Does Deckard dream of synthetic sheep?

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By Noel Vera

Movie Review
Blade Runner 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Blade Runner
Directed by Ridley Scott

(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, Blu-Ray 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 over- but 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.