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  • Cyberpunk's masculinist legacyPuppetry, labour and ménage à trois in Blade Runner 2049
  • Graham J. Murphy (bio)

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (US 1982), along with TRON (Lisberger US 1982) and Videodrome (Cronenberg US 1983), is one of the trifecta of sf movies that was instrumental in popularising cyberpunk in the early 1980s and has arguably proven to be the definitive example of cyberpunk cinema, if not cyberpunk as a whole. As Scott Bukatman writes, '[c]yberpunk provided the image of the future in the 1980s', and the 'aesthetic of cyberpunk was almost defined by Blade Runner' (58; 50). At the same time, however, Blade Runner replicated an overt masculinism that was a dominant trend in 1980s-era cyberpunk. For example, Nicola Nixon, writing of print cyberpunk, concludes that for all its 'stylish allusions to popular culture–to punk rock, to designer drugs, to cult cinema, to street slang and computer-hacker (counter?) culture–cyberpunk fiction is, in the end, not radical at all. Its slickness and apparent subversiveness conceal a complicity with '80s conservatism' (231). Or, more recently, Patricia Melzer summarises early cyberpunk's tendency to '"plug-in" conservative, occasionally reactionary, heteronormative gender and sexual notions into a narrative frame that explores intersections of technology and embodiment' (292).1

In all, early literary cyberpunk's initial deference to masculinism offered little room for women and, more broadly, female agency, a weakness in print cyberpunk that is replicated, if not exacerbated, in Blade Runner by the added visual component that cinema affords. Case in point: as the titular 'blade [End Page 97] runner' of Scott's film, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is on the hunt for four Nexus-6 replicants hiding out in an overpopulated futuristic Los Angeles. Interestingly, Deckard is unsuccessful in 'retiring' either Leon (Brion James) or Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer)–i.e. the male replicants–but is able to reaffirm his male prowess by successfully, and brutally, pumping his bullets into the female replicants Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), both of whom die in devastatingly powerful scenes. Or consider another troubling moment in the film, when Deckard prevents Rachael (Sean Young), a woman whose ontological status as a replicant is slowly dawning on her, much to her shock and dismay, from leaving his apartment. Instead, he slams the door shut and bars her exit, aggressively pushes her against the blind-drawn window, and then forces himself upon her, commanding her to kiss him and then going so far as to dictate what he wants Rachael to say to him. As a result, Rachael's 'special status', one that will allow her to live beyond the replicants' original four-year expiration date, at least according to one of the earliest versions of the film,2 'does not exempt her from sexual abuse' as '[m]anufactured sexual remarks are added to her manufactured memories' (Barr 29). Although Deckard and Rachael end up lovers and run away together by the end of the film, the apartment 'seduction' is a disturbing moment that is all about him and his desires, not a reciprocal relationship, even when she apparently starts to respond physically to the domineering male who, it must be remembered, has the legal authority to take her life should she go rogue.

Released 35 years after the original source material, Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 (US/UK/Canada/Hungary/Spain 2017) not only returns to the setting of Blade Runner but tries to expand the canvas beyond the overpopulated and rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles, offering audiences the visual spectacle of immense emptiness that echoes J.F. Sebastian's (William Sanderson) home in the abandoned Bradbury Apartments of Blade Runner, including a desolate protein farm that opens the film, an irradiated and empty Las Vegas, and the snow-covered headquarters of the Stelline Laboratory. Nevertheless, in spite of its visual splendour, Blade Runner 2049 engages in what Lars Schmeink calls a 'conservative retrofuturism' that is 'obvious in Wallace's headquarters, externally reinterpreting the visually unique architecture of Tyrell's pyramid from Blade Runner, as well as the color palette and indirect noir-inspired lighting of its interiors' (136). [End Page 98]

At the same time...


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