Dare to dream of electric sheep

 

© Warner Bros / Sony Entertainment / Scott Free Productions

 

I’m afraid that over the years I’ve learned to distrust optimism and embrace pessimism.  I’ve gradually reached the conclusion that it’s better to fear the worst at all times and experience the occasional pleasant surprise when things don’t turn out as badly as expected; rather than to assume the best will happen and then be crushingly disappointed when it doesn’t.  (This may be the result of spending decades following the national Scottish football team, a masochistic pursuit that rarely, if ever, rewards hopefulness and optimism.  As was evidenced the other evening…)

 

Thus, when it was announced that, after 35 years, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s mighty 1982 science-fiction epic Blade Runner was in the works, I didn’t bother at all to exercise the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism.  No, I just assumed the sequel was going to be crass, brainless, 21st-century-Hollywood-style bollocks and I resolved to ignore its existence.

 

Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, means a lot to me.  I rate it alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as joint-best science-fiction movie ever made.  It’s also one of my favourite films of all time.  I remember when I first saw it at the age of 17.  Late in the summer of the film’s release, I travelled to Glasgow for a job interview.  I had a few hours to kill after the interview and I happened to wander past a Glaswegian cinema where Blade Runner was still playing.  On the spur of the moment, I decided to go in and watch it.  I had the auditorium almost to myself – the only other people there were two middle-aged Glaswegian ‘wifies’ who, half-an-hour into the film, with much head-shaking and muttering of incomprehension, left their seats and never came back.  I’m surprised I recall those two women leaving because by that point I was absolutely mesmerised by what I was seeing on the screen above me.  Bombarded by spectacle, special effects and emotional and  intellectual intensity, I found the Blade Runner experience awesome.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Blade Runner is a movie that’s difficult to talk about objectively these days.  When it first appeared, many critics disliked it – in Britain, the only newspaper critic I remember taking it seriously was the Observer’s Philip French.  It didn’t do much at the box office either, probably because 1982 cinema audiences, like those two ladies in Glasgow, wanted comfortable, feel-good science-fiction movies such as the same year’s ET and the second Star Trek movie.  Yet it’s proved massively influential.  Its depiction of a future Los Angeles as a dystopian, rain-drenched monster-metropolis, flavoured with the aesthetics of 1940s film-noir and of modern Tokyo, seems to have turned up again and again in a thousand science-fiction movies and rock videos made in the years since.

 

However, for all the impact of Blade Runner’s set design and visuals, its excellent cast ensures that the human (and artificial human) characters remain in the mind too.  This includes Harrison Ford as Deckard, the weary bounty hunter and titular ‘blade runner’ tasked with tracking down and executing runaway replicants, who are the artificially-created, super-strong humanoid slave labourers of the future.  Despite Ford’s presence, though, it’s really the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, leader of a gang of on-the-run replicants, who in modern parlance ‘totally owns’ the film.

 

Played by Hauer, Roy Batty is fascinatingly multi-faceted.  By turns he’s brutal, ruthless, terrifyingly physical, animalistic, child-like, icily intellectual, tender, melancholic and – when he finally shows mercy to Deckard and saves him from falling off the top of a vertiginous skyscraper – noble.  Indeed, he becomes more sympathetic than Deckard, whom we’ve seen in the course of his work blasting down two female replicants, played by Darryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy.  (The role of Deckard has never sat comfortably beside the other, straightforward-heroic roles Ford has played, like those of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.)

 

In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the replicants have no capacity for human emotions and are presented purely as a threat.  In Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script for Blade Runner, however, they’re given a pre-programmed four-year lifespan that means their situation has a tragic, almost Milton-esque aspect.  They’re not simply running amok, but are searching for the corporation head who created them in the hope that he can extend their lifespans beyond four years.  And near the film’s end, we get one of cinema’s great lump-in-throat moments when Batty, after he’s rescued Deckard and before he dies, gives his famous tears-in-rain speech:  “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Everyone associated with Blade Runner – Ridley Scott, Hauer, Ford, Hannah, Cassidy and even Sean Young, who played the movie’s heroine Rachael but never fulfilled her potential in an erratic career afterwards – seems in my mind to possess an immense, if elegiac and dystopian, coolness.  This coolness extends to Greek prog-rock / ambient composer and musician Vangelis, whose haunting soundtrack for the movie is a career best.  It’s certainly miles better than the pompous theme he supplied for pompous British film Chariots of Fire the previous year.  For one Blade Runner track, Tales of the Future, Vangelis recruits the portly, kaftan-clad Greek warbler Demis Roussos, who’d always been a bit of a joke in Britain thanks to his being referenced in Mike Leigh’s stage and TV play Abigail’s Party (1977).  But hey, even Demis Roussos sounds spooky and unsettling and, yes, cool here.  That’s the transformative magic of Blade Runner for you.

 

So I was blown away by Blade Runner in 1982, even though the version of it I saw was the weakest one that’s been released.  This was the studio cut, where the film was tampered with at the last minute by frightened executives after they realised Ridley Scott hadn’t delivered the easy-on-the-brain Hollywood blockbuster they’d expected.  Their tampering included adding a redundant voiceover that explains what’s happening in the film for any morons who might be present in the audience; and the least-convincing happy ending in the history of the cinema.  Ten years later, Ridley Scott was allowed to release the version of the film that he’d wanted to put out originally, Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.  In it, both the voiceover and the happy ending are gone, thankfully, and a new dream sequence suggests that Deckard isn’t the simple cut-and-dried character he was in the original version.  Guess what he might really be?

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

As Blade Runner is set in 2019, which we’re only two years short of now, it’s fun to see how wide of the mark some of the film’s predictions have been.  We haven’t had replicants in the real world nor, alas, have we had flying cars.  And Western cities haven’t become heavily ‘East-Asian-fied’ in the manner of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, aside from acquiring a few hipster ramen and sushi joints.  Maybe this is because Japan’s bubble economy burst dramatically in the early 1990s and the country never quite became the world power that many in the 1980s had expected.  (William Gibson’s celebrated ‘cyberpunk’ trilogy of science-fiction novels, 1984’s Neuromancer, 1986’s Count Zero and 1988’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, rather overplay the Japanese influence in their future scenarios too.  Incidentally, Gibson is said to have walked out of Blade Runner after 15 minutes, because many of the ideas he’d been toying with for his then-nascent novels were already on the screen.  He didn’t want to get any more depressed.)

 

In addition, certain companies whose logos appear in the famous dazzling advertising displays of Blade Runner’s cityscape no longer exist, like Pan Am and Atari.  Well, Atari still does, barely, but not in the world-bestriding way that the filmmakers assumed it would.

 

The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was released in the UK four days ago.  Taking place 30 years on from the events of Blade Runner and starring Ryan Gosling as a new ‘runner’ called ‘K’, it brings back the now-craggy but still-personable Harrison Ford as Deckard.  To my utter surprise, the reviews have been excellent, with both critics I like (the BBC’s Mark Kermode) and ones I don’t like (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) calling it a five-star masterpiece.  Compare that with the original film, which had to wait years before the critics reappraised it and declared it a classic.  2049 has flopped at the US box office, admittedly, but then so did its predecessor; and the fact that Donald Trump-land doesn’t seem to like it might be a further indication of its quality.  It’s surely a good omen too that it’s directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who last year gave us the moving and thought-provoking science-fiction picture Arrival.

 

In fact, the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism is beginning to stir.  Rather than ignoring the existence of this sequel, I now find myself tempted to go and see it.  Yes, I’m daring to dream that Blade Runner 2049 might actually be good.  Let’s hope I’m not disappointed.

 

But at least it can’t be any worse than that bloody football match the other night.  Come on, world.  Hurry up and invent some real replicants – and then get eleven of them playing football for Scotland.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

4 thoughts on “Dare to dream of electric sheep

  1. Hi Ian, I hope you are well.

    Like you, I tend to be more of a pessimist than an optimist. So I was a little reluctant to watch Blade Runner 2049 until I succumbed to it yesterday. Personally, I was very impressed by it. The plot was engaging, the visuals were stunning and there were many thought-provoking scenes that left me pondering on them the day afterwards.

    It is a very long film (about 2.5 hours) so I think you need to prepare yourself for this. It’s a lot to take in, and I can’t say it was exactly a relaxing experience. But it was certainly highly stimulating. I honestly feel like I haven’t watched another sci-fi movie like this in a long time. It certainly stands out.

    I have to admit that I haven’t watched Blade Runner so Blade Runner 2049 might not live up to your expectations of it. If you choose to watch it, I recommend you approach it with a clean slate.

    All the best,

    Tom

    • Hi, Tom —

      Really good to hear from you again. Where are you these days?

      We — Jenna and I — went to see Blade Runner 2049 at a Colombo cinema just before the end of its (short) run in Sri Lanka. Thankfully, despite hearing many horror stories about Sri Lankan cinema crowds being infested with chattering teenagers, bawling infants and people yakking non-stop on their phones, the audience at this movie was small, relatively quiet and fairly engrossed in what they were seeing on the screen. (Even if the guy sitting along from us seemed intent on explaining the plot of the original Blade Runner in whispered tones to his girlfriend.)

      I had a couple of reservations about the sequel. In 2049, it does seem awfully easy for people to get in and out of buildings (police headquarters, laboratories, etc.) with no authorization at all. And I’d like to know how a high-security convoy of flying cars was detected and taken down so easily. The biggest problem for me, though, was that it was never really stated what the physical limitations of the new generation of replicants were — how much punishment they could take, how many bullets they could absorb, how many stab-wounds they could incur, before they died. A lot of the characters in the movie were replicants and, in certain scenes, knowing what amount of danger they were in would have helped the sense of suspense.

      But overall, I was really impressed by Blade Runner 2049. It’s a very rare sequel that honours the spirit of the original whilst expanding on it and avoiding simple repetition of it. (Interestingly, it’s a sub-plot rather than the main plot of the original film that fuels the narrative in Blade Runner 2049.) It isn’t afraid to pose philosophical questions whilst not feeling obliged to have answered all of them by the closing credits. Afterwards, we went to the hotel bar across the road from the cinema and spent the next 90 minutes there, doing nothing but discussing and speculating about what we’d just seen, which is surely a sign of an intelligent, thought-provoking movie. I think Philip K. Dick would have been pleased with it too.

      The special effects and set design are, needless to say, brilliant. And I like how Harrison Ford’s character is used — thankfully, Deckard isn’t treated as glibly as Han Solo was in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars revival movie. And he isn’t allowed to overshadow the character played by Ryan Gosling, who I thought was excellent.

      All in all, a big thumbs-up from me, then. Denis Villeneuve has done the Blade Runner universe proud.

  2. Hi Ian,

    It was very nice to hear from you too.

    I watched the Blade Runner the other day, and I absolutely loved it. All of the characters were great, and the film had so many scenes that were unique and memorable. In particular, I remember very vividly the scene when Roy Batty brutally kills Dr. Tyrell, after finding out he cannot have his life extended. This is just one of many scenes that I was impressed by.

    I think Blade Runner 2049 is certainly a worthy sequel to its predecessor too. However, it is also interesting how both films are quite different to one another. One thing I noticed in Blade Runner is that there are genuine moments of human warmth and intimacy between Deckard and Rachael, when they are at his flat. In Blade Runner 2049, it seems to be a lot more difficult for the main characters to achieve this kind of intimacy. One example of this is the relationship that Officer K has with his hologram. He is only able to make love to her by hiring a prostitute to stand in as her body. We see this also when Deckard is reunited with his daughter. They see each other but cannot hug because she is unable to leave her protective dome. Therefore, I thought Blade Runner 2049 was a little sad in comparison to Blade Runner. It seems to be very pessimistic about the role of technology in human relationships.

    After leaving Tunisia, I taught YLs in Bucharest for two-and-a-half years. Then, I decided to give management a go and applied for the Dos position at IH Bratislava. My application was successful and I have been occupying this position for the last nine months. So far, I am enjoying it quite a lot. It’s a nice change, and I have learned a lot about running an academic department. One of my responsibilities is observing lessons and giving feedback. My Delta has certainly come to be very helpful when doing this. So thank you again for your help!

    Bratislava is very different to Marsa and Tunis. There are no beaches nearby as Slovakia is a land-locked country. However, there are many green areas and forests to go and roam at the weekends. There are also some very nice lakes that I can go swim in during the summer. Bratislava is quite a small capital city, and the transport system is excellent. So, it is very easy to move around in, and it is much less stressful to live in than larger capitals. Slovak students are also very different to Tunisian ones. They are quite reserved, and many are not used to the communicative approach. Many of them want to focus mainly on grammar because this is how they were taught languages in the education system. I don’t remember many Tunisian students being so obsessed with grammar!

    I hope Colombo is still treating you and Jenna well.

    Warm regards,

    Tom

    • Hello again, Tom —

      I’m glad to hear you got an opportunity to see the original Blade Runner and thank you for your comments about the two films. I got the impression too that Blade Runner 2049 was the more melancholy and pessimistic movie, but wasn’t quite able to pinpoint why, so I appreciate your point about how it depicted technology and human relationships.

      Thank you too for your personal update and I’m glad to hear you’re doing well in Slovakia. Neither of us have been there before, so it’s on our ‘to visit’ list. If we can get there in the near future, we will definitely look you up!

      Cheers,

      Ian

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