FILM Ghosts in the Ma­chine

Shane Danielsen on De­nis Vil­leneuve’s Blade Run­ner 2049

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Shane Danielsen on De­nis Vil­leneuve’s ‘Blade Run­ner 2049’

Like many book­ish kids, soli­tary by in­cli­na­tion or shunned by oth­ers, I read a lot of sci­ence fic­tion grow­ing up. Scan­ning racks of used pa­per­backs after school, gaz­ing in won­der at Chris Foss cover art (and it was al­ways Chris Foss), I’d feel a quick­sil­ver rush of an­tic­i­pa­tion. Even the ti­tles were thrilling: Tri­plan­e­tary and Star Maker. Child­hood’s End. Out of the Silent Planet. Yet, even then, I was struck by how pro­foundly con­ser­va­tive much of the field was, in terms of both its pol­i­tics and its prac­ti­tion­ers – many of whom were hard­line right-wingers, and a few bor­der­line fas­cist. (Roberto Bo­laño has con­sid­er­able fun with this in his 1996 col­lec­tion Nazi Lit­er­a­ture in the Amer­i­cas.) Robert A Hein­lein, author of Star­ship Troop­ers, briefly joined the ul­tra-rightwing John Birch So­ci­ety be­fore quit­ting to found his own short-lived group, the Pa­trick Henry League, which among other things cas­ti­gated Dwight D Eisen­hower – Mr Domino The­ory him­self – for be­ing too damn soft on com­mu­nism. Hein­lein’s one-time edi­tor John W Camp­bell, mean­while, pro­posed in a 1965 es­say that only the wealthy should truly be con­sid­ered cit­i­zens, while so­ci­ety’s “bar­bar­ians” (in other words, black peo­ple) might be strate­gi­cally hooked on heroin. (This plan, he ex­plained ge­nially, “has the ad­van­tage … of killing [the ‘bar­bar­ian’] both psy­cho­log­i­cally and phys­i­o­log­i­cally, with­out arous­ing any protest on his part”.)

You didn’t need a mid­dle ini­tial to join this club. Long-time col­lab­o­ra­tors Larry Niven and Jerry Pour­nelle (The Mote in God’s Eye) were mem­bers of the SIGMA group that ad­vised the ac­tual US govern­ment on home­land se­cu­rity is­sues in the wake of Septem­ber 11. Among Niven’s sugges­tions was the idea to pro­mul­gate false ru­mours on­line, in Span­ish, about Amer­i­can emer­gency rooms killing pa­tients in or­der to har­vest their or­gans, so as to dis­suade His­pan­ics from us­ing them and there­fore save money. There was a fair bit of this, usu­ally (but not al­ways) dis­guised as sub­text, even in the books I loved – from HP Love­craft’s spin­ster­ish hor­ror of other races to the am­bi­ent misog­yny of Hein­lein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. How, I won­dered, could a genre con­cerned with the fu­ture be so re­ac­tionary in its val­ues, so ner­vously pro­tec­tive of the sta­tus quo? For a kid al­ready hun­gry to be in the world, drawn to rather than re­pulsed by oth­er­ness, it made for vaguely dispir­it­ing read­ing. Thank­fully, the mid 1960s, in SF as in cin­ema, had seen the ar­rival of a New Wave: writers like JG Bal­lard and Michael Moor­cock and Christo­pher Priest in Bri­tain, and Nor­man Spin­rad and Thomas M Disch and Sa­muel R De­lany in the United States. All brought to the field a more dis­tinctly lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­ity, in­formed in part by the French nou­veau ro­man; a pref­er­ence for trans­gres­sive sub­ject mat­ter, fu­elled by the emerg­ing coun­ter­cul­ture; and a fas­ci­na­tion with in­ner rather than outer space – with no­tions of what it meant to be truly hu­man (or alien), what con­sti­tuted a cul­ture, how re­al­ity it­self might be un­der­stood. A good deal of Philip K Dick’s ca­reer over­lapped with these prac­ti­tion­ers’, and many of his ob­ses­sions co­in­cided with theirs; nev­er­the­less, he re­mained some­what aloof from the move­ment. But then he was, by all ac­counts, some­thing of an un-club­bable sort of chap – once writ­ing to in­form the FBI, for ex­am­ple, of his sus­pi­cion that the Pol­ish SF author Stanisław Lem was not a real per­son but rather “a com­pos­ite com­mit­tee”, cre­ated by Moscow for the pur­pose of dis­sem­i­nat­ing pro­pa­ganda. He also claimed, in the fi­nal decade of his short life (he died in 1982, aged 53), that he was in reg­u­lar con­tact with a vast dis­em­bod­ied in­tel­li­gence known as VALIS, and was ac­tu­ally liv­ing two par­al­lel lives – one as the Amer­i­can writer known as Philip K Dick, and the other as “Thomas”, a first-cen­tury Chris­tian be­ing per­se­cuted by the Ro­mans. (Time had ap­par­ently stopped, you see, around 50 AD; all sub­se­quent hu­man his­tory was sim­ply a gestalt hal­lu­ci­na­tion.) He also took a stag­ger­ing amount of drugs. I’m just say­ing. Rather like Iris Mur­doch, Dick con­sid­ered him­self a “fic­tion­al­is­ing philoso­pher” rather than a nov­el­ist per se, and while his prose was of­ten clumsy, his con­cepts were in­spired – rick­ety meta­phys­i­cal in­quiries into the na­ture of con­scious­ness and the fragility of iden­tity, the reined-in, ready-to-burst lim­its of per­cep­tion. As a re­sult, his works have in­spired dozens of screen adap­ta­tions, both big (To­tal Re­call, Mi­nor­ity Re­port) and small (Scream­ers, Pay­check), de­spite the films usu­ally bear­ing only the faintest re­sem­blance to the sto­ries that in­spired them. The most fa­mous of these films is Ri­d­ley Scott’s 1982 clas­sic Blade Run­ner, adapted by Hamp­ton Fancher and David Peo­ples from Dick’s 1968 novel Do An­droids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep?, and, like The God­fa­ther, a rare ex­am­ple of a treat­ment im­prov­ing upon its source. It’s one of my all-time favourite films, rou­tinely cited along with Tokyo Story and Mas­culin féminin when­ever I’m asked to pro­vide a per­sonal Top 10. A flop when it was first re­leased, it man­ages to be at once a prod­uct of its time and some­thing ut­terly out­side it, a pro­duc­tion whose wildly dis­parate el­e­ments – Van­ge­lis’ score, Syd Mead’s pro­duc­tion de­sign, even the clash­ing per­for­mance styles of Har­ri­son Ford and Rut­ger Hauer – some­how come to­gether in a kind of al­chem­i­cal per­fec­tion.

Vis­ually stun­ning, the­mat­i­cally com­plex, Blade Run­ner 2049 is mad­den­ingly close to a clas­sic.

And, cru­cially, the fu­ture it de­picted was in no sense utopian – or even es­pe­cially Western, for that mat­ter. On the con­trary, its filthy, claus­tro­pho­bic, poly­glot vi­sion of Los An­ge­les seemed to presage some­thing that to­day, just two years from that imag­ined fu­ture, we take more or less for granted: the in­evitabil­ity of Amer­i­can de­cline. John W Camp­bell would have fuck­ing hated it.

As you might imag­ine, news of a se­quel filled me with fore­bod­ing – not least be­cause of the likely par­tic­i­pa­tion of Ri­d­ley Scott, whose re­cent out­put has ranged from the per­func­tory (The Mar­tian, Alien: Covenant) to the abysmal (Prometheus). His last sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment was Black Hawk Down, a prob­lem­atic but un­de­ni­ably thrilling spec­ta­cle that in ab­stract­ing its nar­ra­tive to a bar­rage of frag­men­tary im­pres­sions, and largely dis­pens­ing with char­ac­ter, di­a­logue and back­story, came about as close to the neb­u­lous con­cept of “pure cin­ema” as any main­stream fea­ture I’ve ever seen. But that was 16 years ago. For a time it looked like Scott would do to this story what he did to the Alien fran­chise: ex­pand its mythol­ogy, cheapen its mys­ter­ies – all in lock­step with some of the worst screen­writ­ing of our age. But then 2015 brought an un­ex­pected saviour, in the form of French-Cana­dian direc­tor De­nis Vil­leneuve. He was about to de­liver the ex­cel­lent Si­cario, which he would fol­low, a year later, with the even more im­pres­sive Ar­rival – not only the finest first-con­tact movie ever made, but a work whose cool, rather cere­bral sen­si­bil­ity felt pre­cisely at­tuned to the spirit of the New Wave. (In­deed, its fo­cus on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lin­guis­tic the­ory and per­ceived re­al­ity seemed to have been ripped di­rectly from De­lany’s

Pre­vi­ous spread and this page: Ryan Gosling in Blade Run­ner 2049

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