On the surface, the Blade Runner:2049 universe isn't all that kind to women. Much like the original, Denis Villeneuve's sequel to the 1989 Ridley Scott classic tells the story of a man tasked with the violent responsibility of deactivating rogue replicants, sentient robots designed to do the tasks humans no longer want to be burdened with.
Women in this bleak version of Los Angeles are mostly commodities, objects used for the sexual fulfillment of men. But dig deeper, and you'll find a complex power struggle that highlights the way women must often make the best of difficult situations. Zoom out, and what stands out is a science fiction film with not one, not two, not three, but four interesting, meaty female roles.
One of those roles is that of Mariette, a sex worker charged with getting close to Ryan Gosling's broody blade runner, K, for reasons that are too spoiler-y to discuss here. Played with fierce intensity by Mackenzie Davis, Mariette is a product of this futuristic society, but also someone who has managed to find a way to game the system.
Her performance is almost a reflection of the film itself, which in portraying a decaying society with capacities even beyond what we can imagine, is both about subjugation and transcendence.
This isn't Davis' first foray into the world of sci-fi. In fact, she made headlines last year with her performance as Yorkie, opposite Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Kelly, in "San Junipero," one of the most acclaimed episodes in the Black Mirror series. During a phone call with Refinery29, Davis talked about Blade Runner 2049's portrayal of women, how her costume changed how she viewed her character, and whether science fiction is becoming a more inclusive genre.
Refinery29: Were you a fan of the original Blade Runner?
Mackenzie Davis: "I was a huge fan of the original. I was obsessed with it from the first moment I saw it, which was kind of late, I saw it when I was 19 in university. It just blew me away, the whole world, the design, the characters, everything sort of bowled me over. It was actually one of the first things I told my agent when I started working with them. They were like, ‘What kind of career do you want? What kind of movies do you like?’ and I said ‘Just so you know, if they ever make a Blade Runner sequel, that’s the only thing I want.’"
How do you think the sequel differs in its portrayal of women?
"I think it’s pretty self-aware about a pornographic economy that has reduced the roles of women to sheer consumption. The normalisation 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. And then I think that there are female roles in different castes of this society that are able to be more embodied and powerful in conventional ways, and also have cracks in their facade where you see their vulnerabilities. But it seems like this world is so dependent on this caste system of humans perform these roles, replicants perform these roles, human superiors, creators, and those are the ways that women sort of travel between. But there isn’t a lot of upward mobility."
Do you see your character as feminist?
"I struggle with that question. What does that mean? Does my character consider herself a feminist? Is me playing her a feminist act?"
Let’s talk about both.
"I think she’s a survivor, and I think that she is aware of the role that she’s been given in society, and what she needs to do to survive, and to get other things she wants out of life by exploiting that role. I think in a really strict sort of class society where you can’t move between classes, people have to learn how to exploit the space that they occupy, and I think Mariette has done that. And as far as do I think my playing her is a feminist act, I don’t know. I think she’s an interesting character, and I thought that there was a lot to play with with her, and that’s sort of what I look at first. Do I think somebody is interesting, can I be engaged with this person’s story?"
She definitely has agency within her confined role. She doesn’t really feel like a victim.
"No, she doesn’t feel like a victim to me either. But I think the idea of how women operate in this society — going to Las Vegas, which is like the apotheosis of the pornified universe, you see these totems of objectified women on their knees. That’s a society that’s crumbled. I think there’s something interesting about this city of mahogany that has gone to the excesses of consumption and is now just a dustbowl of forgotten desires and sexual fantasies. It’s just these empty, crumbling statues now."
How did you prepare for the role?
"Through a lot of conversations with Denis [Villeneuve]. It’s a lot of internal thought: what is it like to be a sex worker in this world? How important is it to be sexy? How important is it to be warm? I thought a lot about climate and how weird it was to balance frigid damp temperature and the need to show your body. Honestly, it came together for me when I saw the costumes. It encompassed the whole complexity of this position that Mariette occupies. And I found it really sort of transformative, being on the set. It’s a world that doesn’t exist yet. So there’s what you do to prepare, but I think a lot of it is real once you’re inside this imagined place."
What was the most challenging part of playing Mariette?
"I think just getting over the nerves of being a teenage girl, thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m in this movie; I can’t believe I’m on this set. You are the one that will ruin this.’ Getting over the general anxiety of feeling like you’ve hoodwinked people. I think also with a movie this big, you feel like this is the time where you have to really do something big with your character, really make a splash — I put this external pressure that I never really put on other parts. And then once I got there and started working, I was just like ‘ Ugh, nobody wants to see you execute some weird pyrotechnics.’ You want to connect with the person you’re with. Yes, you’re in this world, but all the fantasy stuff is taken care of for you. You don’t need to add to that in any sort of selfish or self-aggrandising way. You just need to know what you’re doing and talk to this person, and think about your character. So, I think just trimming it down and not trying to make a splash was a preliminary challenge."
Last season of Black Mirror was very focused on women, including your episode with Gugu Mbatha Raw, “San Junipero.” Now, with Blade Runner, do you think sci-fi in general is becoming a kinder genre for women?
"I kind of think it always has been! I’ve been getting this question a lot, kind of ‘Aren’t you so happy this is the rare sci-fi movie that has great roles for women?’ and I think it is totally a sci-fi movie that has great roles for women, but in my experience that’s the genre where women have gotten to be unleashed from the bonds of earthly expectations of what their roles are, and they’ve gotten to be explorers. Alien, and Promotheus...there’s just so many examples of sci-fi being the realm where women get to be whatever, because it’s not Earth anymore. I think that’s historically been true. Like any genre, there’s also really bad examples of women’s experience in sci-fi. But generally I’ve looked at sci-fi as a bigger field of opportunities for interesting characters. "
What do you hope people take away from this film?
"It’s so weird the way people consume science fiction. They’re these incredibly forceful cautionary tales and morality tales warning us against our consumption and our abuse of the planet, and our unbound appetite for creation and invention at the cost of human experience and connectivity. And yet, people just consume these films as entertainment and then move on and create the very things that they’re working against. Hopefully the weather patterns that are illustrated in this movie will have some resonance, especially this year. It’s such a big world, and you see so much destruction and so much creation and it’s so overwhelmingly imaginative, and so much has been created and established in this future world. And yet it’s still this simple story of somebody trying to understand who they are, do they matter, and what are they doing here, which hasn’t changed since the beginning of us telling stories, and before we told stories, when we were just walking around wondering that ourselves. So, I hope people stop fucking up the environment, I guess."
The weather patterns were so shocking. I’m from Montreal and I was thinking that this looks just like a Canadian winter.
"Oh, I lived in Montreal! I remember when I was first going to K’s apartment, I had my hat, and was like ‘Oh God, this feels so familiar. When you’re in Montreal, and you have all these layers, and as soon as you go in you create these little bags of your stuff. Or your coat becomes this hobo sac where you put everything in and tie it up and carry it around, as a kind of unit of your possessions.”
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