November 2017

Arts & Letters

Ghosts in the machine

By Shane Danielsen
Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is maddeningly close to a classic

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-right-wing 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.

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 classic Babel-17.) Next up was a poisoned chalice: the chance to deliver a sequel to one of the best-loved films of the past half-century. On the plus side, he would be joined by Fancher, one of the original screenwriters; Scott would serve in a reduced capacity, as executive producer.

Now we have the result: visually stunning, thematically complex, Blade Runner 2049 (in national release) is maddeningly close to a classic. It arrives draped in the vestments of a commercial blockbuster, yet obstinately refuses to observe most of their conventions, from its pacing (the unhurried side of leisurely) to a climactic encounter that takes place in a setting so dark and undefined it might as well be the inside of a cave.

Thirty years have passed since the events of the first film. The Tyrell Corporation is gone, bankrupted after its Nexus 8 replicants went rogue, and a new entrepreneur, blind tycoon Niander Wallace (a slightly hammy Jared Leto), is overseeing the deployment of Nexus 9 “skinjobs”, more capable and also more obedient than their predecessors. One of these is K (Ryan Gosling) – a blade runner himself, charged with tracking down and “retiring” earlier-model replicants for the LAPD. The film opens with one of these assignments, and it’s a veritable masterclass in sustained tension and sudden, kinetic release.

K duly dispatches his target; the deed is done. But then, on the way out, he makes a small discovery that gives him pause – and thus ensures that the film remains absolutely true to the spirit of its demiurge. It is, after all, the quintessential Philip K Dick narrative: an everyman discovers, quite by chance, that both he and the world he inhabits are not at all what he believed them to be.

Much of what follows is about memory – specifically, how our memories, perhaps even more than our personalities, are what most clearly define us as human. And this sequel plays expertly and ingeniously upon our recollections of the preceding film: from recurring lines of dialogue to the wholesale reproduction (via seamless CGI) of one of its original stars, it keeps teasing us with sharp little flashes of the familiar. Even Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score evokes the icy analogue buzz of Vangelis’ original. The melodies are not as exceptional – there’s nothing here as flat-out ravishing as the main theme from the 1982 film – but it sounds close. Close enough, at least, to trigger the necessary associations.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword, since it also means we’re constantly comparing this film, not just to the first Blade Runner, but to the impression that movie left upon us – its residue in our collective consciousness. The result (as borne out by its less-than-stellar opening weekend) is essentially a deep dive for existing fans, a film that will be loved mostly by those who love the film upon which it’s based. It’s immaculate, impressive, and ever-so-slightly airless: a replicant itself, rather than a truly living thing. But as with the synthetic creatures it depicts, the difference is so slight as to be meaningless.

There’s an undeniable pleasure in watching Harrison Ford actually bother to act again; no longer cocky, his Deckard is a beast scarred by time and loss – wounded, prideful, afraid. And there’s straight-up rapture to be found in Roger Deakins’ cinematography, jaw-dropping even by his lofty standards. But much of the film’s achievement rests with Villeneuve. This isn’t quite his best film – that title, for me, belongs either to Arrival or to Polytechnique (2009), a forensic examination of a university shooting, shot in widescreen B&W, which saw his Kubrickian early style chill into anguished clarity. But it displays every bit of the meticulous craft for which he’s renowned.

His nine features to date constitute a case study in how to build a career by small, supremely well-chosen steps – moving from low- and medium-budget indies in his homeland to steadily larger-scale and higher-profile US studio projects, all the while attempting to reconcile his baseline classicism with the coarser imperatives of studio filmmaking. He holds shots longer than most contemporary mainstream directors – more like a filmmaker from the 1940s or ’50s, a Robert Wise or an Anthony Mann – and frames more precisely; you sense, as scenes unfold, the quiet intelligence of his blocking, the calm assurance of his coverage. He mostly uses a single camera, and doesn’t shoot a lot of coverage, because he doesn’t need to: the film is already laid out in his head. Which is to say: in a world where many people film extravagantly and indiscriminately, and try to convince themselves that something coherent will emerge during the edit, Villeneuve does the patient, painstaking work of a real director.

Drawn from the very start of his career to female-driven projects, Villeneuve is also a superb director of women, and here he extracts performances of heartbreaking clarity from Switzerland’s Carla Juri, as a sad manufacturer of android memories, and from Cuban actress Ana de Armas, as Joi, an Alexa-like digital hologram who exists within K’s apartment as his ersatz partner yet has enough in the way of artificial consciousness to dream of becoming a Real Girl.

Winsome and sexy, de Armas in turn manages to draw something out of Gosling that’s lain dormant since his fine work opposite Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine: a tender, almost bashful romanticism, absent the dead-eyed impassivity that’s threatened to render him self-parodic. There’s something piercingly sad about watching this make-believe couple together – two ghosts in the machine, each pretending for the other’s sake to be human – and their desire to transcend their limitations culminates in the film’s most powerful scene: a kind of virtual threesome, as K has sex with a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) in their apartment, while Joi masks her face and body, using the real-life woman to touch her lover as she longs to but cannot.

Considered purely in technical terms, the scene is astonishing: de Armas’ and Davis’ faces blurring as their outlines converge and shiver apart, their separate voices merging, so that you’re never quite sure which of them you’re “with” at any given moment. But it’s also as emotionally complex and loaded as any actual three-way – an ongoing negotiation of real and imagined boundaries, created and inhabited personas. I was reminded of Samuel R Delany again, the “ambiguous heterotopia” of his novel Triton.

Yet there are dumb moments, too. A replicant walks into a police station not once but twice to murder someone (a major character, the second time) and no one even seems to notice. Likewise, Gosling’s character detours from his mission to investigate a hunch – and flies there in his LAPD spinner – yet for some reason no one at HQ can track him down. (Really? There’s no tracer on the vehicle? Or on his phone? Or embedded in his skull?)

These are elementary logic issues, the kind of questions screenwriters agonise over and directors hope you won’t bother to notice. But given the stately pacing here, every beat has to count. Alas, a handful miss their mark. In these moments – as in a shoddy back-from-the-dead reversal in the climax – you can see the fingerprints of Fancher’s co-writer Michael Green (of TV’s Heroes and, more recently, the benighted Alien: Covenant), a man presumably more accommodating to the structural conventions (or clichés, if you prefer) of the contemporary blockbuster.

Likewise, various plot threads are extended and conspicuously left hanging; one senses, with weary resignation, that the ground is being cleared for a further instalment. That that most desirous of Hollywood entities – a franchise – is attempting to be birthed. Which seems ironic, in a film that’s at least partly about the allure and necessity of obsolescence, the idea that to everything, man and machine alike, there is a season. By the end of Blade Runner 2049, the body count is high, but the film makes a persuasive case that, the circumstances of one’s death notwithstanding, this is no bad thing, since it’s only an end that gives meaning to things. Time goes on, stories are concluded, individual moments are lost – like tears in rain. I seem to recall someone saying that once.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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