FILM Ghosts in the Machine
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
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