinks his alcohol, and comes on to him. Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), the sex worker with a heart of gold, repeatedly comes to K’s aid (in every way you can imagine). Wallace’s servant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) has the most tangible personality, yet she’s obsessed with pleasing Wallace. Even Sean Young’s Rachael makes a cameo as a plot device for Deckard, embodying the final archetype—the martyred Madonna—of this Ultimate Sexist Megazord. Three female characters, not one one of them voicing an ambition or desire that does not pertain to their male counterparts. Just because 2049’s future has females doesn’t mean its future is female.
Yet in a deeply ironic twist, the plot itself hinges entirely on their presence; without women, be they human or replicant, the secret K discovers that sends him on his harrowing mission wouldn’t exist. If Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green recognized this, they must have ultimately decided they could accomplish the same goals without having to imbue those critical female characters with the same humanity as their male counterparts. (After all, when a character’s function is more plot point than passion, why bother giving it stage directions?) Several moments almost comment meaningfully on women’s disposability—Wallace’s casual gutting of a newborn female replicant; a giant, naked Joi addressing K blankly from an ad—yet each time, they become sad moments in a man’s narrative, rather than being recognized as tragedies for the women themselves.
Unsurprisingly, the problem worsens when viewed through a racial lens. Gaff (Edward James Olmos, now in a retirement home), a lab tech (played by Wood Harris), and two shady black-market dealers are the only men of color with more than one line; none have identities beyond their use to K. The only visible woman of color is one of Mariette’s nameless coworkers. (While de Armas was born in Cuba, her grandparents are European.) The third act finally delivers a plot twist that insists the story is not actually about K and Deckard—except the action continues to focus on them anyway.
As critic Angelica Jade Bastién recently noted at Vulture, mainstream dystopian sci-fi has always been obsessed with oppression narratives. While it returns over and over again to the downtrodden-rises-up-against-the-subjugator model, the genre has always had a remarkable ability to overlook the persecuted groups—people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities—whose experiences it mines for drama. White creators, men in particular, tend instead to whitewash their casts, imagining themselves as both villain and hero. Rather than simply putting the real thing in the story, their tales become metaphors for the real thing. Blade Runner 2049 falls into this trap: Even as Wallace grandstands about “great societies” being “built on the backs of a disposable workforce,” everyone the movie deems powerful or worth exploring is still white and almost 100 percent male, relegating those disposable workforces’ descendants to the story’s incidental margins.
This was one of countless missed opportunities Blade Runner 2049 had to transform the franchise into not just a staggering aesthetic and technological achievement but also an incisive read of 21st century society. In the wake of Mad Max’s recent overhaul—which, while imperfect, managed to redeem many of its predecessors’ flaws—this misstep is especially disappointing. Yet like Deckard’s hurried brush-off of Rachael’s honest question in 2019, 2049’s filmmakers have attempted to tell a story about personhood in 2017 without actually considering the urgent politics that surround who gets to be a person in 2017. And in an era that begs for this kind of reinvention, its failure flattens its message into one more retirement for the books.