Friday, October 20, 2017

Blade Runner vs. Blade Runner 2049

Does Deckard dream of synthetic sheep?

(Warning: narratives of Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? discussed in close detail)

Ridley Scott's science fiction epic Blade Runner opened back in 1982 to poor boxoffice and middling-to-hostile reviews (including a memorable slam by Pauline Kael).

And then--like a launching police spinner or Roy Batty's level of empathy--the film's reputation rose. From cult classic to cultural touchstone to a place in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry pantheon, Scott's possible masterpiece is now widely considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

The film print went through its own odyssey from seven differently edited versions (including a Director's Cut that doesn't have the director's full participation or approval and a Final Cut that does) VHS releases laserdisc releases DVD releases Blu-Ray releases lord knows how many re-issues and retrospectives and finally--after thirty-five long years--a sequel.

How is the picture? Lemme put it this way:

The first two shots say everything. The original opened with an explanatory text crawl fades into a widescreen of Los Angeles 2019 (gas flares belch flame from towering stacks) cuts to a giant closeup of an eye (flame curving across its reflective hemisphere). The sequel begins with a similar crawl cut straight to giant eye closeup and then--instead of a cityscape--a widescreen of thousands of mirrors (a solar farm) spread like a vast sunflower. Villeneuve with his imagery acknowledges connection with the previous film same time he declares his independence, replacing Scott's panorama of the Angeles cityscape with spiraling glass--almost as intricate almost as detailed yet with a minimalist symmetry.

The rest of the film reflects this minimalism. Where Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) shouldered his way through crammed masses of humanity "Joe" K (Ryan Gosling playing I presume a Kafkaesque protagonist) wanders near-empty streets. Villeneuve's film actually hews closer to what Philip K. Dick wrote: not an over but an underpopulated Earth where radioactive dust from World War Terminus has rendered most of the planet uninhabitable, forced most of the population to emigrate offworld. 

The sequel takes more details from the book (space colonies; replicants--'androids' or 'andies' Dick calls em--as slave labor; the near-extinction of animals) plus one visual motif (an origami sheep fashioned by Gaff (Edward James Olmos) in a brief but vivid cameo) but the real story takes off from an idea proposed in a book sequel: Replicant Rachael (Sean Young) has given birth and K must seek out and 'retire' (execute) the child. 

A serious tale, much more humor-free than the '82 film where Gaff, creator Eldon Tyrell (the great Joe Turkel), and villain replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) do their best to liven up proceedings. Gosling's K is like the Driver he played in Nicholas Winding Refn's film only half as cheerful; the Wallace Corporation's Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is a deadpan loony only half as fun as Turkel's dryly patriarchal Tyrell. Ford as the only human (Replicant?) in the sequel to show any real mileage has by default the best lines; the script is intelligent enough (despite implausibilities*) the filmmaking striking enough (though the double shooting in a flooded car is badly edited) to distinguish itself from any recent American attempt at science fiction this side of Shane Carruth. It even expands the previous film's territory, pleading not just on behalf of artificial humanoids but also artificial intelligences manifesting holographically (K's constant companion Joi, played by an elfin Ana de Armas). 

*(Why does Wallace want to torture--and replicant rebellion leader Freysa (Hiam Abbass) want to save or silence--Deckard? Both Wallace and Freysa say Deckard can lead them back to her but any rebellion worth its salt should know enough to sever connections if there's ever a danger of capture. Beyond that what's the use of Deckard? He doesn't know how he got Rachael pregnant**, has had no contact with his daughter for decades, doesn't even know where she is. More broadly speaking, is human reproduction with its messy gene recombination process (sex) and nine-month gestation period really more efficient than a replicant mass-assembly line? And how is allowing Deckard to meet Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri) going to help the latter fulfill her fate as Hope of The New Race?***)

**(Well Deckard knows how he got Rachael pregnant but why it should work when replicants are supposedly sterile is a mystery. Stepping back and thinking about it why should replicants be sterile at all if they're copies of human beings? If replicants as suggested through various microscopic views and conversations are genetically modified humans as opposed to mechanical constructs then the ability to procreate shouldn't be any more difficult to copy than say the ability to think, which the replicants time and again have demonstrated they can do. In which case making replicants sterile might be an added safeguard rather than an inherent lack, and hence easier to remedy. Thinking in narrower narrative terms, replicant sterility wasn't emphasized in the first picture and lands with a dull thud on audiences when revealed here (O they can make babies? That's nice.))

***(Actually that question (Deckard and Dr. Stelline) has an easy but unpretty answer, an answer that apparently escaped both Freysa and Wallace but not K: if Deckard is the only male replicant on Earth capable of reproducing and his daughter the only female replicant--"Understand? Or is it too tough for you?")

The film--possibly Villeneuve's most affecting to date--nevertheless falls flat compared to Scott's '82 film, and how can be seen from that aforementioned opening widescreen shot. Where Villeneuve's imagery feels elegant Scott unleashes chaos; his streets look as if Hong Kong and Tokyo had collided in a violent act of sex (with New York and Metro Manila leaping into the fray) the orgy still ongoing. Higher up the massive ziggurats and fiery gas flares suggest not so much Christmas as Krampus celebrated worldwide, a kind of malevolent monumental parody of Yuletide celebration done with spotlights lasers and hundred-story video billboards. Villeneuve on occasion adds the odd outsized detail--giant statues cloaked in orange sand making frozen love; huge hotel lobbies with roulette wheels and lounges featuring a stuttering holographic Elvis. Scott seems less interested in a faithful adaptation of Dick than he is in throwing everything at the big screen, including the kitchen sink.

The earlier story couldn't be simpler (if just as holey****): bounty hunter seeks to retire four replicants (actually five but Scott fixed the error in his Final Cut (though not before Jeter weaves an entire novel out of the plot hole)). Unlike Villeneuve, Scott manages to build tension and momentum up to the point when Deckard confronts the final replicant Roy Batty, who (appropriate name!) acts as if he had to cram a year's worth of overacting in only twenty minutes--he chews up script and scenery and very nearly Deckard. Scott's violence (inflicted mainly through Batty) is more memorably baroque (fingers bent backwards, eyes gouged out, a nail driven through the palm of a messianic hand); Villeneuve's comes off as cooler, more surgical (blows gunshots stabbings). Sylvia Hoek's steely corporate enforcer Luv may be faster and deadlier than Batty (following the technogeek's design principle that smaller and slimmer is better) but you don't feel the danger, certainly not on a gut level. You flinch in fear for Deckard when he faces Batty; the most you feel for K when facing Luv is a kind of vague curiosity (Can the LAPD's Nexus 9 whip the Wallace Corporation's Nexus 9?).

****(Why as Kael points out does Deckard bother with the empathy (Voight-Kampff) test when he has photographs of the fugitives? Why after tangling with Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Leon (Briones James) and knowing how strong and fast they can be would he go after Pris (Darryl Hannah) and Roy without backup or at least better weapons--an armload of grenades maybe or an assault rifle?)

Is Deckard a replicant? Scott's film offers important clues (Deckard dreams of a unicorn which Gaff later alludes to with an origami construct) and Villeneuve promised to address the issue but doesn't give an explicit answer (though Deckard's aforementioned reunion with his daughter only really makes sense if they are both artificial beings  and able to--ick--make artificial babies).

All nonsense if you follow Dick's novel (Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep?)--of course Deckard is human; Dick's novel turns on that very premise, that we follow an everyday schlub much like you or me (John Isidore on Deckard: 'a medium man, not impressive. Round face and hairless, smooth features; like a clerk in a bureaucratic office') as his attitude towards androids evolves. The character arc of an artificial being recognizing its true artificial nature isn't as dramatic as that of a human (an ostensibly higher being) recognizing the humanity in an artificial being. 

As for that unicorn--a unicorn's a mythical creature. It's not remembered it's imagined, an ability that I would say helps distinguish humans from machines.

Blade Runner and its sequel take some inspiration but don't really capture the novel's bleakness: the abandoned apartments*****, the pervasive radioactive dust, the desolate landscapes with 'pebbles the size of houses.' Villeneuve's film approximates the loneliness better but misses much of the grime; Scott's film has the opposite flaw. Set against this background Dick's humans seem like small crabbed hunched-over creatures, his androids hideously alive. Which makes sense--the humans have little to live for while the androids are running for their lives. 

*****(When Scott shows us apartments they are disintegrating palatial staterooms found in the magnificent ruins of the Bradbury Building (since renovated); Villeneuve shoots his living quarters in the even more expansive Old Stock Exchange Palace in Budapest. It's as if these filmmakers' notion of 'bleak' ran along the lines of El Dorado or Atlantis when I imagine what Dick had in mind looks more like the decayed urban centers of present-day Buffalo Cleveland Detroit--Dick being the kind of seer who prophesies better than he knew)

Contrasting the bleakness is this strain of wayward humor found in nearly all of Dick's novels: when the book begins Deckard is quarreling with his wife Iran, who has just dialed six hours of "self-accusatory depression" in her Penfield mood organ. Deckard can't understand why she would do such a thing (he can't even imagine such a mood was possible on the machine) and urges her to dial something--anything--else ("Dial 888. The desire to watch TV, no matter what's on it." "I don't feel like dialing anything at all now." "Then dial 3.""I can't dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial!").

An amusing little episode to set a lighthearted mood before pulpier elements come into play--but the scene also introduces themes of reality vs. artificiality, the question of empathy and its lack. The mood organ (can you imagine what society would be like with this invention?) simulates largely positive emotions, but as Iran demonstrates no mood (or organ) is a match for genuine despair (her awareness of all the empty apartments around her, of her husband's role as society's executioner) and trying to fix that despair via machine can only lead to absurdity. Equally telling is Deckard's response: instead of trying to understand Iran he suggests one setting after another, the cluelessly supportive husband further distressing his already depressed wife. 

The novel questions another aspect of reality the film neglects--Deckard and Iran and what's left of humanity practice Mercerism, a newly established religion where the faithful grab hold of the handles of their 'empathy box' and merge consciousness with founder Wilbur Mercer, who climbs an unspecified hill while unknown people throw rocks. Is Mercer real? Is his experience which we share through the boxes real? At one point the equally famous TV personality Buster Friendly exposes Mercer for a fraud (Friendly is an android) to the point of presenting the actor who plays Mercer and the papier-mache hill he climbs--but to the surprise of all artificial or otherwise the faithful continue to use the boxes. Which raises yet another question: is a religious experience real even after being definitively debunked?******

******(Can't help thinking the novel has disturbing implications in the present political climate: Trump's assertions have been disproven again and again--does this invalidate his followers' belief in him? Is Trump Mercer or Buster Friendly? Are we being encouraged to abhor the faithful's fanaticism or imitate their resilience--and what's the difference anyway?)

Deckard on celluloid conducts an interminable 90 minute search for the escaped replicants, climaxing with an intense twenty-minute session of conversion therapy, emphasis on physical punishment (Batty basically batters the bounty hunter into submission). Deckard on print undertakes a far more convoluted journey, involving warping language (from Deckard's point of view: 'The retired remains of the android rocked back' to 'She began to scream; she lay crouched against the wall of the elevator, screaming') strange ideas ("There is a defect in your empathic, role-taking ability...(y)our feelings toward androids." "Of course we don't test for that." "Maybe we should.") even stranger visions ('He halted. And then...resumed his climb. Rolling upward, he thought, like the stones; I am doing what stones do, without volition.').

Onscreen Deckard watches Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) do her strip act and maybe there's attraction even lust; print Deckard listens to Luba Luft an opera singer with a lovely voice and he's in love. Which is a mistake--Luba unlike Zhora doesn't seem superhumanly strong but she's cunning enough to run circles around her pursuer. When Deckard asks her to take the Voigt-Kampff she demands that he take it first; when Deckard begins a questions with the words "You're dating a man...and he asks you to visit his apartment" Luba accuses him of sexual deviancy.

Intelligence isn't all tricks and evasion; the high point of Batty's literacy is when he misquotes William Blake. Luba has sung the music of Henry Purcell, William Walton, and Ralph Vaughan Williams often enough to acquire an English accent; when she sings Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute Deckard compares her to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf--smart sexy passionately talented. But also artificial, he has to remind himself.

Phil Resch on the other hand is a piece of work: he kills his boss Garland and later Luba. Garland was necessary--he planned to silence both Resch and Deckard--but Luba had been needling Resch and when she goes too far Deckard tries and fails to stop him. Garland had earlier suggested that the bounty hunter was an android and when Deckard subjects Resch to the Voigt-Kampff test (on print the first name lacks an 'h') the results yield a joyless sense of anticlimax: Deckard is disappointed to have Resch proven human. "I know what it is" Deckard explains to Resch. "You like to kill. All you need is a pretext." Deckard on the other hand needs more than a pretext he needs a stronger reason to kill.

Dick likes to show an alternate point of view the way a scientist likes to include a control element: to demonstrate alternate consequences when a variable is changed. John Isidore (called for whatever reason J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) onscreen) is Deckard's inverse self: where Deckard lacks empathy for wife and andies Isidore has too much, for all living beings. He's also what's vulgarly known as a 'chickenhead' -- a nickname the androids use mercilessly when referring to him, sometimes talking past him as if he wasn't there. Deckard is both film and novel's controlling consciousness, showing us the limits of a reasonably logical reasonably intelligent human mind; the film lacks Isidore's opposing consciousness (Sebastian is a supporting character, ably played by the sad-eyed Sanderson) to show us the limits of a too-empathetic heart.

You feel this lack most when the androids find a spider in Isidore's apartment, and start snipping away its legs. Isidore pleads but the androids ignore him; in the end Isidore is so upset he drowns the spider to end its suffering--suggesting that empathy without the will or intellectual ability to assert its prerogatives can be driven to perverse despair. The intensity of this passage I submit matches the violence Scott and Villeneuve depict in their films--is more extraordinary considering Dick employs the most commonplace elements (spider, scissors) to present such cruelty.

Scott and Villeneuve give us visions of epic detail and surpassing strangeness (Los Angeles of the future; Las Vegas abandoned) but nothing onscreen can surpass the strangeness of Dick. Isidore delivers a little soliloquy about 'kipple'--his term for the useless junk that multiplies around you when you're not looking--a comic gem of a speech though as he speaks shadows gather round him like scavengers closing in on prey. Later--perhaps suffering from the trauma of watching the spider mutilated--Isidore touches a wall a chair a cup and they crumble to ash; the process of 'kippleization' (as he puts it) accelerated to a nightmare pace. Dick has visions too but they feel less epic than surreal desolate final. 

Deckard having retired six androids--a record unmatched by any bounty hunter--instead of celebrating finds himself trapped inside his own unpleasant experience. He's climbing a hill in imitation of Mercer; is this real? Later he finds a frog--a reward if you like for his persistent belief. The frog turns out to be fake--but Deckard's optimism lingers; even an electric frog Deckard concedes must have some value. 

I mention imagination: the ability to think of something not fully of this world (crumbling walls and furniture, unicorns) or--more importantly--of walking in someone else's shoes (Mercer up his hill). Imagination is crucial to empathy or the power to visualize another's circumstances, tying both abilities to our humanity, our unmechanical need not just to live but to live as generously as we can. I submit that Dick proposes something more radical than anything in Scott's or Villeneuve's films: that we don't just recognize the humanity of those that mimic us well (androids, humans with poor empathic ability) but even those that mimic us poorly (spiders, 'specials,' the actor playing Mercer)--cherish all of God's handiwork and man's, or do one's level best trying. "I can't stop being Mercer," Deckard laments at one point. "Once you start it's too late to back off." Once you start the process of empathy it's hard to stop, or confine yourself to just one category or species. The way Dick describes the process it's almost like a curse--but a curse that defines who we are.

Lemme throw in one more point: when Deckard flips his frog over and sees the control panel--when he realizes his divinely granted reward is as fake as everything else he's encountered and grappled with in this interminable ordeal of a day--he's at his nadir; he's also at his most human, and is most fully accepted and loved by his estranged wife Iran. When we're at our lowest Dick seems to suggest is when we're most deserving of elevation, a paradoxical concept that seems to apply best to that most paradoxical of religions. Or to real life if you like.

First published in Businessworld 10.13.17

Correction: referred to Joe Turkel as 'the late great;' he's certainly great but Turkel as of this writing is still alive. Holy Longevity Batman! 

Further correction on watching Blade Runner 2049 a second time: some objections have been explained (see above) some--replicant sterility for one--seem sillier than ever. 


Cinemania said...

Great synthesis/analysis Noel!

Noel Vera said...

Thanks Dan! For some reason I'm not being notified if there's a new comment. Wonder why.