For 35 years, fans have endlessly discussed the finer points of Blade Runner. Is Deckard a Replicant? Which version is the best? And how creepy was that sex scene between Deckard and Rachael? It's aggressive, uncomfortable, and—by today's standards—likely to be labeled as something along the lines of "problematic." Blade Runner 2049, the much anticipated sequel to the Ridley Scott classic, does well to expand upon the themes and ideas of the original—providing an updated, and visually stunning exploration of the near-future dystopia that changed the future of science fiction. And in the style of the 1982 film, Blade Runner 2049 also provides a bizarre and fascinating sex scene that will be discussed by fans and critics for years to come.
A side-plot of the film is the relationship between Ryan Gosling's K, a replicant Blade Runner, and Ana de Armas's Joi, a commercially manufactured holographic companion. It's a fascinating dynamic exploring the limitations of machines and their capacity for human emotion. And de Armas captures this conflict with an elegant, effecting performance. Are her feelings toward K representative of genuine emotions, or are they just a feature built into her programming? Similarly, is K's love for Joi real?
Adding to that existential problem is Joi's very obvious physical limitations. She doesn't exist in a physical sense, leaving her unable to express her feelings—true or not—in the same way that a human or even replicant could. Does that make them fake? Does that marginalize her passion? Does it mean K cannot truly love her, and her him? It's a fascinating conflict, one that's developed as K installs a software upgrade that allows her to leave his apartment and see the rain for the first time.
And this theme reaches its emotional peak during a strange and compelling sex scene that's essentially a robo-ménage à trois. In an effort to consummate their relationship physically, Joi hires Mackenzie Davis's Mariette, a "pleasure model" replicant, to act as a physical stand-in. Their bodies merge into one as Joi's hologram envelops Mariette's body—their faces melding, flickering from one to the other. They move in a sort of ghostly dance that's often a little out of sync, creating a mesmerizing four-armed tangle of limbs. From a pure visual and technical perspective, it's absolutely beautiful. And it's even rather poetic considering the themes director Denis Villeneuve explores throughout this weighty, nearly three-hour-long movie.
But like the sex scene in the original film, this one will most definitely be controversial. For one thing, it's exactly the same concept as the sex scene between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (her voice, at least) in 2013's Her. In that film, Phoenix plays a lonely writer who falls in love with his computer's operating system, Samantha. As their relationship progresses, Samantha hires a woman to act as her physical avatar with Phoenix. The scene in Her makes clear the awkwardness of the situation (it's fairly comical), and it gives it the nuance that it's deserved. Here, Johansson establishes that the third woman involved is a willing participant who enjoys helping OS/human couples have physical sex. Her is also a movie wholly focused on analyzing the feelings of artificial life—specifically in regards to one relationship.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn't give this situation quite the same care. Much has already been written about how the new film depicts women—often as nude objects of desire, bought and sold on the whims of men. And the film hardly spends the time to really explore Mariette's character and the ethics behind manufacturing what's essentially a sentient sex doll. We don't know how she feels about this three-way transaction, only that it serves as a plot device—an elaborate excuse for her to slip a tracking mechanism in K's jacket. Instead, the narrative belongs to Gosling alone.
Writing about the scene, Glamour's Jill Gutowitz says, "This eerie display of the male gaze was gauche and left me feeling sticky." The Telegraph's Rebecca Hawkes also criticizes the movie's treatment of women is stuck in the past. At Digital Spy, Rosie Fletcher writes:
It's a fascinating and nightmarish subject for futuristic sci-fi—or rather would be if it was actually ever properly addressed. Instead the narrative belongs to the men alone, with the concept going unexamined that human women are being completely written out of history and replicant women are reduced to killing machines, baby machines and sex machines.
These criticisms are especially justifiable alongside some of the violence against women on display in the rest of the movie, specifically at the hand of Jared Leto's Niander Wallace.
Davis herself has defended her character's role when asked about the film's depiction of women, saying:
I think it’s pretty self-aware about a pornographic economy that has reduced the roles of women to sheer consumption. The normalization of women’s roles as things to be consumed, there’s products that are made, just like there are now, the idea of the semi-sentient sex doll is really in line with what’s going on in this Blade Runner universe, about having a thing that fulfills everything you want, but doesn’t talk back and can’t argue with you, but can be a loving supporting companion and also fulfill all your sexual needs feels like something that’s very contemporary and something the movie is very self-aware about.
Ana de Armas, while not reflecting on how Blade Runner 2049 depicts its female charaters in particular, recently told Esquire, “I’ve tried to choose roles where women are not just reacting or waiting for something to happen."
Elsewhere in the movie, women have strong leading roles and other incredible performances—particularly Robin Wright's hardened Lieutenant Joshi and Sylvia Hoeks's relentless morally conflicted villain Luv (though again under the command of her male creator).
Certainly, Villeneuve's intent was for this scene to be both memorable and controversial—and in both cases he succeeded. Unfortunately, it feels like much of the conversation got lost in K's apartment in a bloom of robotic and holographic arms.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.