Blade Runner 2049 is hiding something that you might not expect: a wealth of rich and dynamic female characters that elevate the quality of the film, taking it from good to great.
In Blade Runner 2049, the protagonist seeks to answer the question, “Who am I?” As a replicant, Officer K, played by Ryan Gosling, struggles with questioning and defining his own identity. His mission becomes a search for clues that he hopes will lead him to a great understanding of who and what he is. This is, at times, a tedious struggle that leads to far more dead ends and disappointments than it does real answers.
The women in the story provide a greatly needed balance to Officer K’s struggle. Unlike him, the women are certain of their identities; they are unaffected by his weakness and, as a result, establish a parallel narrative that makes the claim that personal identity is a choice rather than something to be discovered.
In a movie full of replicants and artificial intelligence, Lieutenant Joshi is one of the few human characters in Blade Runner 2049. Playing Joshi, Robin Wright commands the respect and attention that the role requires. As one of the few humans in the movie, Joshi is perhaps the most accessible character for the audience.
Lieutenant Joshi emits confidence, in both her authority and identity, making her a natural leader. She never wavers in this confidence, demonstrating a keen understanding of her identity. We never see this kind of confidence from Officer K.
As Officer K’s superior, she can see him struggling with his own identity, but she cannot relate to it. There is a particular scene where she asks K to recall a memory from his childhood, despite the fact that she understands the memory to be fake, implanted. She seeks to encourage K by complimenting his skill as an officer and his invaluable service, but it has little effect on him. She even tells him, “You’ve been getting along just fine without [a soul].”
The relationship between Joshi and Officer K highlights the distance between human and replicant, and how their identities differ. Joshi never once questions or doubts her identity and authority. Her role as a woman in this position is not a coincidence – it exists as a part of larger tapestry of women in the film that contradict Officer K’s innate need to define himself.
In a role that could easily be perceived as flat, Ana de Armas flourishes as Joi. Joi is an AI (artificially intelligent) hologram that is also Officer K’s love interest in the film. Her role is particularly significant as she is, of all the characters in the film, most limited in creating an identity of her own. As a product of AI, Joi’s identity is prescribed to her by computer code.
However, Blade Runner 2049 does not depict Joi as one-dimensionally as you might expect. In her introductory scene, she is gifted a software upgrade that allows her more freedom to travel beyond the apartment. Despite her limitations, we see Joi actively take a role in the world and in K’s life. She maintains influence over K even if she cannot physically exercise that command.
Like Lieutenant Joshi, Joi does not question her identity. This is especially significant considering how different she is from Joshi. Joi understands her own limitations, but does not define herself by them. There is a key scene in the film where Joi recruits Mariette to have sex with K. In this scene, Joi aligns her hologram against Mariette so it appears that K is sleeping with Joi, not Mariette.
The scene functions as a fascinating interrogation of Joi’s identity; in this scene, the audience sees her acknowledge her own limitations while exhibiting control over her emotions, as well as K’s. Unlike Officer K, she does not question her identity simply because she is limited in ways that humans or even replicants are not. We never see this mature understanding from Officer K, thereby making Joi a far more mature and advanced character than him.
Of all the women in Blade Runner 2049, Mariette is shown to have the most agency. For most of the film, she appears to exist outside of any one group, thereby free to do as she pleases. Like Lieutenant Joshi, she does not feel the need to question her identity because she has very few limitations placed upon her. It’s only later that we learn she is a part of the resistance working to free the replicants from the society that treats them as slaves.
Mariette’s freedom allows her to behave like a chameleon, adjusting her identity to fit a given situation. By presenting herself in the first half of the film as desirable to Officer K, she allows herself to get close to him to slip a tracking device into his coat. That very tracking device ends up saving K’s life later in the movie.
Blade Runner 2049 posits Mariette as one of the most free women in the film, so it’s no surprise that the film ultimately aligns her with the resistance that seeks to free the replicants from slavery. This makes the relationship between Mariette and Officer K all the more interesting; while he pursues an investigation that he hopes will reveal him to be human, she seeks to create social change that will make the distinction between human and replicant unnecessary. Mariette is a part of the resistance that believes replicants, including Officer K, have an identity all their own.
Sylvia Hoeks deserves to be the break out star of Blade Runner 2049. Her performance as Luv, a replicant under the authority of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), is intimidating and arresting. She delivers a forceful brutality and sharp intelligence that provides a necessary balance to some of the more nuanced and subtle characters. She is, far more than Wallace’s character, Blade Runner 2049’s primary villain. She is also the closest thing Officer K has to an equal.
As replicants, you might expect Luv and Officer K to share similar identity struggles. In fact, the film establishes the opposite. Like the other women in Blade Runner 2049, Luv demonstrates a clear and strong assuredness in her identity. We do not see her waver once; she is in complete command of her identity and never once questions it. This is in stark contrast to Officer K, whose entire arc in the film centers on questioning himself and his place in the world.
Luv’s acceptance of her identity makes her stronger than Officer K. In one of the highlights of the movie, Luv and K fight in hand-to-hand combat on a beach among huge waves. After besting him, she spits back at him, “I’m the best one.” Luv’s unwavering confidence in herself, despite her replicant identity, makes her stronger than Officer K. All the women in the film share this attribute.
It is only after K accepts his identity that he is able to triumph over Luv. Their status as equals makes their comparison the most resonant and significant.
Dr. Ana Stelline
Although she only appears in two scenes in the film, Carla Juri’s role as Dr. Ana Stelline is essential to the way women are portrayed in Blade Runner 2049. Like so many of the characters in the film, she has limitations that dictate how she lives her life (she is contained to a single room due to an illness). However, like the other women in the story and unlike Officer K, she does not allow those limitations to define her. She works as a memory designer, creating memories to be implanted into replicants.
More than any other, her role emphasizes the film’s belief that the individual creates his or her own identity. Despite having been stuck in a single room for most of her life, she is still able to create memories and experiences that are not her own. In her first scene, she speaks to Officer K about the importance of imagination in creating memories.
In this way, Stelline is more free and more confident in her identity than any other character in the film. In the face of adversity and limitation, Stelline finds peace and fulfillment.
This is a characteristic that all the women in Blade Runner 2049 share, establishing a parallel narrative that contradicts that of Officer K. While K searches for answers to help him define himself, all of the women around him emphasize how pointless his journey is. Together and separately, their own arcs emphasize that the answers to questions of self and personal identity should come from within.