The long awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi Blade Runner made its way to screens in 2017. Director Denis Villeneuve ushered the sequel – creatively titled Blade Runner 2049 – onto our screens with the help of Ryan Gosling and Roger Deakins. It’s a sumptuous film that attempts to provide a visual dictionary definition for the term ‘visionary’. Not long after the credits rolled, the internet was whirring into action to condemn the film for being sexist.
Flick back a couple of films in Villeneuve’s filmography, and we hit the critical darling that is Sicario. This powerful, visually impressive film focused on the drug war as seen through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer (alongside Roger Deakins cinematography, of course). Sicario, like Blade Runner 2049, was dragged through the coals for failing the Bechdel test and for failing to present a feminist narrative. Villeneuve’s filmography is littered with stories driven by women in positions of power. The optimistically prescient Arrival was a stunning collaboration between director and actor (Amy Adams). Villeneuve is truly one of the great directors working today, and one could applaud him for creating films that put women in pivotal roles.
However, Sicario’s Kate Macer is an ineffectual presence in her own story. She is routinely manipulated and maneuvered into situations that push her concept of decency. As an officer of the law, Mercer aims to be one that sticks to enforcing justice to the letter. Yet, the reality of the world we live in creeps into the reality of the world of Sicario – we live in a society that is driven by men, and in turn, it is a society that continually punishes women for trying to achieve parity and equality in all areas. Even though Villeneuve isn’t being explicit with his criticism of the patriarchy that rules society, it does not mean that he is not presenting a world that needs to be bent, moulded, twisted and changed, into something better.
The bridge that connects Sicario to Blade Runner 2049 is the eternally optimistic, and immensely powerful work that is Arrival. Through the actions of Amy Adams linguist character Louise Banks, we see a future of worldwide harmony. Where Sicario presents a world that willingly uses, abuses and refuses to listen to women in power, Arrival does the complete opposite – it suggests that if women are installed in positions of power, then collaborative, productive outcomes may occur.
Blade Runner 2049 takes the devastating view in Sicario and presents a future that has run with that notion, in turn creating a future that is bleak for the world of women. In this highly industrialised version of LA, women are manufactured into holographic entities by men. They live to serve the desires of men by fulfilling sexual needs, or to be a homebody that exists purely within the four walls of their home-like prison, dutifully preparing meals for the man to consume after a hard day of blade running.
Yes, Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi is in a position of ‘power’. She sends her diligent android out into the field to do the hard work, eliminating rogue androids, and in turn ‘cleaning up society’ (as much as you can clean a society that has a perpetual sheen of thick dust and dirty rain). But she too is a prisoner, held captive in an office, only able to interact with the world vicariously through the actions of Ryan Gosling’s K. She is, by design, denied the ability to get her hands dirty, and is in turn killed at the hands of an android who was manufactured by a man to enact his will.
Blade Runner 2049 is a story that continues a narrative that many of the worlds greatest minds have been vocalising throughout the years – by putting too heavy a reliance on robots and androids, and in turn, creating autonomous androids, we are in turn dooming ourselves to a future we will never survive. Where Sicario presented a world of devastating masculinity that has bent itself to the point where the line between good and bad is blurred beyond recognition, Blade Runner 2049 carries on with that notion, presenting a world where femininity has been scraped away into non-existence, replaced by the manmade allusion of what a woman truly is.
K’s homebody ‘partner’ Joi is a hologram who could come off the same production line as Steven Spielberg’s David in A.I. Both are creations that exist to fill a void – David, the desire to fill the void of an absent child; Joi to fill the void of a romantic partner. Yet, both are full of their inadequacies. David will never grow old; Joi can never fulfil any physical desires. In both realms, these manmade creations try to appease their human (or, human-like) counterparts. David essentially weathers the age of humanity, yearning to simply make his ‘mother’ happy. The comparison to Pinocchio and his desire to be a real boy is apt in both situations. There is a pure irony though, as humans have created androids to cure humanities one eternal fault – that of our own mortality. We yearn to live forever, yet the androids that we have created yearn to one day know what it is to die.
The use of a physical woman (Mariette [Mackenzie Davis] – a literal puppet) to take the place of Joi is the most damning moment of what will come from a society where masculinity is allowed to run rampant and rule the roost. After being denied equal rights for an eternity, human women are eventually installed in society as physical surrogates for digitally manufactured women. No longer able to be their own entities, the women of the future have been denied a future to the point of being lesser than the creations of man. This is a future where men are no longer beholden to women to help enact the wonder that is the procreation of our species. Mankind lives on in test tubes and silicon surrogates. There is nary a pregnant woman in sight, and the mere concept of motherhood seems like a foreign entity from another world.
(In an aside, it’s worthwhile noting some the names of the various women characters in the film. Joi is a holographic entity designed to elicit pleasure, or ease, by being a dutiful housewife. Mariette is a prostitute whose sole role is to be a physical, sexual release for men – regardless of whether they are an android or a human. The most caustic character name has to be that of Luv, the villainous and violent android created by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace. If this is a mans idea of ‘love’ – that is, an emotionless, brutal entity that has no empathy at all – then it suggests that any hope of the world of men relinquishing their stranglehold on their omnipresent patriarchy is dashed.)
In our present world, we have digitised women to the point where they exist to simply take our orders. The Siri’s and Alexa’s of the world have become the technological housewives that the Jetsons presented as being ‘just another part of the family’. Our Siri’s and Alexa’s can communicate with all the items in the house, reminding us of the weather right now as they sit on a window sill that we can clearly look out of. They ensure our floors remain clean by communicating with the robot vacuum cleaner, they remember when to order new toilet paper, they tell jokes. If you happen to have a Google unit and an Amazon unit, they will compliment each other.
When Googling ‘android woman interview’, the first few results include ‘Hot Robot at SXSW’ or ‘Sophia, “sexy” Hanson AI robot’ – one of the most highly publicised humanoid robots, and we’ve already reduced her to her physical looks. As the future steamrolls ahead at an alarming rate, it becomes evident that we have more respect for our Alexa’s, Siri’s and Sophia’s of the world than we do the real women we live with and interact with on a daily basis. Often these digital utilities we use within our day to day lives are delivered to us with the voices of women as the pre-set option. The notion is that the voice of a woman is a calmer, more pleasing sound than that of the voice of a man. If that doesn’t say anything about the damning state of masculinity within society, where the harshness of the voice of men are found to be too much for the omnipresent devices we utilise daily, then I’m not sure what does.
Throughout cinematic history, going all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there have been warning about the actions of man, and through the power of film, these stories have played out without consequence. Consider it a visualised warning of what may come from our real world actions. Villeneuve’s future is one that has cannibalised itself to the point where the continuation of mankind seems like an afterthought. Man itself has become a self-created deity – one without empathy for the footsteps it takes, instead it is merely interested in the act of creation.
In Blade Runner 2049’s devastating closing moments, we find that another captive woman, Stelline, is the result of a relationship between two androids. It was not enough for man to supplant the place of women as the bearers of children, they had to manufacture a being that was able to procreate itself. A replicating replicant would be the crowning achievement for misogyny worldwide – to have finally made women redundant would be a powerful final shovel on the perceived decline of feminism. Villeneuve is not celebrating this notion at all. Instead, he is presenting a future that we can work to avoid. Through the use of entertainment that textbook men typically consume – sci-fi, action, pop culture –, Villeneuve works to subvert their expectations and provide a warning of a possible, very real future that may lay in waiting for us all.
The end of the world may be coming sooner than we expect. Looking at what remains of this blue galactic rock at the end of 2017, and what we can glean from the ashes of this traumatic year, we can ascertain that the tendrils of toxic masculinity has crept into every possible crevice of society. Politics, entertainment, schools, even pizza suppliers willingly jumped on the ‘men are terrible’ train in 2017. So, with that in mind, it’s often that we will retreat to the realm of pop culture for some kind of peaceful sanctuary.
Lest we forget that the regular mainstay with action based pop culture is the continual threat of the end of the world by some nefarious entity. This could be an intergalactic being, or even a masked villain who simply exists to see the world burn down. However, in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the world that exists is one that has turned into a disgusting, shanty town strewn Capitalism driven ouroborous. The cyclical nature of pop culture dictates that for successful entertainment to exist, it must monopolize on the desires of the many – in turn, by catering to the desires of the masses, it believes it has to regularly deliver the familiar; that is, white men saving the world.
I haven’t written my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s book before, but in short, it’s a word vomit, narrative mess. It is the written equivalent of a dog that has finally caught that car that it continually chases. The dog may have yearned to be the car, or to conquer the car, but it doesn’t really know how to actually do that. So, when it does catch the car it has no idea what to do with it. This is a mess of an analogy, and that’s part of the point of the analogy – it’s an analogy for the point that I needed to put an analogy in here, just the same as Cline likes Back to the Future and anime so to move his narrative forward, he references countless tomes of pop culture ‘literature’. It lacks relevance or substance because it knows not what it aims to discuss.
Or does it? After all, isn’t Ready Player One just another bombastic, over the top, explosive, ode to capitalism? The key narrative is that one of the world’s richest men has died, and instead of helping lift the consumers of the pop culture he has drained dry by leaving his fortunes to them, he instead hides a handful of keys that when held by one user will reward them access to his fortune. Yet, these keys lay in a digital world called Oasis – a place where the worries of the real world do not exist, instead having been replaced by any and every pop culture icon that you could dream of. Naturally, a white boy manages to find these keys, and instead of using his new fortune to help the people he once lived with, he thinks, damn, my two pals would like a share of this, I’ll give some to them instead.
To put it in real world terms, imagine that before his impending death, Stan Lee said that he had hidden a bunch of random stones in collector’s edition Marvel toys. Whoever collects them all (maybe Pokemon would have been a better analogy here?) will then inherit his wealth and also be able to run Marvel. The insanity that would drive fanboys around the world to exhaust all their time in trying to be ‘the One’ to rule them all, and to finally play with the toys of their young adulthood and to enact their greatest fantasies.
If you follow pop culture and the fandoms that are spawned from its many tendrils, then you will no doubt be aware of the fields of toxic fandom that exists. Most notably, the toxic masculinity that oozes from toxic fandoms many orifices (I’m not going to apologise for that mental image). Thanks to the immediacy of social media, and the ‘always available’ mentality, the self-proclaimed experts of entertainment and pop culture – let’s call them the ‘E. Cline’s’ of the world shall we? – have taken it upon themselves to let every single creator who happens to ‘step out of line’ know that they should take their own life.
Within days of the release of the new Star Wars film, writer/director Rian Johnson was receiving death threats on twitter, his film was battered on Rotten Tomatoes by ‘the audience’ to the point where there was an almost 50% disparity between critics and fans, and an inevitably ineffective (yet no less headline grabbing slice of clickbait) petition to have this new entry struck from the overall mythology of this 100% fictional story of people with light swords. The film didn’t play out whatever fantasy they had conjured in their minds in the two years since the last entry, and it was up to them to make sure someone paid the price for that truly heinous, despicable crime. That person was going to be Rian Johnson. Oh, and the critics.
The completely ludicrous argument about critics being in the pockets of corporations was trundled out – of course critics would say they liked Star Wars, after all, they get to see it for free before everyone else. Of course, the memory of a fanboy is shorter than it took Han to do that Kessel run in some amount of parsecs; so naturally they forgot the badgering that critics gave Suicide Squad the year beforehand. Although, if you want to break it down further, many DC fanboys said that these critics were simply paid off by the guys at Marvel so DC films wouldn’t succeed. Then, when Justice League failed, it was once again the Marvel paid critics who dragged the films Rotten Tomato rating down and doomed it at the box office. Let’s remind everyone that if Rotten Tomatoes had this much sway, then Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name would be Star Wars and Avengers level successes (what a world that would be).
The problem, it seems, is that fanboys refuse to accept that anybody can criticise the noise they enjoy, and if that noise happens to skip a beat, or change its tune, then by gosh all hell will reign. These fanboys are so unwilling to accept anything other than what they grew up with, any deviation to the ‘original’, that they throw a tantrum every single time there is a minor change. When the female lead Ghostbusters arrived, there were arguments that it would ruin the original. Well, two years past that release date and the original is still exists and is still beloved (problematic rape theme and all), and the fans of the new film seem to enjoy it just fine.
When pop culture fan Drew McWeeny wrote about the reports of issues coming out of the Warner Bros. camp prior to Batman V Superman launching, he was threatened with all manner of disgusting, vile nonsense, with demands he return his ‘geek badge’ (whatever that is). In response, he wrote a superb piece about the problems with fanboys and the ‘fan-trums’ they throw. It’s a superb piece which I recommend reading here.
Ready Player One presents a world where these trolls have won. A world where women are meaningless, unless they are a video game character that is. A world where the only thing that matters – above all else, above all the suffering, the devastation, the poverty, the chaos and hunger – is pop culture. Characters no longer live by their birth names. Instead, they answer to whatever self-attributed word they’ve ascribed to be their ‘handle’. ‘David no longer exists, it is only DravenPrestige or 7GuantoWwjd’.
This idolisation of pop culture has its benefits of course – that is, to distract from the difficulties of day to day life. When the threat of nuclear war hangs over our heads every waking moment, it’s understandable that you’d want to hide away from the pains of life. But, as gender politics and equality deservedly makes a path through the testosterone fueled pop culture, there has been a major push back from these fanboys – the ones who fear the slightest aspect of change to anything. These are people who decry Captain America’s change to being a hidden Hydra agent, and will then call you a cuck in the same breath. There is no logic behind their arguments, but as long as they say their point of view the loudest, well, that’s all that matters isn’t it?
In Ready Player One, the world of Oasis is a virtual reality zone where people go live and escape the reality of the world. This is taking the concept that Ben Elton satirised so brilliantly years ago in This Other Eden, where the reliance on the unreality of virtual reality would get you killed. Ernest Cline’s world has lionised the world of virtual reality to the point where he’s essentially saying, ‘let’s burn the real world down as it has nothing for us men anymore, just please don’t unplug my Playstation’. But what use is escapism when the world you’re escaping to becomes your ‘real world’? When the realm of pop culture becomes all that you live and breath, then you’ll never truly understand and accept the world as it is today.
Steven Spielberg decided to bring Ernest Cline’s story to the big screen, and I have to wonder why. Oddly, this tale follows a similar path to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In that film, a father abandons his family in search of a future that is solely focused on himself. It’s purely selfish. Ready Player One is Roy’s story regressed to a juvenile, base level nerd culture level. The lead doesn’t care about the devastating world he lives in, he simply cares about taking the mantle of the richest man in the world and being the ‘King of Pop Culture’. Given our reality where it’s possibly to buy the role of President of the United States, the futuristic reality of Ready Player One feels all too real.
Blade Runner 2049 and Ready Player One feel less like celebratory explosions of digital wizardry that should be applauded, and more like warnings of the future that should have us questioning our path forward. It’s easy to see the path that transformed the world we currently live in to the world of both stories, and that path is a terrifying one. An unrestrained assault on the environment, brutal inequality, rampant sexism, misogyny, homophobia and racism that becomes supported by legislation. The immediate removal of the rights of women. These are all real world issues that, when combined, help contribute to a devastating future that rewards the rich. And if it’s not the rich, then it’ll be the constructions of the rich that will end up ruling the world. While the image of a lone wide eyed robot, tidying up the world, getting it ready for the future of humanity, sounds pleasant, it’s far from the truth. Wall-E, after all, would never had said that he’d want to ‘destroy all humans’. Wall-E is no Sophia. In our bid to play God, we have created robots and androids in our own image. And when we willingly burns the walls of world down while we sit smiling, berating strangers on the internet, subjugating women at every turn, well, we get the androids we deserve, don’t we?
The future, however, may not be so bleak. Thanks, in part, to social media movements like April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite and Tarana Burke’s (and many other women) #MeToo campaign, the box office in 2017 was starting to look a little more feminine, and a little less ‘Chris the White Guy’ (yes, he still showed up, but alongside a kick ass bisexual flying horse riding Valkyrie played by the always superb Tessa Thompson). Some of the biggest films of the year included Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Girls Trip. Throw onto the pile the superb social horror film Get Out and the historical drama Hidden Figures, and the screens of 2017 were looking a heck of a lot less white, and were starting to reflect a reality that exists right now – that is, a multicultural, multi-gender, multi-sex, increasingly equal world.
(I highly recommend giving this Hollywood Reporter article a read about the state of equality in cinema in 2017.)
Now, of course, we can’t pack up the tea set and head home just yet, after all, the voices behind the cameras were still overwhelmingly white. Woman directed eight of the top 100 films of 2017, with six black and five Asian directors were behind the films of 2017. They’re small numbers for sure, but they are an improvement over previous years. If films that are told from a non-white man perspective continue to get made, then we will start to see the face of cinema starting to change. My perspective of films is different from a black man in America, which is different from a Muslim woman in England, which is different from an indigenous teen in Sydney – so why are we leaning on white American men to tell worldly stories?
If there’s one thing that links the top three films of 2017 together, it’s that they focused on strong women who were making a path for themselves in a world of men. Sure, the quality of Beauty and the Beast is questionable, but Belle is still a strong character. The powerful optimism of Gal Gadot’s Diana in Wonder Woman will be enough to power the imaginations of a million young girls around the world – she is a modern beacon of hope, one that is not too dissimilar to the one that boys growing up in the eighties would have found in Superman. Leia, Rose, and most importantly, Rey, in The Last Jedi all forged forward in a universe being destroyed by toxic men.
2017 was full of iconic scenes of women forging paths forward against the will of men. If ever there were a hope for the future, it’s that of Wonder Woman rejecting the idea of ‘no, you can’t’ and powering across No Man’s Land, doing something that literally no man can do. It’s the sight of Valkyrie walking powerfully along a road littered with bodies of her enemies. It’s the women of Girl’s Trip rejecting their pasts and saying, no, we are going to dedicate our future to ourselves. Hope was found in one of the most powerful scenes in cinematic history, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo silently swaths a path through dark, enemy ships full of anaemic, sun drained men.
It’s almost amusing to see that Blade Runner 2049 failed at the box office. It was as if audiences around the world took one glimpse of the future that Villeneuve was selling and rejected it outright. This is not to say that there is no place for darkness in modern cinema – there most certainly is (War for the Planet of the Apes is a devastating film which lingers in darkness for a long time; I’ll write more on that soon) – however, in a world that literally drips darkness at every moment, is it too much to ask for optimism and hope in the pop culture we consume?
I’m reminded of one of the more powerful scenes in cinema from 2016, Sasha Lane’s dancing with strangers to Rihanna’s We Found Love in American Honey. Optimism can be found in the most unlikely places, and maybe, just maybe, the path to changing our future comes from finding love in a hopeless place. By rejecting toxic masculinity, by rejecting the patriarchy, by not allowing women to be subjugated, the future can be more hopeful. Escapism can still exist – it needs to exist – it just simply can’t become the only thing we live for.