Does Deckard dream of syn­thetic sheep?

Business World - - WEEKENDER - By Noel Vera

( 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 box of­fice 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 or Franken­stein’s crea­ture — 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.

Blade Run­ner has un­der­gone 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, BluRay re­leases, lord knows how many re-is­sues and ret­ro­spec­tives and fi­nally — after 35 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 fad­ing into a widescreen shot of Los An­ge­les 2019 ( gas flares belch flame from sev­eral 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 closeup of an eye then — in­stead of a cityscape — a widescreen shot of thou­sands of mir­rors (a so­lar farm) spread out like vast sun­flow­ers. De­nis Vil­leneuve with his im­agery ac­knowl­edges the con­nec­tion with the pre­vi­ous film (crawl, eye open­ing widescreen shot), at the same time he de­clares his in­de­pen­dence, re­plac­ing Scott’s panorama of the An­ge­les cityscape with spi­ral­ing mir­rors — 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 vi­sion is ac­tu­ally closer to what Philip K. Dick wrote: not an over­but un­der­pop­u­lated Earth where ra­dioac­tive dust from World War Ter­mi­nus has ren­dered most of the planet un­in­hab­it­able, and most of the pop­u­la­tion has im­mi­grated off-world.

The film takes a smat­ter­ing of de­tails from the novel — Do An­droids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep? by writer Philip K. Dick — space colonies; repli­cants (“an­droids” or “andies” Dick calls ’em) as slave la­bor; 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 a lit­er­ary se­quel (K.W. Jeter’s Blade Run­ner 3: Repli­cant Night) where we learn that the repli­cant has given birth and K must “re­tire” (ex­e­cute) the child.

A se­ri­ous tale, much more hu­mor-free than the 1982 film where Gaff, repli­cant cre­ator El­don Tyrell (the late great Joe Turkel), and vil­lain repli­cant Roy Batty (Rut­ger Hauer) do their best to liven up pro­ceed­ings (Gosling’s K — he’s like the driver in Ni­cholas Wind­ing Refn’s film only half as cheer­ful — isn’t much help). Har­ri­son Ford as the only per­son ( Repli­cant?) in the se­quel to show any real mileage, has by de­fault all the best lines; the script is in­tel­li­gent enough (de­spite a hand­ful of im­plau­si­bil­i­ties), the film­mak­ing strik­ing enough (though a dou­ble shoot­ing in a flooded car is badly edited), to dis­tin­guish it­self from any re­cent at­tempt at sci­ence fic­tion out­side of Shane Car­ruth. It even ex­pands the pre­vi­ous film’s ter­ri­tory, plead­ing not just on be­half of ar­ti­fi­cial hu­manoids but also ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gences in holo­graphic form (K’s con­stant com­pan­ion Joi, played by the elfin Ana de Ar­mas).

The film — pos­si­bly Vil­leneuve’s finest, 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 evokes an el­e­gant bleak­ness, Scott un­leashes chaos; the streets look as if Hong Kong and Tokyo had vi­o­lent sex (with New York and Metro Manila par­tic­i­pat­ing) and, yes, the orgy is still on­go­ing. Higher up the mas­sive zig­gu­rats and fiery gas flares sug­gest not so much Christmas as Kram­pus cel­e­brated with the same wide­spread en­ergy, a kind of malev­o­lent mon­u­men­tal par­ody of Yule­tide cel­e­bra­tion done with spot­lights lasers, hun­dred-story video bill­boards. Vil­leneuve on oc­ca­sion adds the odd out­sized de­tail — gi­ant stat­ues cloaked in or­ange sand­storm mak­ing silent frozen love; huge ho­tel lob­bies com­plete with roulette wheels and lounges hous­ing a stut­ter­ing holo­graphic Elvis; Scott on the

other hand seemed less in­ter­ested in do­ing a faith­ful adap­ta­tion of Dick than he is in throw­ing ev­ery­thing at the big screen in­clud­ing the kitchen sink.

It helps that ’82’s street scenes are so au­rally dense, from talk­ing traf­fic lights (prophetic: when I vis­ited Hong Kong in the 1990s they were ev­ery­where), to the steady driz­zle of rain, to the blimp com­mer­cials blar­ing the virtues of off-world im­mi­gra­tion.

The story it­self couldn’t be sim­pler ( if equally ho­ley): bounty hunter seek­ing to re­tire five repli­cants (ac­tu­ally six but Scott fixed the er­ror in his Fi­nal Cut [ though not be­fore Jeter weaves an en­tire novel out of the plot hole ( Blade Run­ner 2:

The Edge of Hu­man)]). Un­like Vil­leneuve’s film, 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 only 20 min­utes left to live; he chews script and scenery, and very nearly Deckard. Sylvia Hoek’s steely Luv in 2049 is fast and deadly, prob­a­bly dead­lier than Batty (Luv fol­lows the techno­geek’s de­sign prin­ci­ple that smaller and slim­mer is best). But you flinch in fear for Deckard; the most K can lose is his life.

The ques­tion on ev­ery­one’s mind: is Deckard a repli­cant? Scott’s film gives im­por­tant clues (Deckard dreams of a uni­corn which Gaff later par­o­dies with an origami fig­ure) and Vil­leneuve prom­ises 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 repli­cants able to — ick — make repli­cant ba­bies).

All non­sense if you fol­low Dick’s novel where Deckard comes armed with Voight- Kampff test re­sults (passed with fly­ing col­ors) and a long-suf­fer­ing housewife. Dick un­der­lines the gulf be­tween man and ma­chine by in­tro­duc­ing us first to Deckard’s patently fake elec­tric sheep ( com­plete with con­trol panel) then the Voight-Kampff test ( baf­fled but not beaten by a Nexus 6); when Deckard meets an­droid turned opera singer Luba Luft — who sings from Mozart’s The Magic Flute — and later hu­man bounty hunter Phil Resch (who kills not just for his job but for plea­sure) that gulf sud­denly seems much smaller.

Dick gets into Deckard’s head, makes us un­der­stand what’s go­ing on, takes us on a long trou­bled jour­ney from aware­ness to un­der­stand­ing to em­pa­thy; Scott fo­cuses mostly on the phys­i­cal (on­screen Batty ba­si­cally pum­mels Deckard into en­light­en­ment). Book Deckard is an opera lover se­duced by Luba’s beau­ti­ful singing; all movie Rachael has to do is bat her eyes and play a melody on the piano. Yes, Rachael saves Deckard’s life — but that’s the thing about films: ev­ery­thing has to be pumped up, speeded up, over­dra­ma­tized, be­cause in­stead of some 200 pages you only have two hours to tell your story.

Which means no Luba, no Resch, noth­ing but the mer­est ghost of a John R. Isi­dore; no com­plex devel­op­ment of the nar­ra­tive arc; the dark bit­ter­ness, the ab­sur­dist com­edy, the spir­i­tual am­biva­lence, and nar­ra­tive am­bi­gu­i­ties — all lost. What’s left is Deckard — a pos­si­ble repli­cant — run­ning from Batty and lust­ing after Rachael.

Blade Run­ner and its se­quel are a notch above most sci­ence fic­tion, one bet­ter paced than the other; none by any stretch of imag­i­na­tion ap­proach the level of Dick’s novel.

MOVIE RE­VIEW Blade Run­ner 2049 Di­rected by De­nis Vil­leneuve Blade Run­ner Di­rected by Ri­d­ley Scott

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